Nine Big Questions #3 October 10th 2010
‘Why is There Something and Not Nothing?’
When I first moved to Canada, Thanksgiving was a surprise to me. We never had it in England. We had something called a ‘Harvest Festival’, which was predominately a church-centred event; people would bring all sorts of produce and decorate the church and we’d sing all the familiar harvest hymns and thank God for the blessings of the harvest. There wasn’t a particular Sunday of the calendar set aside for it, and indeed in some parishes nowadays, with four or five churches sharing the same minister, it’s common for harvest festivals to be spread out from the middle of September all the way until the end of October.
But this wonderful North American celebration of Thanksgiving – in October here in Canada, a month later down in the States – was a surprise to me. Because, of course, it’s different from a harvest festival. In England, it’s pretty hard to celebrate a harvest festival without going to church, but here in Canada, millions of people celebrate Thanksgiving without darkening the doors of a church. We get a long weekend, we have family gatherings, we cook turkey with all the trimmings and eat and drink ourselves into a semi-comatose state, after which we turn on the TV and watch football! And, if we are of that mind-set, in the middle of it all we go to church and thank God.
And that, of course, raises an interesting question. It seems to me that there are two wonderful questions associated with Thanksgiving. The easy one, the one we all love to answer, is ‘What am I thankful for?’ I don’t have any difficulty with that at all, other than the difficulty of finding a piece of paper big enough to write it all on. The gifts of the natural creation, of the beauty of the earth and the provision of the daily necessities of life; the gifts of friendship and love, of marriage and home and family and all that goes along with that; the gifts of beauty and art and music; the gifts of satisfying work and the strength to provide for ourselves and so on – all these things, and many more besides, I’m very thankful for, and I’m sure you are too.
But the second question, and by far the tougher one, is ‘Who am I thankful to?’ And yes, of course, there are many human beings who make an incredible contribution to my life, and I’m very thankful to them for all that they give to me. But they aren’t responsible for the fact that there’s oxygen for me to breathe and water for me to drink, mountains for me to climb and stars to look up to. Who is responsible for all of that? Who, in our North American secularized Thanksgiving festival, are we ultimately saying ‘thank you’ to? Because, if Stephen Hawking is right and the laws of physics, and not God, are responsible for the accidental creation of the Universe, I have to say that I find it rather unsatisfying to say ‘thank you’ to the laws of physics!
Stephen Hawking, of course, has been in the news lately, with the publication of his new book, The Grand Design. Some people feel that in this book Hawking has finally abandoned his previous belief in God and joined the company of people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the so-called ‘New Atheists’. These people remember that in 1988, in his famous book A Brief History of Time, Hawking wrote these words:
‘If we discover a complete theory (of everything), it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God’.
Now, however, this famous physicist seems to be singing out of a different songbook. He says that,
‘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’.
What has happened here? Has the great physicist changed his mind about the existence of God? And, more to the point, has he made a powerful and persuasive argument? Has he disproved the existence of God?
Let’s take the first question; has Hawking changed his mind? A simple answer to that is, I don’t think so. I think if you read his 1988 statement carefully, it’s fairly clear that when he said, ‘then we should know the mind of God’, he was using the word ‘God’ as a metaphor. I don’t think it can be demonstrated that Stephen Hawking has ever believed in God – certainly not the God of Abraham and the God of Jesus. If he is an atheist, to me, that’s old news. He didn’t recently come across the decisive argument or scientific discovery that made faith in God untenable or unnecessary. He is simply restating in his new book a position on the existence of God that he has held for a long time.
But the second question is more complicated and, of course, more important: is Hawking right? Has he made God unnecessary and even shown that God does not exist?
To be fair to Hawking, I don’t think he would argue that he has demonstrated the non-existence of God. What he thinks he has demonstrated is that you do not need God in order to be able to explain the existence of the universe. He believes that we can find a perfectly satisfactory scientific explanation for the existence of the universe without appealing to a supernatural Creator as the cause of it all. He doesn’t think he has necessarily done away with God; he’s simply made God’s job unnecessary. But is he right?
In the quote I read from his new book, Hawking alludes to an old philosophical question: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Notice that little word ‘Why?’ Careful scientists tend to be wary of questions that begin with the word ‘Why?’ They are much more at home with the word, ‘How?’ And so, over the past couple of hundred years, as scientific knowledge about the origins of life and of the universe has expanded, the ‘How?’ questions have dominated the field.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, most scientists believed that the universe had always existed. But starting in 1929 with Edwin Hubble’s experiments examining the rate at which neighbouring galaxies are receding from our own, science began to uncover a different story. It became clear that everything in the universe is flying apart, and the further away from our own the galaxies are currently located, the faster they are receding. So if everything is flying apart in this way, reversing that would lead us to believe that at some point in the distant past all these galaxies were together in one incredibly dense entity. And so, over the past seventy years, most scientists have come to the conclusion that the universe began at a single moment, commonly referred to as ‘the Big Bang’, about 14 billion years ago.
When non-scientific people such as myself ask questions like ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’ we demonstrate our lack of understanding of the totality of what is being proposed here. We shouldn’t envision the Big Bang as happening to a little piece of matter in a vast empty space. Empty space is itself one of the things that came out of the Big Bang. And if Einstein and others are right, so is time. There was no time before the Big Bang, and so the answer to the question ‘What happened before the Big Bang’ is ‘Physically speaking, there was no ‘before’ the Big Bang’.
