Commentary: Modern physicists are scientifically astute but philosophically naive

FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2012 file photo, British physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking during the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Paralympics in London. Hawking will take his place among Britain's greatest scientists when his ashes are buried in Westminster Abbey, Friday June 15, 2018, between the graves of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, during a service of thanksgiving for the physicist who died in March 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

Just after Stephen Hawking died on March 14, Lori Johnston published a piece in The Washington Post concerning his avowed atheism. In her article, she quotes a passage from “The Grand Design,” a 2010 book by Hawking and the physicist Leonard Mlodinow: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. … 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.”

Brilliant as he was at mathematical physics and cosmology, Hawking here makes a stunning error in basic logic. To contend that anything, much less our universe, could possibly “create itself from nothing” is equivalent to saying, “something that does not exist causes itself to exist,” which is patently ludicrous on the face of it.

Beyond this blatant violation of the principle of non-contradiction, the superficial plausibility of Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s argument – and of a similar one made by the physicist Lawrence Krauss in his 2012 book “A Universe from Nothing” – hinges upon not noticing that what they call “nothing” is actually a sophisticated and very active something: namely, a quantum vacuum with Einsteinian gravity linking space-time geometry to mass, energy and momentum. It is hardly the literal nothing of philosophy.

Is this misleading use of the word nothing deliberate, surreptitiously smuggled in to keep God out? Or is it an honest (albeit embarrassing) mistake by non-believing scientists so confounded by the concept of nothing as to fall prey to an opposite version of the “wish fulfilment” they often accuse theists of?

That such elementary confusion should be entertained at all is, I suspect, traceable to the reflexive disdain many contemporary scientists have for philosophy. Whereas earlier physicists such as Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger and Heisenberg had high regard for philosophy and were deeply knowledgeable in it, a significant number of their successors — e.g., Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Hawking himself — have been openly dismissive of philosophy.

Physics was formerly known as “natural philosophy,” and “first cause,” “sufficient reason” or “cosmological” arguments have had a long, distinguished history in philosophy, from Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle, through Avicenna, Aquinas, Leibniz and on to the present day. An eminent 20 century (non-Christian) philosopher who presents the argument in a particularly lucid and compelling manner is Richard Taylor, in his book “Metaphysics.” To avoid the absurdity of Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s “spontaneous creation,” all these thinkers conclude that to account for “why there is something rather than nothing” there must be some necessary, self-sufficient, non-contingent entity that is the ultimate source of being for all other (contingent) things. As Thomas Aquinas puts it in summing up the second of his “five ways” of proving the existence of God (“Summa Theologiae,” Part 1, Question 2, Article 3) : “One is therefore forced to admit some first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name God.”

This conclusion stands even if the universe has always existed. Like any potential, changing, contingent thing, it requires some logically (even if not temporally) prior cause to account for its existence, and this backwards causal chain must culminate sooner or later in a necessary, purely actual or absolute being, one whose essence and existence are identical, and which is capable of conferring existence on everything else. An infinite regress of “turtles all the way down” does not answer the central question of why there should be anything whatsoever. For that, only an uncreated, self-existent, uncaused cause – something that cannot not exist – ultimately suffices.

Furthermore, that primal source of being cannot be any physical thing, since such an entity is composed of other already existing entities, whether protons, neutrons and electrons, or the relativistic quantum fields invoked by Hawking and his colleagues. We find, then, that reason and the Bible are in agreement here: Divine aseity and immutability imply that God must be simple (one with all his attributes, not composite) and spiritual, not material.

I have immense fondness and respect for the exquisite intellectual beauty and the astonishing practical applicability of physics. Having taught the subject for many years, and having read the books referenced here, I agree with the authors that physics is indeed of fundamental importance, but science alone cannot explain everything, even in principle. My desire is certainly not that physics should be disparaged, but that other disciplines, also, should be justly appreciated, and that physicists might be humble enough and honest enough not to pretend they can answer questions that science by its nature is unequipped to deal with.

Christopher Stone, Ph.D., is an associate professor (lecturer) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Utah.