There have been recent news releases about an upcoming book by Stephen Hawking. According to the news articles, Hawking’s book, The Grand Design, apparently holds that once there was nothing, then out of the nothing something caused itself to exist. Many news articles were likely quoting a press release from the publisher, since as of this writing the book is not scheduled to be released just yet, and few in-depth reviews are available. The articles quoted Hawking and co-author Leonard Mlodinow as saying “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.”
A few responses have been published, one by notable Oxford mathematics professor John Lennox, which you can find here. With three earned doctrates, Lennox carries some authority as well. Another response you might find interesting is a Chicago Sun-Times column that you will find here.
That Stephen Hawking is a very intelligent man is an understatement. He is a theoretical physicist of the first rank, who has done a great deal of work on black holes, gravity, and the physical aspects of space. He is a borderline genius, if not a full-fleged one. He held the same teaching position as Isaac Newton, and interacts with some of the most intelligent and prestigious minds in the world. So when he writes, people listen, and rightly so.
But however intelligent he may be, this time it appears he has missed something very important. I am not qualified to determine at what point he got off track…..perhaps his equation has forgotten to carry the two. But we can be quite certain that he has missed the target completely. If we are to believe the news articles, he not only claims that out of nothing came somthing, but that the something caused itself to exist. As has been known for a very long time, anything that has come into existence cannot have caused itself to exist, for it would have to exist before it existed, which is absurd. We can only hope that so capable of a man as Hawking has been misquoted, or perhaps he equivocated on the word “nothing” so that he really meant that his theory applies after the universe came to be. Or perhaps there was a ghost writer and Hawking merely lent his name. But we can be sure that if he holds to what has been reported in the news, he has made a very old, very illogical claim that shows he needs to go take Philosophy 101 over again. Perhaps he never took Philosophy 101, for many intelligent scentists have not.
If this story plays out the way it appears to be going, Hawking and Mlodinow will join a long line of extremely intelligent people who have made some basic logical flaws. Hawking is very intelligent, but so were men like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Bertrand Russell, all of which committed very basic logical flaws that undermined their main theories. Hawking will join these men as a footnote in someone’s Philosophy 101 term paper as an example of what mistakes we should not make. I am reminded of a quote from the book God and the Astronomers by Robert Jastrow, himself no intellectual slouch, as he was the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. Jastrow said, “”For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”