The Grand Theory of Nothing

So that’s that then. Stephen Hawking has assured us that the laws of physics are sufficient to explain the universe we live in – and that we have no need to posit the possibility of God. His book, The Grand Design, will be published on September 9.

This is neither the time nor the place to focus on the detail of his arguments, and no doubt plenty of description will be forthcoming in the popular press and elsewhere. I want to focus initially on one remark he makes: “philosophy is dead.”

Bang goes the wisdom of two and a half millennia. But philosophy is not only not dead, it was never needed as much as it is now. One of the most important tasks in philosophy is to ensure that the right questions are asked and that the arguments which proceed stand up to rigorous examination. No wonder Hawking would like philosophy to be dead because he is wrong on both counts.

The drive of Hawking’s approach is that the theory, or rather the family of theories, he espouses leads to the possibility of 10 to the power of 500 different universes (try that on your calculator and watch it explode). Thus the extraordinary fine-tuning required for a universe which would eventually be able to support human life is not evidence for a designer God; it has in fact come about by chance. Since our universe is, by definition, the only one we can experience, we are fooled into thinking that it is the only one which exists, or has existed.

M theory, as it is known, is highly controversial within the scientific community; indeed there are eminent names who claim that it cannot properly be called a scientific theory at all. The idea of multiverses to explain the fine-tuning has been known as the “last refuge of the agnostic”. But let us assume that it is true, that there is an infinity of universes, and that our universe is an inevitable result of chance at work – where does that get us?

First, we are reminded of the theory of evolution. We have no difficulty in reconciling our belief in God as creator with evolution in which myriads of tiny chances, inevitably filtered by fitness to survive, develop into higher forms of life. God is not some sort of inventive superman who performs in the same sort of way as we do – but at an infinitely higher level. He transcends the universe; his creative action is utterly beyond our ken. If we use terms like “designer” it is only because the human mind and human vocabulary has no further reach. Our descriptions are only useful if we always bear in mind their gross inadequacy.

Similarly, if all the physical laws had been explained and proved (known as the Grand Theory of Everything) – which is a million miles from the case – our understanding of the actions of God would not be one whit greater: his existence and his actions are of a different order.

Most particularly it would not touch the question of how something existing comes out from nothing. That is a question which science cannot answer, and will never answer, because nothingness is not within its domain. Hawking apparently does not address this question – which is the true and ultimate Theory of Everything. But what philosophy can teach us is that neither he, nor you, nor I will ever explain creation, except through faith.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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18 Responses to The Grand Theory of Nothing

  1. Joseph Smidt says:

    Very interesting post. Yes, Hawking is getting a little beyond himself with this book.

    It funny, he says the universe comes from fundamental physical laws but that just begs the question: where do these laws come from?

  2. Ion Zone says:

    Wait, what? I thought Steven Hawkins was a Deist?

    In any case, science is, itself, a form of philosophy, how could the professor make such a huge mistake?

  3. Quodvultdeus says:

    Hawking’s undermining the importance of philosophy or even philosophy itself reminds me of what Martin Luther did with the Magisterium of the Church in relation to the interpretation of the Holy Scripture. Throw away the Tradition and you will end up with thousands of traditions which contradict one another. Then you will have the reason to be an agnostic.

    In a word, you are right: one cannot avoid philosophy sticking solely to practical science. What he is doing is a cheap theory not humble enough to accept ages of European tradition of philosophical reflection.

    On the other hand, regarding the Hawking’s arguments on the ground of physics. I’d rather trust Francis Collins, director of the international “Human Genome Project”, and his ”Language of God” theory (see his book “The Language of God” published in London-Sydney-New York-Toronto, 2007). He points that the chain of physical reactions of Big Bang can be explained only back to certain point of time, beyond which all natural laws break.

    He also writes about the beginnings of life on earth and DNA’s role in it:

    “No current hypothesis comes close to explaining how in the space of a mere 150 million years, the prebiotic environment that existed on planet Earth gave rise to life. (…)
    How could a self-replicating information-carrying molecule assemble spontaneously from these compounds? DNA, with its phosphate-sugar backbone and intricately arranged organic bases, stacked neatly on top of one another and paired together at each rung of the twisted double helix, seems an utterly improbable molecule to have “just happened” – especially since DNA seems to possess no intrinsic means of copying itself.” (pp 90-91).

