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The Real Issue

Stephen Hawking, the Big Bang, and God

Part II

By Dr. Fritz Schaefer III

Professor of Quantum Chemistry, University of Georgia

Dr. "Fritz" Schaefer is the Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and the director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize and was recently cited as the third most quoted chemist in the world. "The significance and joy in my science comes in the occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, 'So that's how God did it!' My goal is to understand a little corner of God's plan." --U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 23, 1991.

This is the second part of a two-part lecture given by Dr. Schaefer. Part 1 of this lecture appeared in The Real Issue, November/December, 1994.

We shall begin with the philosophical aspects of A Brief History of Time, which really explains why it has sold so many copies. Stephen Hawking has stated, "It is difficult to discuss the beginning of the universe without mentioning the concept of God. My work on the origin of the universe is on the borderline between science and religion, but I try to stay on the scientific side of the border. It is quite possible that God acts in ways that cannot be described by scientific laws, but in that case, one would just have to go by personal belief."

When asked whether he believed that science and Christianity were competing world views, Hawking replied, "...then Newton would not have discovered the law of gravity." He knew that Newton had strong religious convictions.

A Brief History of Time makes wonderfully ambiguous statements such as, "Even if there is only one possible unified theory [here he's talking about the unification of quantum mechanics with an understanding of gravity], it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"(p. 174). I love that statement.

Hawking pokes fun at Albert Einstein for not believing in quantum mechanics. When asked why he didn't believe in quantum mechanics, Einstein would say things like, "Well, God doesn't play dice with human beings"(p. 56). Hawking's response is that God not only plays with dice, He sometimes throws them where they can't be seen.

The first time I read A Brief History of Time, for the first 122 pages I thought, "This is a great book; Hawking is building a splendid case for creation by an intelligent being." But then everything changes and this magnificent cosmological epic becomes adulterated by poor philosophy and theology.

For example, he writes, "These laws may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it" (p. 122). The grounds on which Hawking claims "it appears" are unstated and what happens is that a straw God is set up that is certainly not the God of Biblical history. What follows is a curious mixture of deism and the ubiquitous God of the gaps.

Now, lest anyone be confused, let me state that Hawking strenuously denies charges that he is an atheist. When he is accused of that he really gets angry and says that such assertions are not true at all. He is an agnostic or deist or something more along those lines. He's certainly not an atheist and not even very sympathetic to atheism.

One of the most famous and quoted statements in the book is, "So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator [the cosmological argument]. But if the universe is really completely self- contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?"(pp. 140- 1).

So Hawking is uncertain about his belief in a god of his own creation. I cannot resist the conclusion that Stephen Hawking's god is too small.

At the end of the book he states, "However, if we do discover a complete theory. . . then we would know the mind of God"(p. 175). I'm sympathetic to this statement but I think he's claiming a bit much. I would modify it to say that if we had a unified, complete theory, we would know a lot more about the mind of God.

The Anthropic Principle

I must say something here about the anthropic principle: there are a number of scientific parameters or constants, any one of which, if changed just a little bit would make the earth uninhabitable by human beings. A book that I strongly recommend is by Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos. He has a substantial discussion of the anthropic principle and demonstrates why many physicists and astronomers have considered the possibility that the universe not only was divinely caused, but in fact divinely designed.

One such person is the pantheistic astronomer, George Greenstein, who makes this statement: "As we survey all the evidence, the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency, or rather Agency, must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a supreme being? Was it God who stepped in and so providentially created the cosmos for our benefit?"

I think Greenstein has gone a little too far in the other direction. I do not think we have proof of the existence of God but I think we do have, in the big bang understanding, some good evidence for the existence of God.

Others have commented on this evidence. A book I recommend is Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg. He doesn't have God in the title, but God is discussed in the book. He tells the story about a poem by the Venerable Bede, a religious person of the Middle Ages. In the poem, Bede talks about the banqueting hall being our ordinary existence and Weinberg's comment on this is, "It is an almost irresistible temptation to believe with the Venerable Bede that there must be something for us outside the banqueting hall." There must be something beyond materialism.

