Article ID: JAF4341 | By: Stephen Howe
This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 34, number 01 (2011). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
In their latest book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow claim that modern science is now capable of explaining all aspects of the universe, including its origin. Thus it is no longer necessary to invoke a Creator God. The book generated instant worldwide controversy, a rush to judgment even preceding its release. What this article seeks, instead, is to fully understand what the authors have to say, and provide a well-thought-out Christian response.
The Grand Design begins with a brief history of progress in science, from Aristotle to quantum physics, emphasizing recent steps toward a “unified theory of everything.” This part of the book is very informative and worthwhile. But then the authors claim that the origin of the universe was governed by the laws of quantum physics, because in the first few nanoseconds of the “big bang” the universe was a particle of “quantum” (subatomic) size. Thus the big bang was an extremely unstable event, actually resulting in billions of universes of which ours is only one. Thus our universe, and its incredible fine-tuning that enables human life, is not really unique at all. The authors also say that it is simply “spontaneous creation” that explains why the universe exists.
There are many reasons to challenge these claims concerning the universe’s origin. As an explosion from absolute nothingness to something incredibly immense, still expanding 13.7 billion years later, the big bang is utterly unlike anything ever observed by quantum physicists. It seems highly unlikely that the universe’s origin was “governed” by any “laws” other than those of the Supreme Maker, or that the universe and its fine-tuning are anything other than unique. As for “why” the universe exists, God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ provides a far better explanation than “spontaneous creation.”
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s latest book, The Grand Design, was released to booksellers in September 2010 amidst a great deal of controversy. So intense was the commentary from around the world in the days leading up to its release, that it was the leading story on CNN online. The authors were claiming that science had now progressed to the point where it could explain everything, even including the very origin of the universe, and thus there was no longer any need to invoke a Creator God to explain the existence of the universe. These claims, publicized ahead of the book’s release, brought forth numerous comments from eminent religious leaders around the world, generally to the effect that questions of existence and ultimate meaning are the proper province of religion, not science. Numerous bloggers also chimed in, with reactions ranging from angry denunciations to speculative thoughts as to why Stephen Hawking had apparently abandoned his faith.
Well, even though I strongly believe in a Creator God as both the cause and the reason behind the existence of the universe, and our existence within it, I was dismayed at what I felt was premature judgment of this book. I think any book by someone of Hawking’s stature deserves to be studied and reflected on, and one should understand what the book says, and why, before forming judgments. It was with these objectives that I placed an advance order for the book.
I have found that as a book on the progression of scientific thought, written by two pre-eminent scientists, it is exceptionally informative and very worthwhile reading for anyone who has an interest in science. It traces the advancement of scientific thinking from its beginnings in the time of Aristotle to the most recent developments in quantum physics. It also describes how science has progressed toward what may ultimately be “the unified scientific theory of everything”: a single theory that encompasses laws governing celestial bodies, laws governing subatomic particles, and laws governing electricity and light. It is also written in a very engaging manner and sprinkled throughout with humorous side comments—a fun read as well as an informative one. For these reasons alone I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in such topics, its comments about God and creation notwithstanding.
I also believe, nevertheless, that the book is seriously flawed in other respects. The authors attempt to present a quantum physics explanation for “what really happened” in the instant of the universe’s creation, and thereby claim to have done away with the need for a God who “lights the fuse.” While their argument may appear convincing to those of an atheistic worldview, I think others will find that the argument falls short of sound logical reasoning. The authors also attempt, in their final chapter, to explain the “Why?” of the universe’s existence and our existence within it. They say, in essence, that the answer lies in spontaneous creation and the force of gravity. For those who believe that there really is no aim or purpose to existence, I suppose “spontaneous creation” might be a perfectly adequate answer. But I, for one, find this last chapter to bear very little if any relevance to questions of ultimate meaning.
The sections below are intended to explore both the strong points and the weak points of the book. Some sections, the ones whose headings lead off with “The Grand Design,” are straightforward presentations of what the authors say in their book. These sections are interspersed with other sections, which are my commentary.
OF SCIENCE FROM 600 B.C. TO NOW
Much of The Grand Design is devoted to presenting a very informative history-in-brief of the progression of scientific thought from its beginnings in ancient Greek civilization up to the most recent findings in quantum physics.