  4. James H. says:

    The last time someone posited the ‘End of [insert field of study here]’ they proved spectacularly wrong. Experts really shouldn’t stray beyond their field of expertise.

    It may just be shoddy reporting by the Telegraph, but I gather Hawking bases his claim on the existence of gravity: but since gravity depends on matter to exist, and there was no matter at the Singularity, the argument on its own makes no sense. The man is also famous for using imaginary numbers to ‘prove’ that there _was_ no singularity, which doesn’t bode well.

    Suppose I’ll just have to read the book!

  5. Ion Zone says:

    According to somebody I have linked to this, you have confused M-theory with Multiverse Theory. (He also says “10 to the power of 500 different universes” is not the same as “Infinite”, but I think that is nitpicking)

  6. Malteser says:


    The gist of your argument seems to be that we can never know or understand God through science, and that worries me on two counts.

    First, it seems to contradict the Catechism, which states that we can know God through His creation. Secondly, if we are conceding that science can tell us nothing about the existence or otherwise of God, it makes it extremely difficult to make any kind of rational case for religious belief – although I accept that there are some fairly persuasive philosophical arguments that can be invoked.

  7. claret says:

    As the existence of God can neither be proved nor disproved by science then it falls outside the sphere of science to even try and prove either persepective. What Hawkins is saying
    (although i have not read the book , only others’ summary of it,) is that God does not need to have existed for the world to have been created. This is not quite the same as saying God never existed. (‘There is PROBABLY no God’……as seen on the side of buses.)
    Indeed the same Hawkins in his book , ‘A brief history of time’ writes of the possible existence of God.
    In other words we are back where we are started and Hawkins is just the latest to want to gain publicity and sales for his book by ‘challenging’ the existence of God. The cynical nature of mine thinks that perhaps he has learnt from Dawkins that to ensure a best seller is to offer yet another book to the growing army of secularists who seem to require a constant diet of ‘I told you so.’

  8. Ion Zone, the problem with this whole area is that different physicists come up with different variations. But the central argument seems to be that, if the odds against getting the exact conditions needed for our universe are huge then, to avoid a “designer God”, you need to have a huge number of potential universes to have a tolerable chance of one being right. i have the impression that multiverse theory (and all its variations) is driven by the need to exclude God and not by the evidence.

  9. RMBlaber says:

    There are relatively simple equations which can generate quite complicated structures, like the Mandelbrot set and the Julia set, and it is perhaps this fact which misleads people like Hawking into believing that, once you know the laws of physics, you can predict all the characteristics of the universe we inhabit.

    However, the universe is rather more complicated than that. Not only does it have laws, it had initial conditions, which were either random or specified by a Creator; and furthermore it has physical constants, such as the electric charge, the Newtonian gravitational constant, the masses of the electron and proton and so on. If any of these had a value different to their present measured value, then the chemistry and physics life depends upon would be impossible.

    As Joseph Smidt asks, where do the laws (of physics) come from? Hawking has to resort to the multiverse idea. I don’t know how he derives his 10^500 figure for the number of universes in the multiverse, and it really doesn’t matter – I agree with Ion Zone that he might as well say ? and have done with it. He has no proof that any of these parallel universes exist! (They are very handy for science fiction writers, of course.) Each of these other universes would have to have its own set of physical laws, constants and initial conditions, allocated by a purely random distribution. Out of the set of universes you would then have at least one with all the conditions necessary for life (and intelligent life) to develop.

    Hawking has to tell us where all the universes spring from – and he can’t, because the Big Bang is not an explosion in space – it is the first instant of time, measured in ‘Planck units’, after the physicist Max Planck (5.39 x 10^-44 sec – otherwise known as a ‘jiffy’!). Before that time – i.e., between t = 0 and t = 1 jiffy, the laws of physics break down, or simply don’t apply. Yet all the energy and mass in the Universe have to come from somewhere. As theists, we would argue for creation ex nihilo, and that would appear to be the case.