Of course this view is echoed in the New Testament. For example, Paul the Apostle wrote, "Ever since the creation of the world, God's eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He has made"(Romans 1:20). This is exactly what Weinberg is talking about-that almost irresistible temptation.


It is very rare that a physical scientist is truly an atheist. Why is this true? Freeman Dyson, a Princeton faculty member, has said, "Nature has been kinder to us than we had any right to expect."

Martin Rees, one of Hawking's colleagues at Cambridge, stated, "The possibility of life as we know it depends on the values of a few basic, physical constants and is in some respects remarkably sensitive to their numerical values. Nature does exhibit remarkable coincidences."

Some scientists express surprise at so many accidental occurrences. However, that astonishment quickly disappears when one sees divine purpose instead of arbitrariness in the laws of nature.

Against overwhelming logic, some atheists continue to claim that the universe and human life were created by chance. A reply to this argument has been developed by the philosopher, William Lane Craig. The atheist's argument states that since we're here, we know this must have all happened by material forces. Craig's counter-argument states,

Suppose a dozen sharp-shooters are sent to execute a prisoner by firing squad. They all shoot a number of rounds in that direction, but the prisoner escapes unharmed. The prisoner could conclude, since he is alive, that all the sharp-shooters missed by some extremely unlikely chance. He may wish to attribute his survival to some remarkable piece of good luck. But he would be far more rational to conclude that the guns were loaded with blanks or that the sharp-shooters had deliberately missed. Not only is life itself overwhelmingly improbable, but its appearance, almost immediately, perhaps in as short a period as 10 million years following the solidification and cooling of our once molten planet, defies explanation by conventional physical and chemical laws.

Hawking's No Boundary Proposal

Let us return to Hawking's no boundary proposal-the universe as a wave function, popping into existence 15-20 billion years ago. The use of imaginary time is a powerful mathematical trick that is used on occasion by theoretical chemists and physicists. My best friend at Berkeley, William Miller, in 1969 used imaginary time to understand the dynamics of chemical reactions and it made him a household word. It is a powerful tool.

In Hawking and Hartle's no boundary proposal, the notion that the universe has neither beginning nor end is something that exists in mathematical terms only. In real time, which is what we as human beings are confined to rather than in Hawking's use of imaginary time, there will always be a singularity, that is, a beginning of time.

Among his contradictory statements in A Brief History of Time, Hawking actually concedes this. "When one goes back to the real time in which we live, however, there will still appear to be singularities . . . ," he wrote. "In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science breaks down"(p. 139). Only if we live in imaginary time would we encounter no singularities. So here he has really answered his own question.

Science is primarily concerned with facts, not motive, and thus a complete scientific description of the creation does not rule out a providential account at the same time. William Paley's famous argument suggests that if you're taking a walk in the woods and you find a watch on the path, you don't conclude that the watch just assembled itself, despite the fact that we can take the watch apart, look at every single part and completely understand how it works. We look at the watch on the path and we prudently conclude that it was designed by some higher intelligence.

In A Brief History of Time, Hawking states, "If the no boundary proposal is correct, he [God] had no freedom at all to choose initial conditions"(p. 174). This statement is a leap into irrationality. Why does Hawking find, within the functioning of the universe, aspects that appear to him to be limitations of God's power? This stems not from any attitude of an infinite God, but rather from the attributes of finite man. Namely, we as human beings are able to scientifically discern characteristics of the Creator only as they are related to that which is created, that which we can observe. This limitation of ours immediately reduces what might be infinite to the finiteness of our existence.

Of course Biblically there is no problem in accepting divine constraints to divine option, if the Creator chooses to run the universe according to His stated and established laws. Divine tenacity to His own laws is, of course, the very essence of the Biblical God.