The beginnings of scientific thinking are found in the Ionian period of Greek civilization, from 600 BC to 200 BC. The profundity of discoveries and theories set forth during this ancient time is utterly amazing:
- Pythagoras’s discovery of mathematical relationships associated with geometric shapes, and the relationship between musical string length and pitch;
- Archimedes’s discovery of laws governing forces acting on a lever, buoyancy, and light reflection;
- Democritus’s theory that all matter must be made up of particles that cannot be split (“atom” is the Greek word for “uncuttable”);
- Aristarchus’s analysis showing that the sun was larger than the earth, and his theory that the sun rather than the earth was the center of our planetary system; and
- Aristotle’s theory, incorrect as it turned out, that bodies fall through space at a velocity proportional to their weight.1
The great thinkers of ancient Greek civilization had much interest in the natural laws that govern the universe. But following this “golden age,” the authors say, was a lengthy period from roughly 200 BC to AD 1500, in which there were relatively few further advances of this nature.2
In the 1500s, however, there began a veritable explosion of scientific discoveries that has continued and even accelerated into the twenty-first century. To cite just a few of the most important discoveries and theories:
- Copernicus published, in 1543, scientific confirmation that it is in fact the sun rather than planet Earth that is the center of our planetary system.
- Galileo (1564–1642) discovered many laws, and advanced the idea that the purpose of science was to uncover the quantitative relationships governing physical phenomena.
- Descartes (1596–1650) published his ideas on scientific method, and was the first to advance the concept of “laws of nature.”
- Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) won widespread acceptance of the “laws of nature” concept, with his three laws of motion and the law of gravity.
- James Clerk Maxwell, in the 1860s, published the mathematical principles governing electricity, magnetism, and light.
- Albert Einstein, at the beginning of the twentieth century, published his theories of special relativity and general relativity. Central to these theories is the idea that space and time are not independent but, rather, time must be treated as a fourth dimension.3
Then in the 1920s came the discovery that Newton’s law of gravity and motion break down at the “particle level,” in other words, the molecular, atomic, and subatomic level. Newtonian physics, as it turns out, apply to the “composite” objects that we deal with in everyday life, and also at the “cosmic” level of celestial bodies. Fundamental to the motion of objects at the “composite” and “cosmic” levels is a very high degree of certainty and predictability: given the position, velocity, and acceleration of such an object at any instant in time, its motion both before and after that instant can be fully determined by Newton’s laws.4
But at the “particle” level, all of this predictability and certainty vanishes. Motion at this level is characterized by wave-like patterns and, especially, the uncertainty and unpredictability of random fluctuation. The discovery of this fundamental difference in behavior at the particle level led to the development of quantum physics, which deals explicitly with this random uncertainty and makes predictions in terms of probabilities. Actually, since the 1920s, several formulations of quantum physics have been developed; the one favored by the authors is Richard Feynman’s “alternative histories” formulation. Feynman’s formulation is based on the theory that, to get from point A to point B, particles traverse not just one path, but all possible paths from A to B.5
There are two other modern scientific concepts that should be mentioned in this context, both pertaining to physical properties at the subatomic level. These theories pertain to the weak nuclear force, which explains radioactivity, and the strong nuclear force, which is the force that holds quarks together to form neutrons and protons.6
TOWARD A “UNIFIED THEORY”
From Newton’s laws of gravity and motion onward, each of the scientific developments outlined above continues to this day to be the theory or model of choice for explaining or predicting behavior within a certain range of physical phenomena. And each of these theories could conceivably be part of a single unified “theory of everything.”
The holy grail of physics is the pursuit of this single “theory of everything,” which would encompass and unify all of the great theories into one—assuming it exists. No such unified theory has been discovered thus far, although some partial successes have been achieved in bringing together some of the major theories. At present, the closest thing we have to a unified theory is “M-theory,” which is actually a family of theories, each of which reigns within its own particular realm.7 The key steps toward development of M-Theory as we know it today were the following:
- Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and gravity (1600s).
- James Clerk Maxwell’s theories of electricity, magnetism, and light (1860s).
- Albert Einstein’s theories of special relativity and general relativity (early 1900s). General relativity was the extension of the law of gravity to make it consistent with special relativity.
- The formulation of quantum physics, explaining motion at the particle (molecular, atomic, and subatomic) levels (1920s).
- Theories that explain the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force.
- A unified quantum-theory extension for electromagnetic theory and the weak nuclear force, developed by Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg (1967).
- A separate quantum-theory extension for the strong nuclear force.8
In The Grand Design, this history of scientific progress sets the stage for presentation of a radically different view on how the universe began. But before we get to that, we need to take a look at the commonly held view of the universe’s origin, more specifically the common “modern” view as opposed to a wholly literal “young earth creationist” view.
