Stephen Hawking Decrees God Away

This afternoon on the New York subway I came across this little gem, this “train of thought” meant to inspire who-knows-what among riders in the course of their usual hum-drum existences. It’s a passage by the great wheelchair-bound British physicist Stephen Hawking from his bestselling 1988 book A Brief History of Time.

Just below, for entirely unrelated reasons, another ad enjoins us: “¡Si ves algo, di algo!“—If you see something, say something!

Why must something be said? Well, for the last few days, there has been an enormous amount of excitement on the blogosphere (enormous, perhaps, for those of us with a Google Alert for “existence of God”) about Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow. The big news is that Hawking is apparently taking a stronger position on the God question than he did before:

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” he writes. “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

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

Hawking finds his newfound confidence in M-theory, a promising variant of string theory which seems to predict that our universe is just one among many others in a sprawling multiverse. If there are in fact many universes, it makes far more probable the uncanny “fine-tuning” that renders our universe capable of supporting life, a coincidence which some are eager to attribute to God. M-theory offers a way to reconcile the strange wrinkles of quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of gravity. Together, it becomes possible to imagine the supposedly impossible: that something could come from nothing.

These are ideas that have been in circulation for years now. They’re still quite controversial, and it’s possible that we may never really be able to confirm them one way or another empirically. What’s news here is that Hawking is the one saying it—a widely-respected figure whose writings have long been used by both sides of the tug-of-war about God.

The headlines went wild. Here are a few from the past week:

Has Stephen Hawking ended the God debate?

Physicist Stephen Hawking: God Did Not Create Universe

No friend of God

Stephen Hawking vs. God

Hawking’s Book Shoots to Top of Amazon Sales After He Denies God’s Existence

Religious Leaders Slam ‘Godless’ Hawking

Stephen Hawking Settles the God Question Once and For All

Of course, some of these claims hardly seem justified by what Hawking is actually saying. All he’s suggesting is that science is elucidating physical mechanisms that trigger-happy believers have impatiently wanted to attribute to God. It’s like, after always telling each other that ice cream comes from God, we walked into the Breyer’s plant. It could mean that God doesn’t exist, but it could just as easily mean that people shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions so easily. (Ice cream could even still come from God. Maybe God could have worked through the factory in some necessary but indirect way…, etc., etc.) Still, the origin of the universe is a really big kahuna. For quite a few theist philosophers, it’s the strongest argument for God’s existence out there.

I wrote an article last year about religious interpretations of multiverse theories, which included a few creative believers trying to sort out a place for God in the new physics. Don Page, an Evangelical theoretical physicist, thinks the multiverse may even fit better with divine creation. And Andrei Linde, one of the architects of multiverse theory told me, “Expanding this area of positive knowledge does not remove the question of [G]od. It just pushes it further away.”

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.