Stephen Hawking, Britain’s most famous physicist has reignited the perennial debate between science and religion in his forthcoming book ‘The grand design’. Extracts from his new book state there is no place for God according to his theories of the creation of the Universe and “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going”.
According to Hawking, the laws of physics, not the will of God, provide the real explanation as to how life on Earth came into being. The Big Bang, he argues, was the inevitable consequence of these laws ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’
Hawking’s answer is “M-theory” also known as String theory. According to Hawking, M-Theory is a promising candidate for the theory of everything to explain the existence of the universe.
A theory of everything is a unified theory of the four fundamental forces of nature, to reduce gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force, and the weak force to one fundamental force carried by one fundamental particle. Such a theory will explain why these four forces take the values that they do, precluding claims of personal agency and design of the universe.
Although framing it as part of the debate between the allegedly warring camps of religion and science is great publicity (his publicist is a genius), do Hawking’s findings really pose such a threat to God? Rather than a discussion between science and religion, it seems to be more of a debate between science and science, with many physicists stating that they do not find Hawking’s claims very compelling:
“…I don’t share his (Hawking’s) enthusiasm for M-theory as the ultimate answer.” comments Jim al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at Surrey University.
No doubt these new assertions will be poetry to the ears of Militant Atheists and will be hailed as their latest article of faith. However, that would be rather premature. Hawking wrote that “philosophy is dead”. I don’t think that is true but logic would definitely be in need of resuscitation if one infers atheism from Hawking’s claims. Even, if one accepted Hawking’s assertions as true, it would not logically follow that God does not exist.
The most it would demonstrate is that nature does not need God, the statements “the existence of the universe is caused by Physics alone” and “God exists” are perfectly logically compatible.
Now what of M-Theory? According to the theory, the physical universe must have 11-dimensions, but why the universe has to possess just that number of dimensions is not addressed by the theory, suggesting that the elaborate fine tuning of the initial conditions of the universe are not overcome, but rather pushed up another level.
Moreover, it is one thing to say that a theory is mathematically consistent and makes sense in the mathematical world and it is quite another to claim that theory can be exported to the actual world. It is imperative to point out that this theory is not a complete theory and is described by some as nothing more than clever mathematics. So the strongest objection to Hawking’s theory is that there is no independent evidence to support it.
Consider for instance the “fairy theory of gravity.” Suppose a wacky physicist claimed that the reason objects do not float out into space is because there are tiny invisible fairies inhabiting the surface of all objects and pushing objects to the ground creating a continual force of gravity. Now this would have explanatory power, that is to say that it would explain the phenomena of gravity. However, why would we not accept this theory? Well one major reason would be that there is an absence of independent evidence in support of tiny invisible fairies.
The problem with M-theory, as well as with other models that try to explain the creation of the universe, such as inflationary models, is that none of them admit to independent evidence, they merely appeal to their explanatory power to justify themselves. The only thing to confirm them is their ability to explain certain data or resolve certain problems, but explanatory power does nothing to limit the unbridled imagination. For example Hawking postulates that there are many worlds that exist and our world is one of them.
Where is the independent evidence to support this? We always experience exactly one world and have no direct access to alternative parallel worlds. In short, we have a long way to go before taking Hawking’s assertions as fact; the mere ability to explain data and clever, highly theoretical, mathematics isn’t enough.
In fact, metaphysics, the realm in which Hawking is reasoning, has a long way to go before demonstrating that the coherence of imaginary numbers conjured up in theoretical models can translate into anything verifiable or even meaningful in the real world. A brilliant imagination and mathematical coherence do not the theory validate.
Theories such as M-theory require us to have a great amount of faith in them, as much faith as the ancient Greeks had in Hades controlling the underworld.