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Oxford Mathematician John Lennox Weighs-In On Stephen Hawking’s Recent Claim That The Universe Came From Nothing Through The Laws Of Nature

There’s no denying that Stephen Hawking is intellectually bold as well as physically heroic. And in his latest book, the renowned physicist mounts an audacious challenge to the traditional religious belief in the divine creation of the universe…The Big Bang, he argues, was the inevitable consequence of these laws [of physics] ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’

Unfortunately, while Hawking’s argument is being hailed as controversial and ground-breaking, it is hardly new.

Writes John Lennox, Oxford Professor of Mathematics, in an article at dailymail.co.uk in response to Hawking’s recent claim that the laws of physics, such as gravity, will spawn a universe such as ours.

But, as both a scientist and a Christian, I would say that Hawking’s claim is misguided. He asks us to choose between God and the laws of physics, as if they were necessarily in mutual conflict.

But contrary to what Hawking claims, physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything, they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions.

What Hawking appears to have done is to confuse law with agency. His call on us to choose between God and physics is a bit like someone demanding that we choose between aeronautical engineer Sir Frank Whittle and the laws of physics to explain the jet engine.

That is a confusion of category. The laws of physics can explain how the jet engine works, but someone had to build the thing, put in the fuel and start it up. The jet could not have been created without the laws of physics on their own  -  but the task of development and creation needed the genius of Whittle as its agent.

Similarly, the laws of physics could never have actually built the universe. Some agency must have been involved…

To use a simple analogy, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion in themselves never sent a snooker ball racing across the green baize. That can only be done by people using a snooker cue and the actions of their own arms.

This sounded very familiar to me, and my mind went to this essay from another Oxford professor named C. S. Lewis, titled “The Laws of Nature” from God in the Dock:Essays on Theology and  Ethics:

The laws of physics, I understand, decree that when one billiards ball (A) sets another billiards ball (B) in motion, the momentum lost by A exactly equals the momentum gained by B. This is a Law. That is, this is the pattern to which the movement of the two billiards balls must conform. Provided, of course that something sets ball A in motion. And here comes the snag. The law won’t set it in motion. It is usually a man with a cue who does that. But a man with a cue would send us back to free-will, so let us assume that it was lying on a table in a liner and that what set it in motion was a lurch of the ship. In that case it was not the law which produced the movement; it was a wave. And that wave, though it certainly moved according to the laws of physics, was not moved by them. It was shoved by other waves, and by winds, and so forth. And however far you traced the story back you would never find the laws of Nature causing anything.

The dazzlingly obvious conclusion now arose, in my mind: in the whole history of the universe the laws of Nature have never produced a single event. They are the pattern to which every event must conform, provided only that it can be induced to happen. But how do you get it to do that? How do you get a move on? The laws of Nature can give you no help there. All events obey them, just as all operations with money obey the laws of arithmetic. Up till now I had had a vague idea that the laws of Nature could make things happen. I now saw that this was exactly like thinking that you could increase your income by doing sums about it. The laws are the pattern to which events conform: the source of events must be sought elsewhere.

This may be put in the form that the laws of Nature explain everything except the source of events. But this is rather a formidable exception. The laws, in one sense, cover the whole of reality except–well, except that continuous cataract of real events which makes up the actual universe. They explain everything except what we should ordinarily call ‘everything’. The only thing they omit is — the whole universe.

Much clarity could be gained and much confusion avoided if folks like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins read C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton.

John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. He is also an adjunct Lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University and at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and is a Senior Fellow of the Trinity Forum. In addition, he teaches for the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme at the Executive Education Centre, Said Business School, Oxford University.

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9 Responses to Oxford Mathematician John Lennox Weighs-In On Stephen Hawking’s Recent Claim That The Universe Came From Nothing Through The Laws Of Nature

  1. Evidently, there is some wonder-working quality of gravity that somehow enables universes to spring into existence from nothing. And when did nothing begin to “do” something?

