Did Stephen Hawking prove that God does not exist?

Will Jones writes: Stephen Hawking, who is to be buried in Westminster Abbey, was famously an atheist who argued that God is not necessary to our understanding of the universe. ‘Because there is a law such as gravity,’ he reasoned, ‘the universe can and will create itself from nothing’. But this kind of statement begs the question: if you assume the existence of the laws of physics then you are already assuming the existence of the universe. So it isn’t creating itself from nothing – it already exists and is just following through.

What’s more, the laws of physics don’t just need to exist, they need to be precisely correctly specified if the universe is to be the kind of place in which life can exist. Noted Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne explains, in an illuminating passage worth quoting in full:

Four fundamental forces of nature operate in our universe. Their intrinsic strengths are determined by the values of four corresponding constants of nature. The fine structure constant specifies the strength of electromagnetism; Newton’s gravitational constant (G) specifies the strength of gravity; and two constants specify the strengths of the nuclear forces, gs for the strong forces that hold nuclei together, and gw for the weak forces that cause some nuclear decays and also control the interactions of neutrinos. The magnitudes of all these constants are tightly constrained if the universe is to be capable of producing life. If gw were a little smaller, the early universe would have converted all its hydrogen into helium before it had cooled below the temperature at which cosmic nuclear processes ceased. Not only would this have meant no water, so essential to life, but there would also only have been helium-burning stars, which would not have lived long enough to support the development of life on one of their planets. If gw had been somewhat bigger, supernova explosions would have been inhibited.

Even atheist physicists, he notes, have not been able to avoid the implication. Fred Hoyle, who was ‘a pioneer in this work’, when he realised how precise the strength of the strong nuclear forces had to be to permit the production of carbon inside stars, is reported to have said – despite being an atheist – that the universe was a ‘put-up job’. ‘He could not suppose that such significant fine-tuning was merely a happy accident.’

And this is only the tip of the fine-tuning iceberg. The mounting evidence is that biological evolution is tightly constrained in the courses it can take, with complex structures like the eye evolving multiple times independently of one another. The structures of life appear to be hard-wired into nature, pre-determined to arise through being energetically favourable and not merely relying on the vagaries of adaptive fitness. Nature is indeed a ‘put-up job’ – in every way.

The only other explanation to fine-tuning is that our universe is only one of a near infinity of universes in a vast multiverse, one which happens to be conducive to life. This multiverse hypothesis, however, suffers from a dearth of real evidence, which has led John Polkinghorne to describe it as ‘a metaphysical guess of excessive ontological prodigality.’ It is a multiverse of the gaps, then, and little more than an anti-scientific way of avoiding the logical necessity of God. It is true that in the final years of his life Stephen Hawking tried to prove otherwise, and his final paper has recently been reported as showing how we might detect the traces left by the multiverse in our own universe. This is tantalising – but the scientific community has not been slow to point out its flaws, nor indeed that the reports of its promise appear to have been subject to some ‘cosmic inflation’.

But are arguments from science and nature for God’s existence actually sound? It is said that to look for a role for God in our understanding of the universe is to advocate a ‘God of the gaps’, to plug holes in our current understandings with unscientific supernatural explanations. And it is true that if you are arguing that God must personally intervene to explain this or that natural process then you are advancing an ad hoc, anti-scientific theory of natural phenomena. But that is not what we are talking about here. We’re talking about whether there is any logically necessary role for God in our understanding of the universe at all.

Philosophers since at least Plato and Aristotle have argued that there is, and that God’s existence is strictly necessary and knowable by natural reason. In this the Bible agrees. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says:

What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20).

We have already seen one way that we can know that God exists: because the fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of life shows that it must have been designed for that purpose. The odds of it having ended up that way by chance are so vanishingly small that they cannot warrant rational assent.

A second reason we can know God must exist is because, logically speaking, the universe is not and cannot be purely material. Consider how the laws of logic and number are not material, the laws of gravity, of thermodynamics, and of motion aren’t material, and neither are the specifications of particles like the electron or of fields like the electromagnetic field. They are immaterial realities which specify the properties and behaviour of the material world. They are what Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers call forms – immaterial, universal specifications of reality which stand behind the material world and determine its structure and nature.