Another of Hawking's controversial statements needs to be addressed. Although it is not original with him, it is this: "We are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburb of one of a hundred billion galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us or even notice our existence."

My response to that statement by Hawking, and to others that have said this over the years, is that that's a silly thing to say. There isn't any evidence to date that life exists anywhere else in the universe. Human beings, thus far, appear to be the most advanced species in the universe. Maybe God does care about us! Where Hawking surveys the cosmos and concludes that man's defining characteristic is obscurity, I consider the same data and conclude that humankind is very special.

Scientist Believers

Does everyone agree with Stephen Hawking's opinion on these matters? The answer is no. Alan Lightman, a MIT professor, said in his book Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists (Harvard University Press, 1990), "Contrary to popular myths, scientists appear to have the same range of attitudes about religious matters as does the general public."

This fact can be established either from anecdote or from statistical data. Sigma Xi, the scientific honorary society, ran a large poll a few years ago which showed that, on any given Sunday, around 46 percent of all Ph.D. scientists are in church; for the general population the figure is 47 percent. So, whatever influences people in their beliefs about God, it doesn't appear to have much to do with having a Ph.D. in science.

There are many prominent counter-examples to Stephen Hawking. One is a colleague of mine at Berkeley for 18 years, Charlie Townes. Townes won the Nobel Prize for discovering the maser. One statement he made differs greatly from Hawking's view; he said, "In my view, the question of origin seems to be left unanswered if we explore from a scientific view alone. Thus, I believe there is a need for some religious or metaphysical explanation. I believe in the concept of God and in His existence."

Arthur Schawlow is another Nobel Prize winner, a professor at Stanford who identifies himself as a Christian. He states, "We are fortunate to have the Bible and especially the New Testament which tells us so much about God in widely accessible human terms."

The other Cambridge professor of theoretical physics for much of Hawking's career was John Polkinghorn, a nuclear physicist. He left his chair of theoretical physics at Cambridge in 1979 and went to seminary to become a minister. Upon completing that, he had a parish church for awhile and now has recently come back to be the President of Queen's College at Cambridge. He states, "I take God very seriously indeed. I am a Christian believer and I believe that God exists and has made Himself known in human terms in Jesus Christ."

Probably the world's greatest observational cosmologist is Allan Sandage. Sandage works in Pasadena, California at the Carnegie Observatories. In 1991, he received a prize given by the Swedish academy that is given every six years in physics for cosmology and is worth the same amount of money as the Nobel prize (there is not a Nobel Prize given for cosmology). Sandage has even been called "the grand old man of cosmology" by the New York Times.

At the age of 50, Sandage became a Christian. He states in Lightman's book, Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, "The nature of God is not to be found within any part of the findings of science. For that, one must turn to the Scriptures." When asked the famous question regarding whether it's possible to be a scientist and a Christian, Sandage replies, "Yes. The world is too complicated in all its parts and interconnections to be due to chance alone. I am convinced that the existence of life with all its order in each of its organisms is simply too well put together."

One of the persons closest to Stephen Hawking, whom you know if you've seen the movie about A Brief History of Time, is Donald Page. Page has had an excellent physics career in his own right, but he started to become famous as a post-doctoral fellow with Stephen Hawking. The Hawkings were not financially well-off in the years prior to his book and needed some help to keep going. So the post-doctoral fellows would come to live with the Hawkings. Donald Page did this for three years.

Page described these years in the book (the book about the film about the book!). He said, "I would usually get up around 7:15 or 7:30, take a shower, read in my Bible and pray. Then I would go down and get Stephen up. After breakfast, I would often tell him what I'd been reading in the Bible, hoping that this would eventually have some influence. I remember telling Stephen one story about how Jesus had seen the deranged man and how this man had these demons and the demons had been sent into a herd of swine. The swine then plunged over the edge of the cliff and into the sea. Stephen piped up and said, 'Well, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would not like that story, would they?'"