HOW THE UNIVERSE BEGAN
The book of Genesis, in the “young earth creationist” view, is taken to mean that God’s creation of the universe, the planet Earth, and humankind all occurred within six days of twenty-four hours each. And from the genealogies in Genesis and the New Testament, in this view, one can calculate the age of the universe as 6,000+ years old. But beginning with Edwin Hubble’s discoveries in 1929, it has become evident that the galaxies in the universe are separating at ever-increasing rates. By projecting the movement of the galaxies backward in time one can conclude that the universe began as an explosion from a single point in space, 13.7 billion years ago—the so-called “big bang theory.”9
While the big bang theory departs dramatically from the young earth creationist view of Scripture, it does not disprove the biblical creation story. Many Christians believe that Genesis is simply an illustrative description, written long before the findings of modern science, but which accords with the enriched understanding provided by these findings. Many Christians, in fact, view the big bang theory as an affirmation of biblical creation.
Scientists have found, further, that there is an amazing degree of “fine-tuning” in our universe, without which there could be no life as we know it. This fine-tuning is often cited in support of the idea that our universe was indeed created by God to sustain, eventually, intelligent beings that could relate to Him. Key aspects of this fine-tuning include the following:
- The balance between the force of gravity and the force of expansion. If the ratio between these two forces had been infinitesimally smaller or larger, the universe would have either imploded or exploded into nothingness. Stable expansion would not be possible.10
- The complex sequence by which heavier elements, required to support life, were dispersed throughout the universe. Our universe originally contained just three gaseous elements, but then gravity acted on these elements to form the initial stars in the universe. These stars then acted as giant nuclear reactors to fuse carbon and other heavier elements essential to life. Then these initial stars burned out and exploded, dispersing the heavier elements throughout the universe. These heavier elements later coalesced into planets, including Earth.11
- The fact that the Earth’s orbit is near-circular, and lies entirely within a thin band about the sun known as the “Goldilocks zone.” Within this band, temperatures are neither so cold nor so hot that all water freezes or evaporates; there is, rather, always a sufficient supply of liquid water for supporting human life.12
- The fact that the strong nuclear force, the force which holds quarks together to form neutrons and protons, lies within a very narrow range that allows both oxygen and carbon to exist in abundant amounts. Only a slight variation would have resulted in destruction of nearly all oxygen or carbon, along with any possibility of human life.13
VIEW OF “THE BEGINNING”
Hawking and Mlodinow do not see the universe as a unique creation. They instead adhere to the “multiverse” theory that sees our universe as just one out of perhaps as many as 10500 universes, each governed by its own set of natural laws and constants. In this view our universe, and its apparent fine-tuning to permit the existence of human life, is not unique at all. Instead our universe is just one out of many billions, and we just happen to exist in this one because it has the properties needed to support life as we know it.
The argument that the authors present in favor of their view is based on elements of the M-theory described in preceding chapters. Briefly stated, their argument runs as follows:
- The universe did indeed begin as an explosion from a single point in space, 13.7 billion years ago, in accordance with big bang theory.
- This big bang, however, was by no means a unique and traceable occurrence, as we would expect in Newtonian physics or Einstein’s general relativity.
- For, as we have said, the big bang was an explosion from a single point in space. This event thus belongs to the realm of quantum physics, which governs motion at the particle (molecular, atomic, and subatomic) level—or smaller. At this level, motion is characterized by a very high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability.
- If the big bang was in fact a quantum event, then behavior during that infinitesimal slice of time would be accurately portrayed by Richard Feynman’s “alternative histories” formulation of quantum physics. Recall that in Feynman’s theory, particles move from point A to point B along every possible path from A to B.
- “In this view, the universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way.” We thus have not just one universe, but a “multiverse” of perhaps as many as 10500 universes, each with its own set of laws and constants.
- Also, in this view, “the beginning of the universe was governed by the laws of science and does not need to be set in motion by some God.”14
I think the above argument may seem convincing to some and unconvincing to others, depending on their worldview. On the one hand, there are those who are strongly oriented to a scientific worldview, and to a belief that science will eventually find the explanation for all aspects of our existence. People of this worldview are perhaps more inclined to overlook whatever logical gaps there may be in the above argument, and view it as “a step in the right direction.” On the other hand, there are those who orient from a belief in a Supreme Maker as the origin of all things, including those very same principles held so dearly by adherents of the scientific worldview. I personally belong to the second camp, even though my own background is in mathematics and engineering. And as I see it, there are flaws in the above argument serious enough to render it invalid.
The authors contend that since the big bang was an explosion from a single point in space, everything that happened in that instant had to have been governed by quantum physics. Well, during the big bang as generally conceived, there must indeed have been an infinitesimal slice of time in which the entire universe was of a size comparable to a “quantum” particle. And it is true that the motion of “quantum” particles is governed by quantum physics rather than classical Newtonian physics. But outside that tiny slice of time, it seems to me that this parallel between the nascent universe and quantum particles breaks down completely. The universe at that time was in extremely rapid transition from absolute nothingness to something immeasurably huge, still expanding now 13.7 billon years later. I must ask: in the eighty-some years since the development of quantum physics, has any scientist in this field ever witnessed anything even remotely similar to the big bang? Rather than being governed by the laws of quantum physics, I think it is far more likely that the big bang was an utterly unique event, one that was not “governed” by any “laws” other than those known to the Supreme Maker.
