Thursday, September 10, 2015

Balking at Hawking’s Rejection of God

Although it was a temptation, I resisted titling this article “Gawking at Hawking.” June and I have, though, been gawking at Hawking some this past couple of weeks.
We first watched “The Theory of Everything,” the engrossing 2014 film of the world-famous cosmologist, who possesses an extraordinarily brilliant mind despite suffering near total paralysis from ALS. That movie was excellent partly because of the tremendous acting by Eddie Redmayne, who won the best actor Oscar this year for his portrayal of Hawking.
Then we watched “A Brief History of Time,” based on Hawking’s bestselling book published under that title in 1988—and with “From the Big Bang to Black Holes” as the subtitle. In that 1992 biographical documentary film much of narrative is by Hawking speaking through his speech synthesizer.
From early in his life, Hawking has sought to discover “the theory of everything” (ToE), a single, all-encompassing, coherent theoretical framework that fully explains and links together all physical aspects of the universe.
Finding a ToE is one of the major unsolved problems in physics, and Hawking hasn’t made that discovery yet—although just last month he claimed that he’s solved a huge mystery about black holes. (See this article.)
I confess that I don’t understand much that Hawking says. I do, however, have a little expertise on part of what he writes/speaks about: God.
One reviewer calls “The Theory of Everything” a “God-haunted film.” And in A Brief History of Time, Hawkins mentions God more than 20 times.
He concludes that book by asserting that if we humans do find “a complete theory” (the ToE), “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.”
At the end of the penultimate chapter Hawking states that “our goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence.” But is that possible for a physicist as a physicist?
In the movie version, his and Jane’s friend Jonathan asks, “You no longer believe in the Creation?”
Stephen replies, “What one believes is irrelevant – in physics.”
That may be true for physics, but one’s beliefs may be highly relevant for life, just as feelings or emotions are in a different sort of way.
When Stephen inexplicably divorced Jane in 1995 and married Elaine, he said, “It’s wonderful – I have married the woman I love.”
Like belief in God, love is also, I assume, irrelevant in physics. It was highly relevant in his life, however. But was there any kind of scientific proof that he really loved Elaine or that she loved him?
Can love ever be proven scientifically? Most probably not, even by a great physicist like Stephen Hawking. So, does that mean love is not real or important?
In Brief History, Hawking’s ideas can be correlated with belief in God to a certain degree. But through the years his ideas have become more and more anti-God. But not all of his students/colleagues agree with him.
Don Page was one of Hawking’s associates/helpers back in the 1970s, a few years after he graduated from William Jewell College. (I have heard about him often from his WJC professor, and my good friend, Don Gielker.)
Page, one of Hawking’s colleagues interviewed in the 1992 film, was and has remained a devout Christian believer, evidently seeing no contradiction between being a first-class physicist/cosmologist and a firm believer in God.
Affirming both science and faith in God is always preferable to needlessly choosing either one or the other.
In May 2011, I posted “Hawking on Heaven,” a blog article I invite you to read (again).


  1. As you can probably imagine, I would argue that the traditional Western understanding of God has to be abandoned -- the God who is a human-conscious-like personality, created the world ex nihilo, who knows the future, controls everything, has a plan for everything (omnipotent and sovereign), and intervenes periodically in human affairs to suspend nature to aid or smite some person or some group. If that's the God Hawking is rejecting, I'm with him. I don't know how much science contributes to the rejection of such a God, but certainly the structures of rational and moral thought do.

    I've read Hawking's book, among other things, but I'm not entirely sure I know what physicists who talk about the theory of everything hope the theory will tell us or what it will allow us to do. It seems, on the surface, beyond human consciousness -- a little too godlike in quest, if you will -- but, like the quest to understand God, the quest itself might have its benefits, however out of reach the goal might be.

    1. Well expressed! I'm with you rejecting that God and affirming the quest.

    2. Thanks for your comments, Anton. I continue to appreciate your gracing my blog articles with significant comments.

      It seems to me that Hawking is not just rejecting deficient ideas about God--and certainly there are a lot of those around--but all ideas of God, however defined.

      And I, too, have trouble seeing what his great quest for a theory of everything is about--or what value it would have to 99.99% of the people on earth.

  2. For your MacBook readers, I would suggest the following: Highlight the copy of your article. Right click. Choose "speech," then choose "start speaking." Irony alert!

    1. Sorry, Debra, since I don't use MacBook, I don't have the foggiest idea what you are talking about.

  3. This stuff is far out of my league. But your post evokes several thoughts.
    What is the meaning for humans of a ToE? What do we make of a ToE? Are ToE and God ‘placeholder’ words/terms/concepts for the power/energy of the universe(s)? That is, are they, more or less, equivalent; but for one the preferred energy/power analogy is the inter-personally descriptive interaction of love (or right-relationship) and for the other the preferred energy/power analogy is the physically descriptive interaction of terms in an equation? [I’m struggling to make sense!] Is the language of a ‘beautiful’ equation scientific language? Or is it merely the language of ‘human’ scientists?

