Monday, September 6, 2010

Stephen Hawking: The Myths and the Critics

On September 2nd, The Times printed excerpts from Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design. The English physicist argues that God is no longer needed, writing that “the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists…It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

The response from writers in the commercial media was fast and furious. Their harsh comments quickly appeared on Twitter, a platform that encourages short, sharp statements. Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan dismissively wrote, “Stephen Hawking can’t use physics to answer why we’re here.” Mollie Hemingway of Christianity Today was judgmental; her tweet read, “If this is really what Hawking said, another indication of how unserious some atheists are @ big questions.” The nastiest tweet came from Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear. “Stephen Hawking’s answer to the God question,” she wrote, “stinks.” The blogosphere was equally uncollegial. In an essay titled “Theology: Stephen Hawking & More Tiresome Atheism,” Robert Barron of the Word on Fire Blog wrote, “something in me tightens whenever I hear a scientist pontificating on issues that belong to the arena of philosophy or metaphysics.”

What made these writers so upset? Brachear describes herself as a “religion reporter on a quest for truth and Truth – yes, with a capital T.” Capitalization is central to the Hawking discussion, as well; the media response has focused exclusively on God – yes, with a capital G. While Barron calls Hawking a dogmatic New Atheist, I would argue that the physicist is actually an open-minded Old Mythologist. Switch the mystic power from capital-G “God” to little-g “god,” move the frame of reference from Christian mythology to Norse mythology, and Hawking appears downright spiritual. Modern physics may be incompatible with the Christian creation myth, but it works nicely with the Norse one.

According to the Eddas, the 13th-century Icelandic manuscripts that are primary sources for Norse mythology, there was nothing at the dawn of time but Ginnungagap – the beguiling void of chaos. Then, out of nothing came something. Fire and ice appeared, and our reality emerged from their clash – their “Big Bang,” if you will. There was no conscious agent at work, no Prime Mover. This fits nicely with Hawking’s assertion that “the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Barron’s rebuttal is that “any teacher worth his salt would take a student to task if, in trying to explain why and how a given phenomenon occurred, the student were to say, ‘well, it just spontaneously happened.’” Of course, any four-year-old with basic human curiosity would ask, “who made God?” In contrast to Norse mythology’s complex family tales of gods, giants, elves, and dwarves, the Christian mythos is noticeably silent on the origin of its deity. In effect, he “just spontaneously happened.”

Hawking’s justification for spontaneous creation is that “there is a law such as gravity.” This particularly irked Barron, who wrote, “which is it: nothing or the law of gravity? There’s quite a substantial difference between the two.” Norse mythology once again provides a metaphorical context. The gods, far from omnipotent, are themselves subject to laws, and there are grim consequences for breaking them. Richard Wagner wrote four “music dramas” exploring the struggles of the Norse god Wotan with laws that he must both enforce and obey. The gods are subject to immutable cosmic law just as planets are controlled by the law of gravity. Barron writes that “to claim that something as finite and variable as the force of gravity is the ultimate explaining value is simply ludicrous.” I’d bet that Hawking’s science is a bit more nuanced than “gravity did it” Is it really more philosophically sound to simply assert that “God did it”?

In The Telegraph, physicist Graham Farmelo asserts that Hawking was “speaking metaphorically” when, in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, he wrote that the ultimate end of science was to “know the mind of God.” In June of this year, Hawking said that “you can call the laws of science ‘God,’ but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet and ask questions.” Suprisingly, Barron (a Catholic priest) seems to agree: “Catholic philosophy has identified this non-contigent ground of contingency, this ultimate explanation of the being of the universe, as ‘God.’” If the leaders of the Catholic Church have really moved from God-as-conscious-being to God-as-philosophical-construct, cheers to them.

If we accept this idea of religion-as-metaphor – and many of us won’t – isn’t the Norse cosmogony a better fit for modern physics than the Christian one? I agree wholeheartedly with Farmelo that “no religion has ever been rendered obsolete by facts or observations.” Rationality seems to have had very little effect on the major religions; the weapon that has destroyed older faiths has been the overwhelming cultural, economic, and military force of the conversion-based religions. I do, however, disagree with his claim that “no religion has ever been set out in terms of scientific statements.” The Norse cosmology clearly sets out to explain the world around us: the phenomenon of lightning is caused by Thor throwing his mystic hammer, the aural experience of thunder is caused by Thor’s sky-chariot rolling through the clouds, etc. What is mythology but the earliest attempt of humanity to create a scientific understanding of the overwhelming world around it?