    As for the confusion between M-theory and the multiverse idea: M-theory is an elaboration of superstring theory (itself an elaboration of string theory). The M in this case stands for Membrane. Instead of particles, like electrons or protons, we have multidimensional sheets or membranes, most of whose dimensions are very small and rather contorted (they form what are called Kalabi-Yau spaces), leaving the conventional 3 dimensions of space and one of time manifested at a larger scale.

    At the cosmic level, the universe forms a multidimensional hyperplane, embedded within a higher dimensional hyperspace, referred to as ‘the bulk’. Other universes are, according to this view, located elsewhere within the bulk, and may be separated from ours by a relatively small distance. According to one version of M-theory, electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear interactions are confined to the universes, but the gravitational force (and its force carrier, the graviton) may pass freely to and fro across the bulk between universes.

    The ‘many-worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics supplies another version of the multiverse idea. Originally propounded by Everett and de Witt in the 1950s, its most eloquent contemporary proponent is David Deutsch of the Clarendon Laboratory at Oxford University, an expert in ‘quantum computing’. The idea, simply stated, is that whenever a quantum measurement is made – say of the spin of an electron – the world splits in two. In one world, the spin is clockwise; in the second world, it is counter-clockwise. Schrodinger’s famous cat is alive in one world and dead in another. This is the quantum multiverse: but NB, in this version, the laws of physics and physical constants are the _same_ in all universes. Deutsch, however, is another atheist.

  10. Ion Zone says:

    “i have the impression that multiverse theory (and all its variations) is driven by the need to exclude God and not by the evidence.”

    That is the impression I get as well. I’m hoping there isn’t a multiverse, just in case. 😛

    In the meantime:

  11. Fariam says:

    A few very relevant links which you might like to check out:

    “Hawking’s new book does not dismiss the real God from creation, Jesuit scholars say”

    “Theology: Stephen Hawking & More Tiresome Atheism”–Stephen-Hawking—More-Tiresome-Atheism.aspx

    “The Curious Metaphysics of Dr. Stephen Hawking”

  12. Superview says:

    I’m grateful to RMBlaber for his crisp summary of the topic. A few years ago I exercised a slight interest in string theory and read Prof Lee Smolin’s critique of it and other bits and pieces. It was a useful way to pick up some of the key notions about cosmological physics (the Goldilock’s Enigma and the Anthropic Principle being a couple – life on our planet exists because it is not too hot and not too cold, and it seems the extraordinary symmetry of just six numbers enabled our universe to produce carbon-based life – or something like that anyway).
    I do enjoy the notion of multiverses, which seemingly the mathematics prove exist, although that may be over-egging the pudding a little. And rather than criticising Steven Hawking I wonder whether we are missing something here. I should say that in my view we should, generally, follow the science (eg. evolution, genetics etc) conditional of course on the science being to exacting standards and consistent with prudent discrimination between evidence and speculation. But, if I understand the current controversy correctly, we seem to have reached a watershed in the ‘Did God create the universe?’ debate. Before now it was confidently predicted that earth and the life it supports was a random phenomenon and could not be unique in our universe with its hundreds of billions of galaxies. Now it seems that our universe itself is not unique (!) and for it to exist at all as a completely random phenomenon requires the existence of, well, hundreds of billions of other universes.
    How do they keep a straight face?

  13. tim says:

    Well said, Superview!

    One point to be remembered, perhaps, in dealing with scientific claims is that science deals only with the repeatable. It is founded on the principle of the regularity of Nature. If your experiment is not reproducible, it is not science as we know it, Jim. Thus science cannot deal with miracles, which are unique events – except to say that they don’t seem to happen that often, which is uncontentious.

  14. Ion Zone says:

    It can’t cope with *any* unique events which happened in the past unless there is direct evidence (for examples, see the link I gave earlier, and the one bellow).

  15. RMBlaber says:

    Ion Zone needn’t worry about the Multiverse ‘disproving the existence of God’. Only one version of the Multiverse does that, _if_ it exists: the version where all the parameters – the laws of physics, the physical constants and the initial conditions vary freely and arbitrarily from one universe to the next. In such a Multiverse, a Creator is an unnecessary postulate.

