So that’s that then. Stephen Hawking has assured us that the laws of physics are sufficient to explain the universe we live in – and that we have no need to posit the possibility of God. His book, The Grand Design, will be published on September 9.
This is neither the time nor the place to focus on the detail of his arguments, and no doubt plenty of description will be forthcoming in the popular press and elsewhere. I want to focus initially on one remark he makes: “philosophy is dead.”
Bang goes the wisdom of two and a half millennia. But philosophy is not only not dead, it was never needed as much as it is now. One of the most important tasks in philosophy is to ensure that the right questions are asked and that the arguments which proceed stand up to rigorous examination. No wonder Hawking would like philosophy to be dead because he is wrong on both counts.
The drive of Hawking’s approach is that the theory, or rather the family of theories, he espouses leads to the possibility of 10 to the power of 500 different universes (try that on your calculator and watch it explode). Thus the extraordinary fine-tuning required for a universe which would eventually be able to support human life is not evidence for a designer God; it has in fact come about by chance. Since our universe is, by definition, the only one we can experience, we are fooled into thinking that it is the only one which exists, or has existed.
M theory, as it is known, is highly controversial within the scientific community; indeed there are eminent names who claim that it cannot properly be called a scientific theory at all. The idea of multiverses to explain the fine-tuning has been known as the “last refuge of the agnostic”. But let us assume that it is true, that there is an infinity of universes, and that our universe is an inevitable result of chance at work – where does that get us?
First, we are reminded of the theory of evolution. We have no difficulty in reconciling our belief in God as creator with evolution in which myriads of tiny chances, inevitably filtered by fitness to survive, develop into higher forms of life. God is not some sort of inventive superman who performs in the same sort of way as we do – but at an infinitely higher level. He transcends the universe; his creative action is utterly beyond our ken. If we use terms like “designer” it is only because the human mind and human vocabulary has no further reach. Our descriptions are only useful if we always bear in mind their gross inadequacy.
Similarly, if all the physical laws had been explained and proved (known as the Grand Theory of Everything) – which is a million miles from the case – our understanding of the actions of God would not be one whit greater: his existence and his actions are of a different order.
Most particularly it would not touch the question of how something existing comes out from nothing. That is a question which science cannot answer, and will never answer, because nothingness is not within its domain. Hawking apparently does not address this question – which is the true and ultimate Theory of Everything. But what philosophy can teach us is that neither he, nor you, nor I will ever explain creation, except through faith.