    My perspective has been guided by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. I am not inclined to say there can be no ToE [epistemological humility], but that a ToE as an equation (mathematical in basis) will not be completely descriptive [application/use humility].

    So even if I think that human existence or behavior may not be independent of (the inferences from) a ToE, they need not be determined by (the inferences from) a ToE. That is, neither full independence from nor full dependence upon God or ToE is affirmed.

    Anton describes a god he rejects and I agree with that rejection; primarily because I reject ‘sovereignty’ as incompatible with full relationship with others. Moral critiques of our conceptions of God are the most telling for me. Thanks Leroy for your curiosity!

    1. Thanks, Dick, for your comments. But as before, I am afraid I don't know enough to make an adequate response.

      At the conclusion of "A Brief History of Time," is sounded as though there would be an intimate connection between a ToE and God. But in recent years Hawking has moved away from any talk about God as a meaningful concept so I assume the ToE he is currently looking for would have absolutely nothing to do with God in his mind.

      (Also, please see the brief reply I posted above in response to Anton's comments.)

    2. The last paragraph from Hawking’s lecture “Gödel and the End of Physics” (2002):

      “Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I'm now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end; and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery. Without it, we would stagnate. Gödel’s theorem ensured there would always be a job for mathematicians. I think M theory will do the same for physicists. I'm sure Dirac would have approved.”

      It seems he has moved from a ToE as a final formulation. So, I guess, also from hints of an “intimate connection”. No final God for theology or for physics; or, at least, for theologians and physicists. Perhaps that is a bit of what we mean by God. :-)

      “Curiosity may have killed the cat; more likely
      the cat was just unlucky, or else curious to see …” [Alastair Reid]

      His “great quest for a theory of everything is about” curiosity, not “what value it would have to 99.99% of the people on earth.” I am deeply grateful for people like Hawking who ask and try to answer questions I do not understand. Maybe the value for humanity and the world will emerge in the future. Perhaps curiosity is a manifestation of ‘the energy of God’. :-)

  4. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard once again shares significant comments:

    "I recently read an interview of Leonard Susskind in "Scientific American." Susskind doubts that we will ever fully understand the universe because of its incredible complexity. This would, presumably, exclude the possibility of a theory of everything. I am inclined to agree with Susskind; the universe will always have an element of mystery.

    "Although many physicists are non-theists (or even anti-theists), I do not think that any discoveries in science preclude the existence of God, or of some kind of supreme being. The enduring mysteries of the universe will always leave a place for God. One can be a devout Christian (or Muslim or whatever) and still be a highly competent scientist.

    "Science, however, has made discoveries that do conflict with certain concepts of God. Certainly almost no one believes today in the existence of Zeus or Thor. But since God can be understood in so many different ways, it seems unlikely that science will ever eliminate all of the divine possibilities. (One possibility is the pantheistic view that God is part of the universe, but not the creator of it.)

    "It's too bad that Hawking and C S Lewis lived at different times in the space-time continuum. A conversation between the two men would have been very interesting."

    1. Eric, thanks for your comments, that I mostly agree with wholeheartedly.

      I was especially interested in your last paragraph. It reminded me that Alister McGrath has some similarities to C. S. Lewis (a former English atheist turned theologian), and even though it is six years old now I thought you (and other readers) would be interested in his article "Stephen Hawking, God and the role of science" found at

  5. And here are substantive comments from Thinking Friend Michael Olmsted of Springfield, Missouri:

    The problem within every human being is the disquieting idea that there is no Eternal Presence beyond us, that we are spinning in this 'existence' and must be the only searchers and experiencers. Is it not egotistical to think that
    our efforts will open the secret door?"

    "We think in terms of beginning and ending ... a time structure and philosophical
    perspective that has more to do with the motion and progression of our small universe than the ultimate topic of origins.

    "Science and theology are more alike than different, each one searching for an ultimate truth, yet viewing the other as an opponent. My mind cannot think beyond 'origin.' I will always be like the child who asks 'Where did God come from?'

    "The oppressing inertia of that simple question causes me to consider that I will experience a more meaningful life and discover more about both this universe and God if I can help others live and grow in fulfilling ways.

    "Thank God for science and for grace!"

  6. And here is another much-appreciated comment from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "Well said, Leroy! Even a physicist as brilliant as Hawking should only make pronouncements with the proviso, 'I may be wrong.'”

  7. ToE goes back to Albert Einstein, who figured out enough about physics to glimpse the possibility that there might be a ToE. However, this is actually limited to a theory of everything in physics, not a theory of everything in life. Building on the previous discovery that electricity and magnetism were different aspects of the same force, Einstein reached for a theory that would combine all the forces known to physics.