Interestingly enough, when the idea of the Big Bang first came along, a lot of atheist scientists resisted it, because it seemed to lend itself so easily to the idea of a Creator God. Previously, when scientists believed that the universe had always existed, the idea of God seemed unnecessary. But if the universe had a beginning, then how did it get going? What, or who, caused ‘The Big Bang’? To a good number of scientists, along with many philosophers and theologians, the answer seemed obvious: God.
This is the conclusion that Hawking is now contesting. We don’t need God to light the blue touch paper and cause the Big Bang, he says; the laws of physics, such as gravity, can make it happen spontaneously. But is this, in fact, the case? I’m not at all sure that it is, for two reasons.
First, I may not be understanding Stephen Hawking very well here, but I’m not entirely clear how a law of physics such as gravity could exist before there was a universe. Gravity, after all, is about large bodies attracting things to themselves. How gravity can exist in the absence of any large bodies to attract things to themselves isn’t clear to me. Even less clear is how it could cause something to emerge out of nothing.
I make this point hesitantly, because I’m so ignorant about science in general and physics in particular that I can’t believe that a question so obvious to me can’t have occurred to a man so brilliant as Stephen Hawking. But I’m somewhat reassured to find that a research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, Philip Goff, is asking similar questions. Writing in The Guardian newspaper in England, he says, ‘It is difficult to see how (the laws of nature) could explain the natural order, as they seem to depend for their own existence on the natural order’.
But assuming that Philip Goff and I are both abysmally ignorant and that Stephen Hawking is right, we still haven’t answered the question ‘Why is there something and not nothing?’ If the laws of physics were responsible for the spontaneous creation of the universe, where did the laws of physics themselves come from? Why those laws, rather than some others? What caused those laws to come into existence, and ensured that they were so amenable to the development of the universe and the eventual emergence of life in general and human life in particular?
It seems to me that Stephen Hawking may have been a little over-hasty in declaring God’s job to be unnecessary. I think that this question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ can validly be answered in two ways: either ‘Because of God’, or ‘We don’t know’. What can’t be a valid answer, it seems to me, is ‘Because that’s the way it is’. My immediate response to that answer is, ‘And why is that the way it is?’ And we’re back to where we started from.
I think the Christian answer to the question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is the age-old one that was first stated by the authors of Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). But giving this answer has further implications for Christians, and at this feast of Thanksgiving we need to stay with the subject a little longer. We’ve established that it’s reasonable to believe that the universe exists because of God. But why would God create a universe? And what does that universe tell us about the God who created it?
I ask this question, because there are many Christians today who seem to think that God is entirely concerned with something called ‘the soul’ or the ‘spirit’. It’s sometimes said that religion looks after people’s souls, while science and politics are concerned with their bodies. In this view, God is a sort of ‘Talking Head’ who deals with metaphysics and philosophy; he understands words like ‘grace’ and ‘forgiveness’ but is a bit out of his depth in the real world of science and ecology and quarks and quasars.
I’d suggest to you that as Christians we don’t believe in a God like that. Why would a God like that bother to create the universe, if all he was interested in was theology and spirituality? Why are there millions of different species of bugs? Why are some of the most beautiful things on planet earth hidden in the depths of the ocean where no one can see them, because there’s no light down there? Who are they beautiful for? Why are there so many wonderful flavours of food, and why does chicken taste so much better when you add curry powder to the mix? And hoe does God get away with painting sunsets using colours that most artists would never dare to combine in close proximity to each other?
It seems clear to me that if God has taken all the time and trouble to create an incredible universe like ours, then he must think that matter is a good thing, and he must enjoy the process of creation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I think God had a riot when he was creating the universe, and still has a riot as he sustains it and gives it life! Furthermore, if God has made it then it must be valuable to God, and it follows that it should be valuable to us as well. And so it’s entirely proper for us Christians to learn all we can about God’s creation, and to do all we can to protect it from harm.
Who are we thankful to on this Thanksgiving weekend? As Christians, we’re thankful to God, who created everything that exists in all its wonder and splendour. He is the reason why there is something rather than nothing. He is the reason why there is air for us to breathe and water to drink and colours to enjoy and music to listen to and so on. What an incredible Creator he must be! And how right it is for us to praise and thank him for it.
But there’s more to it than that. One of Jacqui’s friends, who I follow on Facebook, has just come back from nine days hiking the north perimeter of Jasper National Park. And I think to myself, what an appropriate thing that would be for a Christian to do! The old hymn says, ‘This is my Father’s world’ And if that is true – if the Creator of all this wonder is not some distant Sky God but the one who has adopted us as his children and cares for each of us, then why wouldn’t we be interested in all that our Father has made? If our Father went to all the trouble to create all this splendour – if he chose to create something, rather than being satisfied with nothing – then we can be sure that he values what he has created, and calls us to value it too. And so it is entirely appropriate for us as children of God to take an interest, to enjoy exploring what God has made, not only in recreation but also in all the rigours of scientific enquiry as we learn to better understand the mysteries of creation.
And of course there’s also the call for us to be good stewards of all that has bee entrusted to us. People who are concerned about protecting the environment sometimes remind us that we don’t inherit the earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children. That’s a powerful incentive to care for the natural world, but an even more powerful one exists for us Christians. These species that are going into extinction because of human activity are species that God has taken the trouble to create. These ecosystems have been carefully balanced by him to provide for all the living creatures he has made. Surely it would be an insult to the Creator to assume that it doesn’t matter whether or not they survive and thrive? And so today, as we thank God for all that he has made and as we enjoy his creation and learn more about its mysteries, let’s also do all in our power to care for all created things, out of love and respect for the one who made them, the one we call our God and Father.