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Stephen Hawking & God

December 26, 2010 | by Dr. Gerald Schroeder

Is God needed to create the universe?

Stephen Hawking, in his recent book The Grand Design, breaks the news that “God” was not needed to create the universe; rather, all that is needed are the "laws of nature."

Given my background in both a Torah and science, I could agree with his statement. How so? It all comes down to how we define "God," and what exactly are these "laws of nature."

From time immemorial, philosophers have wondered if "something" (especially our seemingly boundless and magnificent universe) could be created from "nothing." The verdict from science is now in, and the answer is: It could possibly have happened from what is called a "quantum vacuum fluctuation."1

Since such a fluctuation can be explained by quantum mechanics – part of the laws of nature – Hawking feels confident in proclaiming that all of existence can be explained by merely invoking the "laws of nature" which contain all the forces and principles that guide the material world.

But is the answer so simple?

Since these wondrous "laws of nature" are the cause of existence, they would have had to exist prior to the creation of the universe. And since time and space themselves are dimensions within the created universe, the laws of nature would have to be outside of time and space.

In other words, these laws themselves – as the infinite source of finite time and space itself – would need to be eternal.

It may make Dr. Hawking feel better referring to the infinite Creator as "the laws of nature," but most people call this "God."

What we have, then, is an infinite, non-physical "power," totally outside of time and space that created the universe. What does this sound like to you? It may make Dr. Hawking feel better referring to the infinite Creator of the universe as "the laws of nature," but from where I come from, most people call this "God."

In fact, this is essentially the Torah’s definition of God's Name "Elokim," the will of the infinite creator as expressed through the laws of nature.2 Indeed, the only name used for God throughout the creation narrative is "Elokim."3

A Caring, Benevolent God

In fairness to Dr. Hawking, I don't think his main issue is with "God" as the non-physical "power" that created the universe. This is probably why even he, on a number of occasions, invokes the term "God,”4 if for no other reason than lack of a better metaphor to visualize for us the mystery and grandeur of our universe, and the "power" or "law" behind its creation.

Rather, I believe that when Dr. Hawking says there is no need for "God," he is referring to another aspect of God – known in the Bible as the "Tetragrammaton," the ineffable name, YKVK. The name Elokim represents the aspect of exacting laws expressed through "cause and effect," that are seemingly "blind" and not always benevolent to the will of those being effected by those laws; the Tetragrammaton, however, represents the benevolent plan and purpose of the universe that uses the laws of nature as the means for its actualization.5

According to Dr. Hawking, there is no need for such a "power" to be actively and "personally" involved with and guiding the universe, and who cares about its creations and the direction that they evolve. Rather, once the "laws of nature" created the initial random set of conditions, all that is needed to make our world a place where complex and information-rich life could develop is "chance.”6

Rolling the Dice

But could we really have gotten so lucky?

According to the highly respected and most widely read scientific journal, Scientific American, this would statistically be just about impossible on one roll of the cosmic dice, since the properties of atomic and sub-atomic particles conducive to forming life are so specific.7

Just a few of the many examples of “luck”:

  • For complex life in any form, there must be three spatial dimensions (length, width, height), and one time dimension (time only moves forward, never backward). Further, the relationship between mass and gravity must be a very close match to our universe.
  • The charge of the proton (the particles in the center of atoms) must be exactly equal and opposite to the charge of an electron (the particles that form a cloud surrounding the center of atoms), even though the proton has a mass 1,837 times that of an electron.
  • The force that holds atoms together, the strong nuclear force, is balanced on a knife for allowing hydrogen atoms to be super-abundant in the universe. No hydrogen, no stars. Stars make their light and energy by fusing hydrogen, the lightest of all the elements, into helium, the second lightest of all the elements, and that indirectly means no heavier elements – and hence no life. Carbon, the one element able to form the complex chains required for life, is built from lighter elements within the cores of stars. The process involves a complex, exquisitely-tuned series of reactions.