Page stated, "I am a conservative Christian in the sense of pretty much taking the Bible seriously for what it says. Of course I know that certain parts are not intended to be read literally, so I am not precisely a literalist but I try to believe in the meaning, I think, it is intended to have."

The Limits of Science

A statement that I think gives some balance to all of this is by one of my scientific heroes, Erwin Schrodinger, after whom the most famous equation in science is named: the Schrodinger equation. I have spent a good bit of my professional life trying to solve this equation for atoms and molecules.

Toward the end of Schrodinger's career he made this statement, "I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us."

Schrodinger believed that science has limits; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.

Jane Hawking has commented on this aspect of her husband's work. "Stephen has the feelings that because everything is reduced to a rational, mathematical formula, that must be the truth," Jane explained. "He is delving into realms that really do matter to thinking people and, in a way, that can have a very disturbing effect on people-and he's not competent."

The irony of the story is that Hawking's professional life currently is devoted to telling a story about the cosmos in which all the elements which make his own life so fascinating-love, faith, courage and even creative imagination-disappear from view. Aspiring to know the mind of God, he can imagine nothing more interesting than a set of equations governing the motion of particles. I love these equations too, but they are not the be-all and end-all of life!

A unified field-theory would be an amazing, magnificent scientific accomplishment, of course. But to Hawking it is just a step toward a distant but attainable goal of what he calls "a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence."(p. 169)

The way to this goal does not seem to require reading the Bible or Shakespeare, living in a variety of cultures, experiencing art, climbing mountains, or falling in love and having children. All it involves is the intellectually challenging task of developing better approximation methods.

Richard Feynman states in his last technical book, The Character of Physical Law, "Everything in physical science is a lot of protons, neutrons and electrons, while in daily life, we talk about men and history or beauty and hope. Which is nearer to God-beauty and hope or the fundamental laws? To stand at either end and to walk off that end of the pier only, hoping that out in that direction is a complete understanding, is a mistake." I would have to say that what Stephen Hawking has done is to walk off one end of that pier.

Some Conclusions

After evaluating all the cosmological evidence, Hugh Ross has come to a number of conclusions (The Fingerprint of God, pp. 181-2). With only minor modifications, I wholeheartedly concur:

1. A Creator must exist. The big bang ripples are clearly pointing to an ex nihilo creation consistent with the first few verses of the book of Genesis.

2. The Creator must have awesome power and wisdom. The quantity of material and the power resources within our universe are truly immense. The information, or intricacy, manifest in any part of the universe, and especially in a living organism, is beyond our ability to comprehend. And what we do see is only what God has shown us within our dimensions of space and time!

3. The Creator is loving. The simplicity, balance, order, elegance, and beauty seen throughout the creation demonstrate that God is loving rather than capricious. Further, the capacity and desire to nurture and to protect, seen in so many creatures, makes sense if their Creator possesses these same attributes. It is apparent that God cares for His creatures, for He has provided for their needs.

4. The Creator is just and requires justice. Inward reflection and outward investigation affirm that human beings have a conscience. The conscience reflects the reality of right and wrong and the necessity of obedience.

5. Each of us falls hopelessly short of the Creator's standard. We incur His displeasure when we violate any part of God's moral law in our actions, our words, and our thoughts. Who can keep his or her thoughts and attitudes pure for even an hour? If each person falls short of his or her own standards, how much more so of God's standards?

6. Because the Creator is loving, wise and powerful, He made a way to rescue us. When we come to a point of concern about our personal failings, we can begin to understand from the creation around us that God's love, wisdom, and power are sufficient to deliver us from our otherwise hopeless situation.

7. If we trust our lives totally to the Rescuer, Jesus Christ, we will be saved. The one and only path is to give up all human attempts to satisfy God's requirements and put our trust solely in Jesus Christ and in His means of redemption, namely, His death on the cross.

(Editor's note: This article is a transcript of a lecture Dr. Schaefer presented at the University of Colorado in the spring of 1994, sponsored by Christian Leadership and other campus ministries. Over 500 students and professors were present.)

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