    Invoking spontaneity as being some kind of causal agency, capable of popping entire universes into existence is hardly testable and definitely not observed. One immediately, and rightly questions whether such a claim is scientific or not, or even leads to a scientific conclusion. I think it does not. I am not against conclusions that are non-natural as long as that is where the evidence best points, but in this case I think it is counter-productive to Hawking’s own goal of trying to insulate nature from God. Hawking seems to have forgotten at least one important implication to his own theory. If there is a multiverse of universes, a reality of which anything that can happen does happen in any of an infinite number of universes, then if there is a universe that by chance is just right for unicorns, fairies and flying teacups, then there must be such a universe with unicorns, fairies and flying teacups. In fact, if anything can happen in such a multitude of universes, then God can also happen. Hawking just doesn’t want a universe like that.

    Materialists of course will be the first to defend the presumption that organization comes out of chaos (naturally), that we should expect nature to produce finely tuned universes that can and do suddenly appear for no reason or purpose from randomness and chance…..basically nature performing miracles. But that’s not the way the universe is. The evidence points to high level organization at the beginning of the universe when physical laws became fixed. This does not reflect a chaotic beginning, but an organized, even manipulated beginning.

    Most people are not aware of how strangely particles act in the quantum world. A little known fact (and much to the dismay of those hoping for a quantum-world explanation for the universe) is that quantum particles do not spontaneously create themselves. However, they do spontaneously appear. In other words, those particles already exist before they are perceived. Regardless, quantum world models are especially appealing to those who, like Prof. Hawking, find it a convenient (and untestable) means of explaining the apparent design of the universe and of an earth that appears finely tuned for intelligent life.

    Indeed, everybody is entitled to their own point of view. While in college, I remember making up some pretty detailed philosophies and explanations for reality…or whatever. The only difference here is while I tended to keep those philosophies and metaphysical explanations to myself for the most part, Prof. Hawking and L.Mludinow seem to think that everyone is interested in their personal world view philosophy and accompanying metaphysical explanations. Should we be? After the advent and decline of Hawking’s “imaginary time” some years back, I’m not sure the world is as interested in Hawking’s views as he thinks it is. With a little magic, maybe this book will recapture the public interest. Speaking of magic…..

    It would appear that the “nature” of Hawking and Mlodinow’s view is a nature that performs miracles, even if they cannot admit that there is a necessary mind and Causor implementing the miracles. For reasons unknown, Hawking and Mludinow feel the need to write a book describing nature doing magic and they also expect the general public to take them seriously.

    It’s a simple fact that more atheists than theists believe in ghosts, Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster and other myths, so the addition of more unscientific, untestable hypotheses that cater to the imaginations of atheists should come as no surprise. Indeed, other popular science myths (universal aether, steady state theory, cyclic universes, big-crunch model…et etc) can only be topped with the invention of an explanatory model involving entire universes popping into existence for no reason, having no purpose, coming into existence completely spontaneously, such universes being conveniently unobservable and unverifiable. Of course it’s nature, again doing the magic.

    Indeed this is what I expect from most of this book; a thoroughly unscientific, inviting, humorous at times, charming rant against popular, compelling and scientific evidences for design and philosophical arguments such as the Kalam cosmological argument, made popular by William Lane Craig. That argument goes as such…

    Anything that begins to exist has a cause

    The universe began to exist

    Therefore, the universe has a cause.

    Obviously, the cause of the universe is not part of the universe. Gravity is part of the physics of the universe. As such, gravity cannot be responsible for the universe beginning to exist. Simple spontaneity, like “luck” or “chance”, is not a causal agent. It does not “do” anything. It’s only an abstract name we attach to what we observe after-the-fact, when we notice that something does not fit a given pattern. Instead of making a case for how God is not necessary for gravity to exist (and thus, a multitude of universes), Hawking has only opened the door for others to expose his playful, theoretical romp through magical universes for what it is. Frivolity.

    In fact, Hawking and Mlodinow’s view only removes the first cause of gravity to some other, less verifiable location than a multiverse. It would appear that in Hawking’s attempt to insulate nature from God, he has presented the world with a view that seeks to avoid two hallmarks of good science. Critique and falsification. This does not lend favorably to the book, or for Hawking’s world view being taken seriously.