To Hawking, the 1992 discovery of a distant star with its own orbiting planet made the Earth’s development “far less remarkable and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings.” Again, this lines up better with Norse myth than with Christian myth. Of the Nine Worlds described in the Eddas, our human one is clearly not the most important. The idea that humanity is not necessarily the center of reality is also put forward by Hawking. Arguing that existence is comprehensible through physics alone, he writes that there is no need to imagine a “benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit.” Farmelo writes that Einstein and Spinoza both felt that “the concept of God is an expression of the underlying unity of the universe, something so wondrous that it can command a spiritual awe.” The scientist and the philosopher have more in common with the Old Norse than the Christian; for the societies in which Norse mythology developed as an expression of living faith, this sense of wonder at the glory of existence was expressed by tales of larger-than-life gods and goddesses who represent natural powers and phenomena. The gods did not create the natural world; they are the natural world.

Mathematician Eric Priest wrote in The Guardian that “being able to explain the big bang in terms of physics is not inconsistent with there being a role for God.” If physics is even more consistent with Norse mythology, doesn’t that mean that this ancient worldview is more compatible with modern science than Christianity is? Indeed, Priest writes that “often philosophy or history or theology are better suited to help answer” many of life’s deepest questions. Yet he, like most of the writers mentioned above, focuses solely on a culturally-bound duality by insisting that “you can ask whether the existence or nonexistence of God is more consistent with your experience.” Are those the only real choices? If I don’t believe in the God of Abraham, am I ipso facto an atheist? In any time period, insisting on this false choice would feel culturally imperialist. In the 21st century, it feels dangerously out-of-date. The need to expand our theological concepts to include perspectives other than monotheistic, Creator-driven faiths is long overdue.


Amalia Dillin said...

"The gods did not create the natural world; they are the natural world."

This right here is something I've been trying to say for a while. Norse Mythology goes the furthest down this road of any, and it is amazing to think about, in my opinion. Even Ymir IS the natural world when he was carved up and turned into mountains and rivers and etc. From the world he was born and then turned back into the world to give it shape, conservation of matter and energy!

I think this issue of atheism being a label applied to anyone who does not believe in the God of Abraham is a huge and awkward one (to say nothing of how embarrassingly naive it is). Basically by making that implication, these people are invalidating all worldviews outside of their own--and let's not forget that there is still a MAJOR world religion (Hinduism) which still believes in a multitude of gods (or one god many aspects, but still a far cry from the God of Abraham), so it isn't just the "pagans" who are being marginalized.

Besides which, the entire question is pretty moot. Christians who believe in an omnipotent omniscient God should not be making statements limiting God or saying what God Is or Is Not. The funniest part of this whole thing is that the Christian world wants to replace one Mystery (Scientific) with another (religious). It sounds to me like a completely effective way to choke off all pursuit of knowledge. And I say all of this as a Roman Catholic, myself. But this is the conceit of Christianity-- that there is only ONE RIGHT way, and only ONE Truth.

(I'm not sure if this made the sense I wanted it to make. I hope it made sense to someone other than me!)

boo said...

that's it - i've twiddled my beard for long enough - i'm converting to Norsism today! those wishing to join me, i will see you on the rainbow bridge in about 10 minutes - ODIN!

Diana said...

This is the first blog I've read about Hawking's statement that actually makes sense.

Emily F. said...

Coming from an orthodox religious background, I don't know anyone who would dismiss all those who don't believe in the Judeo-Christian God as an "atheist;" that term only applies to those who believe in no god of any kind.

"Besides which, the entire question is pretty moot. Christians who believe in an omnipotent omniscient God should not be making statements limiting God or saying what God Is or Is Not."

The idea of Christianity (and many other religions) is not that we are limiting what God is or is not, but that we accept God's revelation of himself, partly through our own knowledge of the world, but also from God's revelation of himself and his creation of and interactions with the world (i.e., the Bible, the Quran, the Eddas, the Torah, etc.).

Scientists and philosophers have been wrestling with the question of the universe's origin for millenia. I don't know how every single Christian would answer this, but my personal theory (supported by some parts of the Bible) is that although anything and anyone in the physical world requires the passage of time to exist, God does not; he can exist outside of time. Therefore time began when God created the universe and before that there was no time.

Whatever you chose to believe--Christianity, Buddhism, Norse myths, nihilism--you cannot know every single thing about Life, the Universe, and Everything. Because of our limited human nature, we must accept some things by faith. We know that we exist ("I think, therefore I am," as Descartes said, or even "I err, therefore I am," in St. Augustine's words), so somehow, however miraculous and confusing, the world came into existence. Whether you take a leap of faith to believe that God exists and created the universe Himself or take a leap of faith to believe that, out of a universe of nothing, something spontaneously came into existence and exploded, faith is required to maintain any kind of opinion at all.

elfslinger said...

Whew, it has taken me way too long to get back and comment on this. Sorry, Karl. I doubt anyone will actually read this now, but it's a good exercise for me, I reckon.

Anyway... I certainly find it interesting every time people in the religious community freak out whenever a scientist suggests that there doesn't "need" to be a God, or even that there very well might not be one. I'm an ordained minister of the word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and I have to admit that there is no logical explanation, scientific evidence or even epistemological reality that demands there be some divine being... but I believe in one anyway. Stephen Hawking still isn't saying, "I have proven that God does not exist," which seems to be what many people assume he is saying. Also, there is no "need" for me to assume religion is mere metaphor when there is no possibility for scientifically testing the existence of the "divine".

