Monday, March 21, 2011

Is Science God? A Brief Review of The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking

Let me begin by saying that I am not a scientist. I barely passed science in college due to a lack of both interest and ability. However, my understand is that The Grand Design, much like his previous best-seller, A Brief History of Time, was written with the non-scientist in mind. If that is the case, then I am the best qualified reviewer of this book because no one qualifies more for the title “non-scientist” than I. Since I am not a scientist and since there were a number of concepts in the book that I failed to understand, my concern in the book has less to do with his scientific conclusions and more with his philosophical beliefs and conclusions.

Hawking begins with the assumption that math and science alone are the only reliable guides to truth. He asserts, “…Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

Hawking states that his goal is to answer three questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?” Yet, he never answers these questions, at least not in the sense that most readers would understand them. His answer to the question of “why” is an answer of causation, not purpose. That is, he says that the answer to these questions can be summed up in scientific laws like gravity and M-theory. These theories explain cause, but they do not explain purpose. This difference may seem subtle, but it is very important.

Let me illustrate the difference between cause and purpose this way. Suppose I was at your house and you gave me a drink in your finest crystal. As we are talking, I intentionally let go of the crystal. It falls to the ground, exploding into a thousand pieces. You might look at me and ask, “Why did the crystal break?” I might say, “Because the gravity the earth is so strong that it attracted the crystal with such force that it collided with the floor. Since your tile floor is stronger than the crystal, the crystal shattered on impact.” I just answered the question truthfully. I explained why. However, that was not really what you were asking. You were not asking me to explain the cause of the crystal destruction, but the purpose.

Hawking never answers the purpose question. He never even attempts to answer the real question of why do we exist. He explains it only in terms of natural law, which, for him, is completely impersonal. The only conclusion that he gives to the real “why” question seems to be “because that is how it is.”

Hawking describes his own philosophical position as “scientific determinism.” He defines scientific determinism in this way: “There must be a complete set of laws that, given the state of the universe at a specific time, would specify how the universe would develop from that time forward.” In other words, everything in the universe is predetermined by scientific laws. If that is the case, the even the actions of Stephen Hawking writing his book (or me writing this review) were predetermined by natural law. Both Hawking and I (and you, the reader), are nothing more than complicated robots responding to a set of stimuli ( a comparison he makes later on).

Hawking goes on to say that people do not really make choices. Instead, in comparing us to robots, he writes, “We would therefore have to say that any complex being has free will—not as a fundamental feature, but as an effective theory, an admission of our inability to do the calculations that would enable us to predict its actions.” In other words, it is all predetermined. Any appearance of choice, or any appearance of randomness, is simply an appearance. If it were possible to do all of the calculations of all of the variables, then it would be possible to predict every action of every human being. Of course, there are too many variables. However, that does not change the fact that everything is predetermined. The universe, then, is nothing more than a highly complicated computer program.

Not only does Hawking’s view mean that everything is determined by natural law, it also means that there is no God. He writes, “Given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past. This would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God. . . A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene.”

This is nothing more than a naked assertion. He states that a law, by definition is not a law unless it always holds. Therefore, there is no possibility of miracles. However, the definition of a miracle would include, at a minimum, the suspension or abrogation of a law. By asserting that a law can never be broken Hawking does not prove that a law can never be broken. In the same way, he simply asserts that miracles cannot exist. He does not prove this. He rules that out with a wave of his pen.

If one accepts Hawking’s conclusions, then one is left with a meaningless world and a meaningless life. Everything is predetermined by cold, impersonal natural laws. All of our behaviors, our loves, our pleasures, our pains, are simply the out workings of these natural laws. The real why questions, “Why, for what purpose, am I here?” “Why, for what purpose, is this pain in my life?” “Why, for what purpose, should I love my wife, care for my children, or even steward the planet?” are meaningless questions. We are left with a cold, impersonal universe.

One question that the reader is left asking is, why does Hawking (and Dawkins, Harris and others) write with such passion in an attempt to prove that the universe is meaningless? Why is he so adamant that even his own work means nothing in the end? Something is animating him. His own answer would have to be, “I have no choice, but even my passion was scientifically predetermined by the M-Theory.”

The Bible gives another explanation for Hawking’s passion for meaninglessness. Romans 1:18 and following says that natural man suppresses the truth about God in unrighteousness. That is, he knows the truth about God but does not want to acknowledge God. Natural man will go to any lengths, even to the length of denying his own life has purpose, rather than bow down before the Living God.

In contrasts to Hawking’s philosophy of meaningless that has the impersonal laws of math at the center, the Bible offers a philosophy of love. The Bible does not deny natural law, but says that even the laws of nature were created by a loving God. Out of love, this God governs the universe with natural law (and sometimes against them). He does this for His own glory and for the good of the children that He loves. Furthermore, this loving God created people in His own image and intervened into history for the very purpose of having a personal, meaningful relationship with them.

If this is true, if there is a good, loving God governing the universe, then our suffering has meaning. Rather than being the outworking of natural law, which has no purpose, the suffering of God’s people always serves a redemptive purpose. Love, rather than being a chemical response in the brain to certain stimuli, is true passion for another. At the center of the universe, rather than finding nothing, we find a God who works out everything in accordance with his love (Ephesians 1).

In the end, Hawking’s book shows the despair of a world without God. He takes modernism to its logical conclusion. Its logical conclusion is meaninglessness. Life, rather than having any “grand design,” is, in the words of MacBeth, “but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”

Thankfully, there is another answer: there is a design because there is a Designer.

Note: I apologize for not including page numbers. I read this on my Kindle before Kindle added the page number feature.