More on Stephen Hawking and the beginning of the universe

Further to the recent news about Stephen Hawking’s views on the origin of the universe, Paul Davies has written a column for the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ feature entitled ‘Stephen Hawking’s Big Bang Gaps’. In it, he makes some interesting points.

First, he points out that it was probably not only the universe, but also time itself, that began at the Big Bang:

Cosmologists are agreed that the universe began with a big bang 13.7 billion years ago. People naturally want to know what caused it. A simple answer is nothing: not because there was a mysterious state of nothing before the big bang, but because time itself began then – that is, there was no time “before” the big bang.

After warning us against ‘God-of-the’gaps’ approaches to science and apologetics (the origin of the universe being the biggest ‘gap’ that we like to take advantage of to prove the existence of God), he sets out Hawking’s view that the origin of the universe is not, after all, a gap for God to fill, as God is not necessary in order for the universe to come into existence:

The laws of physics can explain, (Hawking) says, how a universe of space, time and matter could emerge spontaneously, without the need for God. And most cosmologists agree: we don’t need a god-of-the-gaps to make the big bang go bang. It can happen as part of a natural process.

This however presents us with a further problem, as I mentioned in my earlier post on Hawking, and Davies seems to agree:

A much tougher problem now looms, however. What is the source of those ingenious laws that enable a universe to pop into being from nothing?

Indeed. And what do we mean by saying ‘It can happen as part of a natural process’, when the big bang is supposed to be the beginning of the process? How can the natural process cause anything before it has itself been initiated?

But this is where things get even more interesting (and – it must be added – speculative). Having told us that not only the universe, but also time itself, began with the big bang, Davies then goes on to talk about the possibility of the existence of a ‘multiverse’ – many universes, that is – the feeling being that if the laws of physics could produce one universe spontaneously, presumably they could do it with many more.

The favoured view now, and the one that Hawking shares, is that there were in fact many bangs, scattered through space and time, and many universes emerging therefrom, all perfectly naturally. The entire assemblage goes by the name of the multiverse.

Our universe is just one infinitesimal component amid this vast – probably infinite – multiverse, that itself had no origin in time. So according to this new cosmological theory, there was something before the big bang after all – a region of the multiverse pregnant with universe-sprouting potential.

This might have the added benefit (to an atheist, that is) of providing an alternative explanation for the fact that the laws of physics seem oh-so-carefully tuned to make possible the emergence of life as we know it. That might not be the case in the multiverse; each universe might have slightly different laws, and in the vast majority of them, our existence would not be possible.

An appealing feature of variegated bylaws is that they explain why our particular universe is uncannily bio-friendly; change our bylaws just a little bit and life would probably be impossible. The fact that we observe a universe “fine-tuned” for life is then no surprise: the more numerous bio-hostile universes are sterile and so go unseen.

But Davies is well aware that this theory does not, in fact, answer all the questions:

The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained – eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.

I would agree with that assessment, with a further observation that the meta-laws share this further characteristic with God: there is no thoroughly conclusive proof of their existence. This, by the way, goes for a few other items in this discussion as well. As a commentator on another site put it:

What’s rather slipped by unnoticed with all this is that there’s absolutely no scientific evidence for M-theory, the anthropic principle or the multiverse…Compare and contrast with general relativity, which predicted the double-Newtonian deflection of light, and was vindicated within three years. String theory has been going for forty years now, and there’s still no evidence…

The “law” of gravity has got nothing to do with the early universe. Gravity occurs when there’s a variation in spatial energy density, usually caused by a concentration of energy tied up as matter. In the early universe there was no such inhomegeneity, and gravity didn’t stop the expansion of the universe. And what’s with this spontaneous creation? That’s just another non-answer. It reminds me of the old recipe for the spontaneous generation of mice. A piece of soiled cloth plus wheat and 21 days, and voila!

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m certainly no scientist, but it seems to me that, despite the claims of Hawking, Dawkins, and others to have found perfectly satisfactory scientific answers to the question of existence, there are still a few outstanding items.

5 thoughts on “More on Stephen Hawking and the beginning of the universe

  1. Erika Baker

    I still don’t understand why a scientific explanation of everything would destroy the God concept.
    Explaining the universe(s) without reference to God is no different from explaining the chemical components of water without reference to God.
    It’s truth but it’s also completely beside the point as far as faith is concerned.

    Unless a scientist can convincingly disprove the existence of God this debate is really not a threat to faith at all and that we are all so up in arms about it says more about our own insecurity than about God.

  2. Tim Chesterton

    Erika, I don’t think I claimed that a scientific explanation of everything would destroy the God concept. I simply pointed out that Hawking, Dawkins and the rest are a lot further away from a scientific explanation of everything than popular opinion would suggest – or, in Dawkins’ case, further away than he likes to claim.