    Superview is not correct to say that the mathematics ‘prove’ the existence of multiverses. The many worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics (QM) is a valid interpretation of QM, but it is not the only one, and there is nothing in the mathematical formalism (the Schrodinger Equation, e.g.) to give it any more credibility than the orthodox ‘Copenhagen’ interpretation. Even if it is entirely correct, however, then that makes no difference theologically, because the MWI multiverses all have the same laws of physics, physical constants, etc., as I explained in my previous posting.

    A point in relation to Hawking’s argument that _gravity_ obviates the need for a Creator: this may seem a rather strange, not to say bizarre, idea. However, what you have to understand is that Hawking is here attempting to account for the existence of the mass-energy of the Universe, using the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Einstein’s rest energy relationship, E = mc^2, and the concept of gravitational energy.

    Hawking starts from the idea that, because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, quantities of energy may be ‘borrowed’ from the ‘quantum vacuum’, rather like money being borrowed from a bank, and paid back after a certain period of time – although in this case, without the need for an interest payment. Thus nature is able, usually for very short periods of time, to violate the Law of the Conservation of Energy.

    At the same time, Hawking makes use of a rather clever piece of reasoning (or sleight of hand, if you prefer). The rest-mass energy of the new-born universe, mc^2, he takes to be equal to its gravitational energy. The latter, by convention, is regarded as negative, whereas the former is positive, so their sum is zero. Thus: E = mc^2 – Gm^2/R = 0. Applying this to the energy-time uncertainty relation, we have: h-bar = delta-E x delta-t. As the uncertainty in E, which is 0, is 0, the value of delta-t expands to infinity!

    There are two things to be said about this. First of all, Hawking has slipped in a quantum vacuum, and thus Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and set of laws of QM here, which at the very beginning of time (i.e., t = 0) don’t exist! Secondly, he employs the concept of gravitational energy – moreover treating it, very conveniently, as ‘negative energy’ – when Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity tells us that gravitational fields are, in fact, merely ‘curved’ four dimensional space-time. An object or light ray in a gravitational field is not being acted upon by a force, but is following a geodesic – the ‘curved’ equivalent of a straight line in ‘uncurved’ space-time. Where there is no force, there is no energy and no momentum. No work is being done – all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding!

    A very good discussion of Hawking’s little piece of intellectual chicanery is to be found in the late Stanley L Jaki, SJ’s, book, ‘God and the Cosmologists’ (Scottish Academic Press, 1989, pp.129-35), which makes it clear that he is by no means its onlie begetter (he cites EP Tryon, A Lande and Alan Guth).

    An excellent (if slightly dated) discussion of the ‘cosmic coincidences’ can be found in PCW Davies’ book, ‘The Accidental Universe’ (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  16. RMBlaber says:

    I’m sorry, that ref. in relation to SL Jaki, SJ’s, list of cosmologist villains should have read: ‘EP Tryon, Andrei Linde and Alan Guth’ – the latter two named closely associated with the ‘inflationary’ cosmogony.

  17. James H. says:

    Wow! I’m impressed!

    Can you tell us the reason for convention that Gm^2/R 0?

    I’ve only a 1st-yr Phys. background (to an Earth Sci. degree), so we didn’t get as far as that!

    You’re right, it is a cunning trick to assume negative gravitational energy, and that perfectly balanced by E=mc^2. Suppose I’ll just have to read the book! 🙂

  18. James H. says:

    Sorry, a lot of relationship indicators were assumed to be hypertext in that last posting. I’ll try again:

    Wow! I’m impressed!

    Can you tell us the reason for convention that Gm^2/R [less than] 0 for t=0? I would’ve thought that R would be vanishingly small, and m astronomically large, leading to an undefined value (or near as) or a value unimaginably large and positive?

    I’ve only a 1st-yr Phys. background (to an Earth Sci. degree), so we didn’t get as far as that!

    You’re right, it is a cunning trick to assume negative gravitational energy, and that perfectly balanced by E=mc^2. Suppose I’ll just have to read the book! 🙂

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