God and Hawking

From the book “The Grand Design” By STEPHEN HAWKING And LEONARD MLODINOW

….
Newton believed that our strangely habitable solar system did not “arise out of chaos by the mere laws of nature.” Instead, he maintained that the order in the universe was “created by God at first and conserved by him to this Day in the same state and condition.”

….

The press is pitching this book as a denial of God, claiming that Hawking has said that God does not exist. The media never seem to get the nuances of logical thinking, and its consequences.

What Hawking and Mlodinow are doing is a modernization of an approach used by Laplace (1749-1827) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre-Simon_Laplace).  He worked on many things, including the dynamics of the solar system.  When Newton (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton) published his laws of dynamics 100 years earlier, he demonstrated that the speeds of the planets could be derived from a simple law of gravity.  In this way, Newton connected the Earthly things with the “Heavenly” things.  However, it was unclear to Newton whether the orbits of the planets would remain constant (as his religious philosophy would state), or if they would be unstable, change, and possibly fly apart given enough time.  He posited that one of the roles of God would be to nudge the planets, here and there, to keep their orbits stable.

Laplace, performing his calculations more precisely than his predecessors, was able to determine that the orbits would in fact be stable, without any extra tinkering.  Napoleon, when presented with the work of Laplace, asked him: “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.”  Laplace replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

He did not say that there was no God (although that is what he believed), but that the concept of God was not necessary to explain the things that he was explaining using physics.  This included the formation of the solar system from a compressing ball of gas (due to gravity), which then forms the Sun in the center and the planets orbiting around.  This is essentially the model still in use today!

What Hawking is doing is basically the same thing, but with the origin of the universe.  Essentially the current model allows for the possibility of many universes to simultaneously exist and that, like a lottery winner, our universe supports life.  It may seem that the universe is “fine-tuned” to support human life, and that this would support the notion of an intelligent designer, Hawking is making the argument that a designer is not needed with our current understanding.  Like a lottery winner stating that the odds of winning are astronomical, and yet they won, and then reasoning that there was some design in this choice even when there wasn’t.  As long as you have enough people playing (or enough universes) you’ll eventually observe the unlikely, and that unlikely winner will feel singled out.  Hawking argues that the lottery winner (the life on Earth), is arguing the same way when it invokes a designer when it doesn’t need to.  Hawking doesn’t state “God doesn’t exist”, because that statement cannot be proven, but he simply states that it is an unnecessary hypothesis for the understanding of the origin of the universe.

Of course, *specific* Gods can be disproven.  For example, it is clear from many lines of evidence that the Earth is more the 6000 years old and that there never was a global flood.  However, you cannot disprove the notion of a God that creates the universe and is then hands-off, like deists commonly believe.  It is completely untestable.  It is also unnecessary, according to Hawking.  This doesn’t make it wrong, it is just unnecessary in the same way that we don’t need to invoke the divine when understanding how an apple falls from a tree.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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