Plato, and the Christian tradition following him, noted that these universal forms resemble ideas in being immaterial and general in nature. They formulated them as divine ideas – the ideas that God has which specify the natural order – and observed that human reason can grasp them precisely because they are ideas, and human beings share in the divine rational nature. This rational principle of the cosmos, which stands behind human reason and enables us to comprehend the inner working of the universe, was termed the logos by Stoic thinkers – an idea which was taken up by the Gospel of John and identified with Christ. It is because the universe consists not just of matter but of this transcendent, rational, immaterial dimension that the human mind can, in its own thoughts, comprehend even a few of the ideas that occupy the Mind of the universe – a Mind which even Stephen Hawking once famously gave a nod to. Or do we really believe that while human beings can understand the laws of mathematics and physics, the universe itself is oblivious to them and just ticks along to them – even though it produced we who can understand them? Neat trick for a dumb machine!

This leads onto our third reason why we know God must exist: because of the existence of consciousness, rationality, free will and morality, all of which require the universe to be more than matter. Morality in particular requires the universe to include ideals – moral ideals like the good human being and the good society – which rational agents may grasp in their understanding and aim at in their conduct. Matter cannot give you morals.

It is for reasons such as these that the existence of God has historically been considered philosophically certain. And not only by Christian philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas, but also by pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and deist thinkers like Voltaire and Thomas Paine, all of whom argued for the necessity of God’s existence. It is a truth of natural reason, impeccably logical, and no less rational than the most well-attested claims of science.

In modern times it has become common, even amongst Christians, to regard the existence of God as a matter of faith which cannot be rationally proved. But that was not the historic position, and it is not what the Bible says. Christian faith may indeed require a step of faith, to accept the claims of Christ about himself – though those too admit of historical investigation. But certainly not simply to believe in God – that is a point of natural theology knowable by natural reason. It has long been held in that account by Western philosophy, pre-Christian, Christian and post-Christian, and despite anything Stephen Hawking said, we still have no reason to doubt it.

(A version of this was first posted on Christian Today).

Dr Will Jones is a Birmingham-based writer, a mathematics graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and a diploma in biblical and theological studies. He works in the Coventry Diocesan office, blogs at www.faith-and-politics.com and is author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017). He tweets at @faithnpolitic

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22 thoughts on “Did Stephen Hawking prove that God does not exist?

    • To stop any further damage?

      Oh…. You mean a ‘demised’ one….

      Seriously…I think Westminster Abbey lost the plot on this rather a long time ago.

    • a) Because, presumably, he didn’t stipulate that he didn’t want this to happen
      b) Because at the point of death only God knows whether someone has repented and
      called on his mercy
      c) Because the Church of England, so far, has an allegiance to the monarch and thereby to the whole nation irrespective of individuals’ personal faith
      d) Because, irrespective of c), the CofE desperately wants to be seen as having relevance to the national consciousness

      I suspect most of us who visit this site might concede that b) has merit. As for the rest…?

    • There is a kind of neatness to Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking and a few other great scientists (Faraday, the Herschels, Florey, Clerk Maxwell) all being in one place. It is the neatest place for him to be, neater than the alternatives.

      Tom Wright did say that when he was doing a guided tour of the Abbey, something like the following exchange took place:
      ‘I gather Charles Darwin is buried here. Would that be the case?’
      ‘Indeed it is, madam.’
      ‘And whereabouts would he be buried?’
      ‘As it happens, you are treading on him right now.’

      How the tourist in question would not have relished the chance of being aboard the Beagle or visiting the Galapagos, I don’t know.

      • Christopher, I’m shocked – we entirely agree 🙂

        On another note, I saw in another thread that you admitted to an irrational liking for Formula 1 – another thing we have in common…

        in friendship, Blair

    • If, however, the issue is whether the Abbey has been known to support secular causes and oppose Christian ones, then yes, that has been known.

  1. I’ve always felt the argument that seeks to place a person on either side of an apparently polarised spectrum, one where people are either believers in god, or not, is a fools argument.

    Certainly at different stages of his life Hawking’s opinion seems to have shifted. His philosophy and worldview didn’t fit eaily within the Christian worldview, but neither was he an ally of the new atheists. He seemed to me a rather diplomatic agnostic.

    Two quotes comes to mind, the former I know pretty well, the second one I did have to look for.

    “I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws,”

    “I asked him at length whether he believed there is a God. He refused to answer the question. When I asked him why, he said “If I say I believe in God, everyone will immediately claim that I believe in the same God they believe in. So I won’t say at all.”