    As concerning the deeper point in your letter. I’m not sure. On the one hand, I’m as wary of the God of the gaps argument as you are. On the other hand, if we protest against it too strongly, we end up as Deists, and whatever else the Deist god may be, he/she/it isn’t the God of Israel or the God of Jesus.

  3. H.S.Pal

    A CRITIQUE OF THE VOID

    A.Circular Reasoning

    In his article ‘The other side of time’ (2000) scientist Victor J. Stenger has written that as per the theory of quantum electrodynamics electron-positron (anti-electron) pairs can appear spontaneously for brief periods of time practically out of nothing, which clearly shows that anything that has a beginning need not have to have a cause of that beginning.
    From here he has concluded that our universe may also come literally out of nothing due to quantum fluctuation in the void, and therefore we need not have to imagine that God has done this job.
    But is it true that electron-positron (anti-electron) pairs are appearing literally out of “nothing”? Are scientists absolutely certain that the so-called void is a true void indeed? Because here there is a counter-claim also: God is there, and that God is everywhere. So actually nothing is coming out of “nothing”, only something is coming out of something. Here they will perhaps say: as there is no proof for God’s existence so far, so why should one have to believe that the void here is not a true void? But even if there is no proof for God’s existence, still then it can be shown that scientists’ claim that the universe has literally come out of nothing is a pure case of circular reasoning. If believers say that the void is not a true void at all, and if scientists still then hold that it is nothing but a void, then this is only because they are absolutely certain that God does not exist, and also because they think that God’s non-existence is so well-established a fact that it needs no further proof for substantiation. But if they are absolutely certain that God does not exist, then they are also absolutely certain that God is not the architect, designer, creator of our universe, because it is quite obvious that a non-existent God cannot be the architect, designer, etc. So their starting premise is this: God does not exist, and therefore our universe is definitely not the creation of a God. But if they start from the above premise, then will it be very difficult to reach to the same conclusion?
    But their approach here could have been somehow different. They could have said: well, regarding void, it is found that there is some controversy. Therefore we will not assume that it is a void, rather we will prove that it is such. Then they could have proceeded to give an alternate explanation for the origin of the universe, in which there will be neither any quantum fluctuation in the void, nor any hand of God to be seen anywhere. And their success here could have settled the matter for all time to come.
    By simply ignoring a rumour one cannot kill it, rather it will remain as it is. But if one takes some more trouble on him and exposes that it is nothing but a rumour, then it will die a natural death with no further chance of revival. Let us say that the saying that there is a God and that He is everywhere is nothing but a rumour persisting for thousands of years among mankind. What scientists have done here is this: they have simply ignored the rumour and thus kept it alive. But it would have been far better for them if they could have killed it, as suggested by me.

    B. “Circular Reasoning” Case Reexamined

    There can be basically two types of universe: (1) universe created by God, supposing that there is a God; (2) universe not created by God, supposing that there is no God. Again universe created by God can also be of three types:
    (1a) Universe in which God need not have to intervene at all after its creation. This is the best type of universe that can be created by God.
    (1b) Universe in which God has actually intervened from time to time, but his intervention is a bare minimum.
    (1c) Universe that cannot function at all without God’s very frequent intervention. This is the worst type of universe that can be created by God.
    Therefore we see that there can be four distinct types of universes, and our universe may be any one of the above four types: (1a), (1b), (1c), (2). In case of (1a), scientists will be able to give natural explanation for each and every physical event that has happened in the universe after its origin, because after its creation there is no intervention by God at any moment of its functioning. Only giving natural explanation for its coming into existence will be problematic. In case of (1b) also, most of the events will be easily explained away, without imagining that there is any hand of God behind these events. But for those events where God had actually intervened, scientists will never be able to give any natural explanation. Also explaining origin of the universe will be equally problematic. But in case of (1c), most of the events will remain unexplained, as in this case God had to intervene very frequently. This type of universe will be just like the one as envisaged by Newton: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.” So we can with confidence say that our universe is not of this type, otherwise scientists could not have found natural explanation for most of the physical events. In case of type (2) universe, here also there will be natural explanation for each and every physical event, and there will be natural explanation for the origin of the universe also. So from the mere fact that scientists have so far been able to give natural explanation for each and every physical event, it cannot be concluded that our universe is a type (2) universe, because this can be a type (1a) universe as well. The only difference between type (1a) and type (2) universe is this: whereas in case of (1a) no natural explanation will ever be possible for the origin of the universe, it will not be so in case of (2). Therefore until and unless scientists can give a natural explanation for the origin of the universe, they cannot claim that it is a type (2) universe. And so, until and unless scientists can give this explanation, they can neither claim that the so-called void is a true void. So scientists cannot proceed to give a natural explanation for the origin of the universe with an a priori assumption that the void is a real void, because their failure or success in giving this explanation will only determine as to whether this is a real void or not.

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