    Hawking also says “ the coincidences of our planetary conditions — the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass, far less remarkable, and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings,”

    Here he has inadvertently made some interesting associations. First, he admits that such “coincidences” are compelling evidences for design. They are just “less compelling” now than they were before (allegedly due to the discovery of another planet). But here he is making a grave error. Assuming that the number of planets, if a great number, makes earth somehow mediocre or ordinary, is just flawed reasoning. The more planets that are discovered, even if millions of them, that do not have earth’s finely tuned parameters necessary for life and intelligent life, will only strengthen the case that earth is unique, not ordinary.

    Hawking even (rightly) associates “coincidences” of many of our planetary conditions, and “lucky” combinations of Earth-Sun distance, and solar mass as being less remarkable (than they already are) but how remarkably lucky are they Prof. Hawking? What is the boundary between possible and miraculous? Is luck a causal agent? Rather than make an inference of design when it is best warranted, Hawking prefers “luck”. However, luck does not “do” anything, is not a causal agent in any way. Hawking’s magic remains entertaining, but not enlightening.

    Comments like the following do not help. Hawking says;

    ” It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”

    What blue touch paper? What caused that blue touch paper to come into existence? Since when do pieces of blue touch paper exist independent of any universe, much less our universe?

    My greatest hope for this book is that it is entertaining, and I think it will be. My greatest fear, is that it will be hopelessly boring, a rehash of old metaphysical arguments that are unscientific and illogical.

    Sadly, materialists must reach, even desperately, for any supposed naturalistic view, even spurious, unreasonable views that are unfalsifiable. In an era when design evidences are on the rise, any naturalistic view will do. Ironically, Hawking’s appeal to the quantum world in all of its illogical unpredictability merely invites God back to the table of discussion, since in a quantum reality, it would be very feasible that God exists independent of our four dimensions and operates in realities we do not understand or would predict….like a quantum world reality.

    A book like this, entitled rather scandalously “The Grand Design” should be expected from Prof. Hawking anyway. It wasn’t very long ago that he invented “imaginary time” to escape the theological implications of current big bang cosmology. Now, once again he is simply trying to escape the implications of what recent design evidences are clearly suggesting….that the universe does not exist as the result of natural processes, but from a purposeful, non-natural cause.

    I expect this book will differ little from the less celebrated and more contentious outbursts from the likes of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. It will just have better humor. Unfortunately, Hawking and Mlodinow join the ranks of those whose claims are popular not because they are testable, observed or otherwise confirmed to be part of reality, but because they tickle the imagination of readers who wouldn’t know otherwise. As such, I predict that this book will not prove to be a significant contribution to science, or even a truthful representation of reality. However, I will expect it to be a fantastic, magical carpet ride through the universe and Hawking and Mludinow’s whimsical imaginations.

  2. Much intellectual mischief comes from the naive assertions of emprical scientists who know nothing of sound philosophy and from the ungrounded speculations of rationalist philosophers who know nothing of modern science.

    Evidence without reason is just as useless as reason without evidence. Empiricism, which recognizes only knowledge provided by the senses, commits the first offense; rationalism, which recognizes only knowledge provided by the intellect, commits the second offense.

    Realism, which acknowleges both sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge, is the only epistelological framework that makes any sense. Any other approach will always lead one into intellectual quicksand.

  3. Oh my! It’s so controversial!!

  4. 4

    “Much clarity could be gained and much confusion avoided if folks like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins read C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton.”

    These two men were way ahead of their times. I read Lennox’s comments earlier on this matter, and I have to say, he’s “spot on,” to use a British colloquialism.

    It helps of course, to know Lewis.