    • And, indeed, for Christians the question of belief in God or is virtually irrelevant. The question is, which God? (which Stephen Hawking hints at in your second quote.) The nations of the Old Testament believed in Baal (etc), but that did not win them favour with God.

      I think the sharper question is, has one repented of sin and believed in the gospel? The answer to that question, as far as I can tell, for Stephen Hawking – is no.

      • The problem with asking ‘which God’ is it makes us sound like polytheists. There is only one God. The Absolute, the Creator, the Supreme Being i.e. Being itself. The question (in fact the fundamental religious and theological question) is ‘What is God like?’ The follow up to that is ‘How ought we to respond?’ From a Christian perspective these questions are answered by a mixture of natural and special revelation. We know some things about what God is like (and what he wants us to do) by rational reflection on the nature of the world and our existence. Others God reveals to us by his prophets, in his Son, and through his scriptures.

        But in an important sense we are all talking about the same thing, the same God, insofar as we are talking about the nature of the Absolute, the Originator of the universe and of our own existence. If we were not, we would not be speaking to the deepest human needs and yearnings.

        • I don’t think the ancient Canaanites were commended for their worship of the true God when they were worshipping the Baals. I of course agree that there is only one God, and we all have some knowledge of him – but it is possible to exchange that knowledge for a lie, which in fact is the natural state of mankind (Jeremiah 2:13, Romans 1:22-23).

          The point I wanted to make was that believing in God / gods, whichever God / gods you believe in, is idolatry unless it is the only God revealed in Jesus Christ as Father, Son and Spirit. To believe in anything else is of no benefit (e.g. many people’s belief in ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’). Ultimately people’s belief in God is tested by their reaction to Jesus: if they reject Jesus, they reject God (Luke 10:16).

          I agree with you, Will, in the sense that we all have some knowledge of the true God – being made in his image, etc – and I doubt that a true atheist really exists. But the Biblical category is not believing in God or not, but rather repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

          • I agree of course that idolatry, which is worshipping false gods, is not pleasing to God, and that this is the natural state of humankind.

            On the other hand, I think that Acts 10:34-5 is important. Peter says: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ This is the introduction to his explaining the Gospel of Israel’s Messiah to Gentiles, where he relates the person of Jesus to this God who finds in all nations people who fear him and do right. The invitation is to respond to the revelation of this God (the one true God) in Jesus.

            I agree that the centre of the biblical Gospel is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

  2. I do think that Stephen Hawking was a very clever scientist and made important contributions to the theory of black holes. Yet he did not receive the Nobel Prize as none of his theories were experimentally verifiable. Yet most of his admiration among the public stemmed from his brave fight against a dreadful disease which he did not allow to curtail his creativity and popularise his chosen field, and which he overcame to a remarkable degree.
    Yet I can’t help wondering if in the absence of his affliction, he would have been quite as well known or honoured. As for Darwin and Newton, then they fundamentally changed human perceptions of our place in the universe. I am not sure that Hawking had actually done that to the same degree.
    As for interment in a church, then that is matter for the Abbey authorities, yet I would contend that in her own way his first wife was equally impressive but did not get the same acclaim. I also get the impression that if Hawking was an atheist, then he was a somewhat unconvincing one.

    • I think this is a very astute comment and I agree. Hawking’s main achievement was the (theoretical) discovery that black holes radiate energy and lose mass, and for that the (yet-to-be-detected) radiation was named for him. He was clearly a very good physicist, and also a great ambassador for science (and for disability) – and indeed a modern icon – but he did not make revolutionary contributions to human knowledge in the league of Newton, Darwin, Maxwell or Faraday. The esteem in which he is held by the public is as much a product of his personality and character (and what he represents) as his contribution to science.

  3. If people really want to know why Westminster Abbey will have Stephen Hawking buried there, then they could ask the Abbey.
    There are 37 scientists commemorated there, including Charles Darwin.
    I’m sure some people would question Oscar Wilde being buried there.

  4. Even if scientists could prove that god exists it does not appear that they could establish the nature or character of God.

    I find more convincing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ view that science is the understanding of the natural world and that it provides facts, information, knowledge and theories limited to that domain. It is unable to deal with matters of meaning of existence, ethics, love, art, beauty as it lacks the methods and language for this. These are the domains of religion, spirituality, philosophy and art which science may describe but not make value judgments about.