Now that that is behind us, I love the way you were able to connect Norse "logic" to physical laws and understandings of creation. Associations always breathe new air into my life, I feel.

Something to note about the Bible is that scripture's purpose was never to scientifically explain how the entire universe was created and the physical laws which govern it. Even with the TWO (different) creation stories in the book of Genesis, their purpose was more to explain our relationship to our God and to God's creation around us. (I think people missing the "relationship to God" part lead to misguided interpretations of our "relationship to creation", but that's another story altogether.) So, when there is no explanation of where God came from, there is also no need to assume that God "just spontaneously happened." Rather, we "just simply do no know." Scripture did not try to answer that question for us. In a scientific sense, scripture gives us no divine hypothesis which we might scientifically test. While science might not blend as seamlessly with my faith as opposed to Norse mythology, I still do not find them mutually exclusive either.

Consequently, I hesitate to say early Norse myths were scientific explanations for natural events. If you could show me that Norse ancients were able to test and measure whether lightning was produced by a dude with a hammer, I would be more inclined.

Anonymous said...

Karl, maybe you know of this, but one can find a lot of the same topics at the Thunderbolts forum, discusses the Electric Universe, physics, big bang, and Mythos from many cultures. David Talbott and Wallace Thornhill run that site. They wrote "Thunderbolts of the Gods". Do you know of it. I enjoy your topics (and your music)!
Patricia Niedrich, Chicago,IL

Ross Arlen said...

This was a very interesting article and I enjoyed it immensely.
However, I have a few things to say about Creation Myths and their relationship to Theology.
The point that many of these Christian authors are trying to make is that the question whether God created the world or not is a moot point. The sanctifying myth of Christianity does not need to be reiterated by logic, just as many pagans don't have to believe in the actual presence of water nymphs to believe a river is holy.
Also I have a response to this quote:
"There was nothing at the dawn of time but Ginnungagap – the beguiling void of chaos. Then, out of nothing came something. Fire and ice appeared, and our reality emerged from their clash – their “Big Bang,” if you will. There was no conscious agent at work, no Prime Mover."
There is primal chaos in the Bible as well: "The earth was without form; and void, and darkness moved over the face of the deep." It is interesting, when God creates, that instead of using semen (Zeus) or lightning from his fingertips, he simply speaks a Word. "Let there be light."
I think this is beautiful and the biblical authors are showing with just that small idea how important words are to humans.

THIS IS NOT A SCIENTIFIC CLAIM. The biblical authors aren't trying to EXPLAIN the existence of the world, they are trying to UNDERSTAND the existence of the world. Christians who make explanatory cases for God, using 'logic' and 'science' are fooling themselves, and making fools of themselves and others who take Christianity as their religion. SImilarly, people who criticize Christianity for being "unprovable" are immature. The center of Christianity, the center of an religion, lies elsewhere.

Justin Mann said...

An Ásatrúar myself, I'd also like to point out that the old, less fixed mythologies of the world, especially ours, are far more prone to being both written and interpreted metaphorically. I don't think anyone would claim that the universe actually was made fire and ice clashing together, or that the first living being was a cow, or that the world is a dead giant. However, due to both the highly symbolic writing used in these less fixed faiths, essentially acting as a shield against fundamentalism, one can easily continue to believe in these metaphysics without making a decision against such very intelligent and admirable folks as Dr Hawking.

The Ramblings of Doc Raumzeit said...

"Five Blind Men come upon an Elephant..."

Who knows this most apropos parable?

I find that, on both sides of the fence, too often feathers are ruffled in the birds most insecure in their view of the cosmos. Stepehen Hawking threatens no one.

Those who are not philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, astrophysicists, or cosmologists must choose whose data in which to place their faith. Few people can even prove the world is an oblate spheroid from where they are sitting.

No, most must assign varying likelihoods to what information they read or hear, and live with flawed interpretations of semi-conscious analyses of severely limited perceptions.

It should be understood that science and spirituality do not compete with each other. People compete with each other.

Science can provide for me explanation. Spirituality can provide for me meaning.

Where in this is the conflict, then?

Those who seek conflict, must surely find it or manufacture it. Those who seek offense will not be disappointed, even if they must make it up themselves.

Just as a side note, at the moment I am reading works by Joseph Campbell, Richard Feynman, and The Dalai Lama.

Sifu Chuck Kennedy said...


I want to say that your statement that "Science and spirituality do not compete with each other..people do." is something that takes so many people too long to get to understand. The lack of individuals to co-exist under the banners that they choose to fly indicates such an insular manner of thinking.

I am thankful that I have found this site and the minds that post their thoughts. I find it refreshing.

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