I’m not a scientist, and I am not even “a science person”, though I have become much more interested in science as an adult than I was as a child. I am more of a philosophical and theological person. My background is English literature, world religions, and American jurisprudence (law).
We give scientists quite a bit of deference in our modern society, and so we should. They are peeling back the layers of this universal onion in which we live. Scientific discoveries are fascinating, life-changing and significantly valuable.
I would be quickly lost in the weeds in a discussion of science among scientists, but scientists are human. They have flaws, and they usually are not schooled in philosophy or theology.
For instance, Stephen Hawking is one of the most brilliant scientists of our age. In his book, The Grand Design, he says, “In a world in which a law like gravity exists, the universe can and will create itself out of nothing.”
This isn’t a statement of science; it’s a philosophical statement with theological impact. The question is: does it make sense?
To begin with, a law like gravity is something. If the universe is something, and a law like gravity is something, then we don’t see a law like gravity creating something out of nothing. If indeed gravity created the universe, the universe wasn’t created out of nothing.
What we would have is a universe the didn’t previously exist made from a law that already existed. But what caused the law of gravity to exist? Is there something inherent in a law like gravity that it should exist eternally, never having been created? Or is it (also) something that must have had a cause?
Positing a law like gravity as the cause of the universe just kicks the can down the road. It doesn’t provide a real answer.
Gravity is not only something; it exists within the space time continuum. The space time continuum is another term for the material universe in which we live. Hawking is saying, therefore, that gravity, which is part of the space-time continuum, existed before the space-time continuum and created the space time continuum out of nothing.
But he really isn’t saying out of nothing, because gravity is something within the same sphere as the something of the universe. In essence, he is saying that the universe caused itself. Does this make sense?
Do you see the circular reasoning?
We also need to ask: Where did a law like gravity come from?
If the law of gravity came from another thing (within the space/time continuum), we would have to ask the same question of it: where did it come from?
Scientists may not like to ask these questions, but philosophers and theologians do. We can’t give them a pass, though we can understand why scientists, focused on the business of science, which is the business of studying the natural world, would feel uncomfortable (and somewhat inept, perhaps) wandering into the metaphysical, philosophical realm.
As a lawyer, I am schooled in the knowledge that laws have sources. In American jurisprudence, some laws come from legislators. Other laws come from administrative agencies or local governmental bodies. Still, other law comes from the body of decisions and the reasoning of those decisions penned by judges. But, laws always come from a source.
Are the laws of nature any different? Well, yes, they are in some ways. Laws that govern the societal structures of people are not exactly like the laws of nature in every respect. Societal laws are subject to change. We don’t see natural laws changing. But, that difference actually goes to the point of this piece.
Gravity doesn’t change. Gravity isn’t the kind of force that is creative. If you drop a ball from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the ball will always fall to the ground, pulled down by gravity, in exactly the same way. Gravity will not say on the millionth try, “I’m tired of always doing the same thing over and over again. I’m going to do something different this time.”
It may seem silly to say this, but gravity is not volitional. It only seems silly because it’s so obvious, but we need to recognize and acknowledge the obvious fact here: gravity doesn’t and can’t create anything. Gravity is not a creative force.
In order for gravity to do something different, something creative, gravity would have to have volitional capacity; but, gravity is an impersonal force that doesn’t change. It simply does what it does. It merely acts on what already exists.
Gravity, then, has no capacity to create anything new (something from nothing).
To be perfectly clear, gravity can’t create something out of nothing.
For the creation of the material universe, we need to have a source with characteristics that are different than what we see in gravity. In the first place, we need a source or force that is creative, and that requires volition. Matter doesn’t and can’t create itself because matter is not volitional. It just is. Matter acts on matter; matter doesn’t create matter.
Matter and energy act on what already exists. Volition is required to bring something into existence that didn’t previously exist.
One might say, “But, a law like gravity is not matter!” That is true. It is a “law” or force that acts on matter. Without matter, a law like gravity would have no substance. It exists in relation to matter. Without matter, gravity would not exist. But there is a more fundamental problem.
In a million attempts, as we have noted, gravity will not change the way it operates on that rock dropped from the tower. Gravity acts only on matter that already exists. For there to be nothing one moment and something the next moment, requires a volitional, creative act. Creation requires volition. Matter (and a law like gravity) must come from a volitional source.
Things don’t create themselves. A creative force must be greater than the thing it creates. A creative source must supersede and be greater than the thing it creates. In order to have something (matter) out of nothing (no matter), we need a source that is not material (not a material thing). That source must also be immaterial. For matter to be created out of nothing (non-matter), we need an immaterial source.
A volitional source suggests a being (a person), and an immaterial source suggests pure mind (intelligence). We need an intelligent being, to create something out of nothing. These two characteristics combined into a single immaterial and volitional source, are what Christians call God.
For these reasons, perhaps, and other reasons perhaps as well, this statement by Stephen Hawking that I have examined in this piece prompted John Lennox, a professor of mathematics at Oxford, to observe that “nonsense, even when spoken by an eminent scientist, is still nonsense”.