    Sacks is quoted as saying “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts them together to see what they mean.” This is a succint summary of the position and I really think the Romans passage relate to our generally available metaphysical understanding rather than what we would now consider to be a scientific understanding.

    Stephen Hawking is correct in that God is not necessary to understand the workings of the universe

    • Hi John

      Stephen Hawking argued that God is not necessary to understand the existence of the universe, not just its workings. Presumably you don’t think he is correct in that?

      Scientists like John Polkinghorne argue (correctly in my view) that God is necessary to explain why the universe is as it is – without God it is not possible to explain why it is finely tuned for life. Whether or not this is part of ‘science’ it is a knowable fact about the universe. It is also not possible to explain how conscious and rational beings can exist in a purely material universe, because such a universe requires a non-material ‘mental’ dimension.

      I agree that science is not the same as ethics. However, scientific facts do have important implications for ethical judgements. In particular scientific conclusions about the proper and healthy functioning of organisms and their thriving, particularly what enables the human organism to thrive, are important ingredients in any ethical account. So we cannot wholly separate science from the ethical domain. And since science surely needs to be able to give some account of its own possibility, neither can science be wholly separated from the philosophical domain. It’s helpful to remember that until the 19th century science was known as natural philosophy.

      • Hi Will,

        “Stephen Hawking argued that God is not necessary to understand the existence of the universe, not just its workings. Presumably you don’t think he is correct in that?”
        What do you mean by “understand the existence”? Do you mean why it exists or how it has the attributes of its existence?

        I am sure that many scientists would say that while the attributes of the universe allow for the exietence of rational and self-conscious beings that does not necessitate the existence a God to make it that way, but that the universe is just as it is. And just as it is an invalid question to ask what existed before the singularity and the existence of time, so it is an invalid question to ask what is the cause of the existence of the universe.

        I think that it is irrelevant that data, facts, information are taken into account in applying the value judgments of ethical decision making. The crux of the matter is that science does not provide values or ethics, however much it may contribute background information to help when an ethical decision has to be made to meet the requirements of a set of values.

        I don’t think that science having been called natural philosophy is helpful, any more than higher degrees are still called PhDs is helpful.

        • Hi John

          It is invalid to ask what happened ‘before’ the Big Bang because before is a temporal category so makes no sense when speaking of things outside time. However, the question of the cause of the universe does not suffer from the same logical problems and to claim the question is invalid is just evading it.

          The distinction between the natural sciences and other areas of knowledge is not absolute. In terms of ethics, it all depends where you think background information ends and judgement begins. Concepts like healthy and proper functioning already contain norms within them and so breach the boundary.

  5. Many thanks for this, Will – a good survey of how recent cosmology supports the idea of design. Actually I gave sermon last Sunday independently touching on some of these themes, and an acquaintance afterwards told me she wished her son had heard this as he’d blithely informed her the day before ‘There’s no evidence for what you believe!’ I certainly believe there is a place for more apologetics in preaching. It is a simple fact that very many of our young people are conditioned (however gently) into atheism by their high school and university education.
    I wonder how many Anglican clergy have bought into the Stephen Gould meme that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisterial” – which always seemed to me to be a polite way of saying, ‘You religious people are wrong, but I won’t come over you as a rude bully, like Richard Dawkins.’
    Even as I have grown in a popular grasp of cosmology, I have also learned to be more sceptical of claims for macro-evolution. I do not see how anyone can avoid or ignore the clash between two very different assertions of reality: that all life forms have emerged by “chance” and evolved by impersonal, accidental and environmental factors (that humans are essentially “germs that grew up”) vs. the affirmation that we are made in the image of God. Fear of being labelled ‘fundamentalist’ inhibits a lot of Christians from challenging the evolutionary paradigm, or from investigating its many critical weaknesses.

    • Thanks, Brian.

      In terms of evolution, I think it did happen, but not by chance so much as developing towards predetermined forms set into the deep structure of the universe and the laws of physics (what scientists call energetically favourable arrangements). The most recent developments in evolutionary developmental biology confirm this idea, showing how the structures of life are largely fixed in the nature of things, and the paths of evolution are tightly constrained (and don’t depend on random changes happening to be adaptively useful at the right moment). I reviewed a book by an evolutionary biologist which makes this point here: http://www.iscast.org/journal/jones_w_2016_07_denton_review.

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