    Einstein worked on this for decades without success. Part of the "complexity" discussed above by Eric Dollard is that we have discovered new forces since then that were totally unknown to Einstein. Still, Einstein is the focus of the current issue of Scientific American because 2015 is the 100th anniversary of his publication of his paper on general relativity, which in turn came 10 years after he upset the known world in 1905 with four papers that launched quantum mechanics, found a way to prove the theory of atoms, presented special relativity, and finished it off with E=mc2. In 1905 his day job was as a patent examiner.

    Getting back to ToE, physics tells us precious little about love, hate, hope or fear. When physicists talk about the mind of God, they are speaking of a metaphor for understanding physics, which may or may not ever be a finished project. Einstein turned down the Presidency of Israel stating he did not know how to do the job. He wrote a letter to President Roosevelt encouraging the development of an atomic bomb, out of the fear the Germany was well on the way to the same thing. When he found out Germany did not have anything close to a bomb, he then tried to stop the program. A full and accurate ToE would tell virtually nothing about these things.

    Physics has often been the model on which human models are based. The laws of classical economics were copied from classical physics. Ironically, classical physics gave way to Einstein and friends exactly because it failed in extreme cases, something the acolytes of classical economics seem to ignore whenever the economy goes to an extreme. There are emergent properties in the universe that cannot be predicted from more elementary principles, and can hardly be understood even after they are present and examined. What would a full and accurate ToE tell us about Romeo and Juliet? Or of the Great Depression? What would ToE tell us about Rembrandt or Michelangelo? Here is the real lesson of physics, when America sent men to the moon, it used E=mv2 to calculate the trip. Newton was of more use to the engineers than Einstein. They could quickly calculate Newton's "close enough" equation!

    When Jesus told us "God is love" He was not trying to argue with Hawking. He was telling us something we could get our puny brains around, and do something with it. Or, as Brian Greene wrote in the September 2015 Scientific American, "Albert Einstein once said that there are only two things that might be infinite, the universe and human stupidity. And, he confessed, he wasn't sure about the universe." As another Newton put it, "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!"

    1. Wow, Craig! I’m inclined to think that the expressions “puny brains” and “human stupidity” [Einstein] indicate a condescension which surprises me (or maybe not). It may be thought to be an accurate description from a particular point-of-view, but it feels unloving and discouraging. It never occurred to me that “[Jesus] was . . . trying to argue with Hawking” :-) It is clear that we are.

      The story of Jesus does demonstrate to me that “God is Love”, but it is the author of First John who “told us ‘God is love’”. [Please forgive my nitpicking to make a point.] It truly is “Amazing Grace” that people are being saved. And though we may (frequently?) have experiences of God as ‘the-more-than’, claiming “God is love” provides a guiding metaphor which is “close enough” to “do something with it”. Such is my “puny” thinking.

    2. Here are very substantial comments from Patrick Crews, a brilliant Thinking Friend in California:

      "Most scientists, even those in Theoretical Physics, are no longer looking for an 'Ultimate Truth.' Most are no longer concerned with a 'Theory of Everything' but are more concerned with mathematical representations of the way nature behaves in the context of human interaction with it. It's simply an empirical endeavor that has nothing to say about metaphysics or even the 'Matter' of classical assumptions.

      "Hawking is a bit of a traditionalist trying to get at an objective reality independent of our observations, interactions, and the limitations of our biology. And he expects that TOE to be thoroughly Rational. I think it's his quest that has kept him alive so many years beyond medical expectations, something that doesn't quite fit into his stated world view.

      "Aristotle has a TOE based on four simple elements. We keep finding that the Universe, even as we can know it, is boggling complex. The Standard Model of Particle Physics works for the most part but has some glaring holes, and the frequent discovery of new particles keeps muddying the water. There's no simple stuff everything is made of. So the aim is for a useful model.

      "This is not to make the 'God of The Gaps' Argument. We can't make a god out of our ultimate ignorance, or know much about the nature of the Divine.

      "Stephen Hawking is driven by a sense of Transcendence he hasn't examined. He seeks to understand more and more, but to understand we must always see from above. The Divine is always the medium, especially if one quests for a TOE. Grace keeps him going, even if he never realizes the root of his quest.

      "There's a certain kind of Awareness, Kierkegaard called 'Subjectivity,' that even a majority of God believers don't get or exercise. Most Atheists I've encountered are very like the proverbial fish who doubted the existence of the ocean because he couldn't see it. When told, 'You're in it,' he replied that such talk was just 'gibberish.'

      "Well, if the Divine weren't 'gibberish' to him, it wouldn't be the Divine."

      Grace keeps us going as well. All that we can say about the Divine is a lie, but every such lie is a model of the Truth.

  8. I have often thought that, had the early Israelites had our knowledge of science, Genesis 1 might start with "In beginning, God created the laws of physics and the universe. Then God said, let there be matter and let there be a big explosion of matter into the universe. And God said it is good. And as the result of the explosion and the laws of physics, stars, planets, moons, comets, asteroids were created." etc.