As for the authors’ advocacy of the multiverse concept, this is based on the premise that the big bang was a quantum event, and therefore one that behaved in accordance with Richard Feynman’s “alternative histories” formulation of quantum physics. In Feynman’s theory, quantum particles traverse not just one path, but “all possible paths,” to get from point A to point B. In like manner, therefore, the big bang generated not just one universe, but a multiverse comprising all possible universes. But here again, I believe it is simply wrong to view the big bang as a “quantum” event: the big bang is actually comparable in only one tiny aspect to the general category of “quantum” events. It is hard for me to discern any compelling reason to believe that there are, say, 10500 universes as opposed to just one.
An additional point worth noting here is that in making the case for their “all possible universes” concept, the authors rely heavily on Feynman’s “all possible paths” approach to quantum physics. But Feynman’s formulation is actually only one of several competing theories, and is by no means universally accepted.
In its last chapter, The Grand Design acknowledges that the “How?” of physical phenomena is usually regarded as the province of science, whereas questions of ultimate meaning and existence are normally regarded as the province of religion. But now, say the authors, science has arrived at the point where it can also answer the “Why?” questions: why the universe exists, and why we exist within it.
That said, the seven pages that follow are devoted to a description of an experiment conducted at Cambridge University in 1970. Conducted on a “chessboard” of (theoretically) infinite size, it specified very simple rules for the “birth,” “survival,” and “death” of a given square at each time step. And it showed that amazingly complex, self-replicating “organisms” would eventually “evolve” from these very simple rules governing “life” at the “cellular” level.15
Following this description are two pages in which the authors maintain that the “Why?” of the universe’s existence is fully explained by spontaneous creation and the force of gravity: “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6 [containing the argument in favor of the multiverse concept]. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, and why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”16
RATHER THAN “WHY”!
It would be hard for me to understand how anyone, regardless of worldview, could view the last chapter of The Grand Design as a convincing and complete explanation of why the universe exists and why we exist within it. Perhaps for atheists who basically see no aim or purpose to our existence, “spontaneous creation” is as good a reason as any. But many people desire and seek a deeper meaning in life, and have reason to believe that this deeper meaning is provided in God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ. As for the description of the “birth and death” experiment at Cambridge, this story is interesting enough in itself but I don’t see how the story is even relevant to the “why” of existence.
It is with these observations in mind that I say scientists such as Hawking and Mlodinow should remain within their center of excellence, explaining the “how” behind the physical phenomena in our universe, and leaving the “why” questions of ultimate meaning and moral value to theologians and philosophers.
I stated at the beginning of this article that I thought any book put forth by eminent authors such as Hawking and Mlodinow deserved careful study before passing judgment. The preceding sections have thus been devoted to an effort to fully understand and reflect on what the authors have to say. Now, to answer the question posed in the title to this article, I would say that the book contains a fair amount of both “grand design” and “grand delusion.”
As we’ve seen, well over half of the book is devoted to a straightforward presentation of progress in scientific development, from the very beginning of scientific thinking in classical Greek antiquity up to the latest findings in quantum physics. All of this is presented in an exceptionally informative, engaging, and humorous manner. The book is very worthwhile reading for anyone who has an interest in science.
Where the authors go astray is in stepping outside the proper domain of science. Their attempt to provide a purely scientific explanation for the origin of the universe, and thus eliminate the need for a Supreme Maker, suffers from serious logical flaws. Also, their attempt to answer the “ultimate” questions of existence seem inadequate, if not irrelevant. How can “the force of gravity” and “spontaneous creation” constitute a valid answer to why the universe exists, and why we exist within it?
With a PhD in applied mathematics and a successful career in aeronautical engineering behind him, Stephen Howe retired at the end of 2006 and has since been engaged infull-time independent study and writing in the field of Christian theology. He is especially interested in making the insights of great theologians more accessible to thoughtful lay Christians, and is the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Questions and Doubts of Faith: Insights of Great Christian Thinkers.
- Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 18–21, 24.
- Ibid., 24–25.
- Ibid., 25–27, 41, 90–91, 96–100.
- Ibid., 66–68.
- Ibid., 68–75.
- Ibid., 104.
- Ibid., 7–8, 117.
- Ibid., 66–67, 87, 90–91, 96–100, 104, 109.
- Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, 2006), 63–64.
- Ibid., 72–73.
- Ibid., 67–68.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 135–36.
- Collins, 73–74.
- Hawking and Mlodinow, 124–44.
- Ibid., 172–78.
- Ibid., 179–80.