So tenuous is the process that knighted astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle,8 who started his scientific career as a theological skeptic, was moved to write:9

“Would you not say to yourself, ‘Some supercalculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule?’ Of course you would… A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”

The Earth Platform

So now we have a universe with physical properties fine-tuned for life. But that does not guarantee that life will arise. We need a platform. We call it Earth. Just the right mass, to have just the right gravity, to hold just the right atmosphere with enough oxygen to allow combustion (i.e. the energy production), but not so much that there is spontaneous combustion of basic carbon molecules.

Then there is our tilted axis, allowing sunlight to be distributed over much more of the planet’s surface than if the axis were either vertical or horizontal. All at a distance from the sun that allows for liquid water; neither all ice (like on Mars) nor all steam (like on Venus).

Further, looking at the distribution of planets around the sun and realizing that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is the debris that could be a planet but was unable to form due to the gravitational effects of the giant Jupiter, we discover that each planet is twice as far from the sun as the previous planet – except for one planet, Earth. Given the odds, there should not be a planet in this narrow habitable zone where Earth is. But here we are – just the right planet, at the just right location, etc., etc.

A smooth planet Earth would be totally covered by water miles deep.

Even with all this, human beings and all other life would not exist if not for yet another "chance" quirk of nature: The shifting of the crust that formed on the surface of the earth, as the once-molten planet cooled and produced continents that rise above sea level. If this shifting had not occurred (referred to as plate tectonics), continents would not have formed. It sounds benign, until we discover that had continents not formed and the earth remained relatively smooth, the amount of water in the oceans would cover the entire earth to a depth of 2.5 km [1.5 miles].

These are just a few of the many examples of what is known as the "anthropic principle." As renowned physicist Freeman Dyson stated, it's as if “the universe knew we were coming.”10

The Starting Point

The leads to what may be the biggest question: How did life start? No one knows as of yet. Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, attributed to luck the two most basic phenomena of life: the origin of life from non-living matter, and the origin of consciousness within that life that arose from non-living matter.11

Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who described his belief as agnostic with a prejudice toward atheism, struggled to account for the appearance of life on Earth:

“An honest man armed with all the knowledge available to us now could only state that in some sense the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.”12

And yet for all its complexity, life started surprisingly rapidly on Earth. The oldest rocks that can bear fossils already have fossils of microbes, some undergoing cell division.13 The fact that the DNA genetic code, and the system for unlocking the information held within the code are identical across all life forms, indicates that when it was first derived, the system got it right.14

Related article: “Age of the Universe”

In addition, there is no evidence of evolutionary change or modification within the DNA,15 yet one might have expected an evolutional or developmental change for improvement or novelty over the “billions of years” that the system has been operating. Considering the other basic system of information storage and transfer – language and writing – we see vast and fundamental developmental changes over time and over location. Could an unguided nature have produced such genetic perfection in one burst?

Seeking an answer to the beginning of life, Nobel laureate Christian de Duve wrote:16

“If you equate the probability of the birth of a bacteria cell to chance assembly of its atoms, eternity will not suffice to produce one... The speed at which evolution started moving once it discovered the right track, so to speak, and the apparently auto-catalytic manner by which it accelerated are truly astonishing... [Yet] chance and chance alone did it all. But it is not, as some would have it, the whole answer, for chance did not operate in a vacuum. It operated in a universe governed by orderly laws and made of matter endowed with special properties. These laws and properties are the constraints that shape evolutionary roulette and restrict the numbers that can turn up...

“Faced with the enormous sum of lucky draws behind the success of the evolutionary game, one may legitimately wonder to what extent this success is actually written into the fabric of the universe.”

In other words, given that the universe seems so exquisitely designed for life, it would be unreasonable to conclude that the complex, hospitable universe is a result of an accident.

The late Nobel laureate George Wald, earlier in his career, emphatically stated that all life needed to get going was time and lucky random reactions. Yet based on his discoveries, Wald wrote:17

“It has occurred to me lately – I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities – that both questions [the origin of consciousness in humans and of life from non-living matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality – that stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself.”

