WASHINGTON, June 20, 2012 — I was a bit disappointed in Stephen Hawking with the publication of his 2010 book The Grand Design. Not because of the physics – as usual the ideas were fascinating and well articulated; and not even because he declared that God wasn’t necessary to get the universe going. It was the apparent cynicism with which the “God Question” was invoked that disappointed me. It didn’t add anything to his thesis – it appeared to be nothing more than a calculated strategy to grab headlines and generate book sales.
And it worked. The media took it up with gusto, with headlines around the world declaring that “Stephen Hawking says that God did not create the universe.” The publishers must have been rubbing their hands with glee.
What Hawking said was actually innocuous enough, even if it was, as I believe, included for the purpose of creating headlines:
“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.”
There has always been a fascination with scientists’ Faith, or views on God, the thinking being I suppose that their enquiries must somehow shed light on the existence (or otherwise) of God. Of course they don’t, no matter how brilliant they are, but the fascination remains. More interestingly for me is how their vocation - which is to understand the workings of the world - meshes with their faith, which in the final analysis, is beyond understanding.
A famous example is Sir Isaac Newton, whose unorthodox views meant he had to leave the church, but who remained utterly convinced in the existence of God. After writing Principia Mathematica, “discovering” gravity, and building the first reflecting telescope, he famously said, “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being.”
What we often find in the best scientists is that sincere scientific research increases their sense of wonder, and a belief that the majesty and beauty of the universe can not be encapsulated by reductionist or mechanistic science. Hawking’s views, even before his recent PR efforts, tended to remind me more of the mindset of those building the Tower of Babel, than of Newton’s. This is Hawking’s famous ending to A Brief History of Time:
“However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.”
Striving to “know the mind of God” does sound suspiciously hubristic, but it does not necessarily have to be the case. I am an advocate of convergence because I believe understanding the universe better makes one more appreciative of God, not less. However while I was initially willing to give Hawking the benefit of the doubt, his gratuitous follow up has unfortunately increased my suspicions.
It’s worth comparing Hawking’s views and use of the “God Question” with Einstein’s religious sense and how it meshed with his peerless work in physics.
Einstein’s views on God were aligned with those of Baruch Spinoza, whose philosophy Einstein summarized in the following way: “I believe in Spinoza’s God” he said, “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
This may not be a mainstream Christian view, but there is no doubt Einstein was a deeply religious man; and the more he discovered of the workings of the universe, the more it seemed, he found himself in awe. When answering a letter from a school girl about whether scientists pray and if so, what about, Einstein again showed his views to be unorthodox, but he also elaborated on how his work had served to deepen his Faith:
I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:
Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.
However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.
But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.
With cordial greetings,
your A. Einstein
Beyond the remarkable absence of even a hint of patronization, Einstein’s letter is notable, I believe, for the insight it gives into the different roads that may lead to God. It reminds me of the recent comment by the Bishop of Swindon Dr. Lee Rayfield, who said that science “can never prove the non-existence of God, just as it can never prove the existence of God.“
“But” he added, “as I look at the universe, and as many people who are much more understanding of cosmology than I, and mathematics, as they look at it, through the eyes of Faith, they see a universe which is still very coherent with what we believe about God and His nature.”
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