  5. It is worth excerpting G K Chesterton’s essay, >The Wind and The Trees (from his Tremendous Trifles), to complement C S Lewis’ remarks:

    ___________________

    >>I remember a little boy of my acquaintance who was once walking in Battersea Park under just such torn skies and tossing trees. He did not like the wind at all; it blew in his face too much; it made him shut his eyes; and it blew off his hat, of which he was very proud. He was, as far as I remember, about four. After complaining repeatedly of the atmospheric unrest, he said at last to his mother, “Well, why don’t you take away the trees, and then it wouldn’t wind.”

    Nothing could be more intelligent or natural than this mistake. Any one looking for the first time at the trees might fancy that they were indeed vast and titanic fans, which by their mere waving agitated the air around them for miles. Nothing, I say, could be more human and excusable than the belief that it is the trees which make the wind. Indeed, the belief is so human and excusable that it is, as a matter of fact, the belief of about ninety-nine out of a hundred of the philosophers, reformers, sociologists, and politicians of the great age in which we live. My small friend was, in fact, very like the principal modern thinkers; only much nicer.

    In the little apologue or parable which he has thus the honour of inventing, the trees stand for all visible things and the wind for the invisible. The wind is the spirit which bloweth where it listeth; the trees are the material things of the world which are blown where the spirit lists. The wind is philosophy, religion, revolution; the trees are cities and civilisations. We only know that there is a wind because the trees on some distant hill suddenly go mad. We only know that there is a real revolution because all the chimney-pots go mad on the whole skyline of the city.

    Just as the ragged outline of a tree grows suddenly more ragged and rises into fantastic crests or tattered tails, so the human city rises under the wind of the spirit into toppling temples or sudden spires. No man has ever seen a revolution. Mobs pouring through the palaces, blood pouring down the gutters, the guillotine lifted higher than the throne, a prison in ruins, a people in arms—these things are not revolution, but the results of revolution.

    You cannot see a wind; you can only see that there is a wind. So, also, you cannot see a revolution; you can only see that there is a revolution. And there never has been in the history of the world a real revolution, brutally active and decisive, which was not preceded by unrest and new dogma in the reign of invisible things . . . .

    The great human dogma, then, is that the wind moves the trees. The great human heresy is that the trees move the wind. When people begin to say that the material circumstances have alone created the moral circumstances, then they have prevented all possibility of serious change. For if my circumstances have made me wholly stupid, how can I be certain even that I am right in altering those circumstances?

    The man who represents all thought as an accident of environment is simply smashing and discrediting all his own thoughts—including that one. To treat the human mind as having an ultimate authority is necessary to any kind of thinking, even free thinking. And nothing will ever be reformed in this age or country unless we realise that the moral fact comes first . . . >>
    ___________________

    Chesterton, of course, was speaking of especially the marxist revolutionaries of his day.

    But the same underlying error, unfortunately, is found in professor Hawking’s notion that the laws of physics — especially that of gravitation — have made the cosmos from nothing.

    That is a mistaking of the pattern for the cause.

    And, perhaps the worst thing is, that, from the breathless celebration of the claims being advanced by the good professor, the blunder has not been instantly and widely recognised and immediately corrected.

    That is telling us a lot about the breakdown of understanding and acceptance of the basic principles of right reason in our time.

    With very serious and damaging potential consequences.

    GEM of TKI

  6. I’m expecting David Berlinski to be commenting about this. I don’t even think Dr. Berlinski believes that a big bang ever even happened.

  7. Thanks for this post. The content is timely and useful.

    Also StephenB seems to have a pertinent observation:

    Much intellectual mischief comes from the naive assertions of emprical scientists who know nothing of sound philosophy and from the ungrounded speculations of rationalist philosophers who know nothing of modern science.

  8. Dr. William Lane Craig has weighed in on Hawking’s book:

    The Hype Over Stephen Hawking’s “The Grand Design”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55UgLEKbz2s

  9. When I first saw Hawking’s comments I thought that spontaneous creation was done away with at the time of Louise Pasteur. And now it is making a comeback!?

    Anyhow the responses seen given are most helpful to this mere mortal who is slow on his feet in dealing such curve balls. The opinion pieces and responses by most on this list are of great help.

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