It is not just that the "laws of physics" are looking more and more like the design of a "mind"; physical reality itself is looking more and more like "ideas." As Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg wrote:18

“Inherent difficulties of the materialist theory of [existence] have appeared very clearly in the development of physics during the 20th century. This difficulty relates to the question whether the smallest units of matter such as atoms [of which we and all objects from bacteria to galaxies are composed] are ordinary physical objects, whether they exist in the same way as stones or flowers. Here quantum theory has created a complete change in the situation… The smallest units of matter are, in fact, not physical objects in the ordinary sense of the word; they are – in Plato’s sense – Ideas.”

So how do Hawking and others answer to the increasingly accepted view that everything we perceive is essentially an expression of a metaphysical mind? They agree it is extremely improbable that our complex, life-sustaining universe could be explained through random chance, but maybe there are an infinite number of universes and we just happened to be living in the lucky one. This answer is what is known as the "multi-universe theory."

I am embarrassed that such convoluted logic is printed in a scholarly journal.

It has even been proposed in the respected journal, Scientific American, that since our universe is so perfect, there logically must be other imperfect universes. Note the convoluted logic: our universe being perfect for life infers that there must be other non-perfect universes. Of course the perfection of our universe in no way implies the existence of other universes, whether perfect or non-perfect. And that is why, as a scientist, I am embarrassed that such convoluted logic could get printed in an established scholarly journal.

Bernard Carr, a cosmologist at Queen Mary University in London, concisely stated this "logic." As he put it, "If you don't want God, you'd better have a multiverse."19 In other words, if we are indeed the only universe, then we are a "designer" and a designed universe.

“Mind” as the fundamental quality of all existence, and “matter” as the expression of an idea that is written into the fabric of the universe – nowhere does this fit with Dr. Hawking’s portrait of an unguided nature. That God may have used the laws of nature to create the universe poses no theological problem. But all the evidence within the universe points to an ongoing involvement of the Creator with the creation brought into being.

  1. In 1973, Edward Tryon, professor of physics, published an article in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal, Nature, describing the possibility of how the creation of the universe might be the result of what is termed in scientific jargon, a vacuum fluctuation (Tryon; "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?" Nature, 246 (1973), pp. 396-397). The concept falls within well established principles of quantum mechanics. For persons interested in the details that make this a possibility, Tryon’s paper is the correct place to start. The physics is complex, but it is consistent with our understanding of nature.
  2. In Hebrew, the name Elokim is synonymous with the word "din" which directly translates as "law" (See Rashi on Genesis 1:1). Even the name Elokim is interchangeable with the word “judge,” or one who enforces law and order (See Rashi on Genesis 6:2).
  3. Genesis 1:1-31, 2:1-3.
  4. Hawking’s most famous example is the concluding paragraph of A Brief History of Time: "However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God."
  5. C.f., Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, part two, chapters 5, 6.
  6. "The question is: was the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can't understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science 'God', but it wouldn't be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions." (Hawking, Channel 4 series, Genius of Britain, June 2010).
  7. Infinite earths in parallel universes really exist; Scientific American, May 2003.
  8. He was knighted for deriving the sequential formation of the 92 elements within the stellar processes.
  9. The quarterly journal Engineering and Science, of the California Institute of Technology.
  10. As quoted in Discover Magazine, "Science's Alternative to an Intelligent Creator: the Multiverse Theory.”
  11. The God Delusion, p. 141.
  12. Life Itself.
  13. “The Oldest Fossils,” Scientific American.
  14. Klug & Cummings, Essentials of Genetics.
  15. Ibid.
  16. And organic chemist and a leader in origin of life studies, in his book, Tour of a Living Cell.
  17. Professor of Biology, Harvard University, earned the Nobel prize upon discovering the intricacy by which the retina processes incoming visual data in fractions of a second; writing in “Life and Mind in the Universe,” International Journal of Quantum Chemistry: Quantum Biology Symposium 11, 1984.
  18. One of the parents of all modern quantum mechanics, in his book, Physics and Beyond.
  19. "Science's Alternative to an Intelligent Creator: the Multiverse Theory,” Discover Magazine, December 2008.


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