Dear Rabbi Fried,
There has been lots of discussion around the passing of the renowned physicist Stephen Hawking; in particular I am fascinated by his rejection of the belief in God. Although he was a scientist and not known as a theologian, it would seem that he arrived at his belief, rather non-belief, through his understanding of physics and science. Do you have a take on this and do you see his atheism as a challenge to your own belief?
Ronald T., Ph.D.
Let me begin by saying that, although Stephen Hawking was not the first atheist and certainly won’t be the last, I, personally, owed a tremendous debt of gratitude and respect to him for his classic works, especially A Brief History of Time. It is largely through Hawking’s works that I gained entry into the world of physics, kindling a passion that has continued for many years since.
At the same time, I do not overly respect Hawking as a theologian. For one thing, he uses his sterling credentials as a scientist to disseminate his theology even when he arrives at his theological conclusions not so scientifically. Furthermore, I have always felt there is also a subtle undertone of arrogance throughout his writings, especially with regards to the concept of God. This is despite his earlier writings reflecting an acceptance of a God, albeit somewhat grudgingly, later with more conceit and finally rejecting God altogether, rendering the human mind as great as that of the “alleged” God.
Hawking once said, in an interview with Spain’s El Mundo, “In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind.”
His attitude is so different than that of Einstein, who, in his youth, viewed the belief in God as superstitious. But in early 1950s, Einstein had composed a kind of creed he called What I Believe. It concludes with: “To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense…I am a devoutly religious man.”
And in response to a young girl who had asked him whether he believed in God, Einstein wrote: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man.” That, unlike Hawking, was the approach of a man of humility to appreciate something greater than himself.
Nobody like Hawking, with his vast understanding of the elegant precision of the universe, could appreciate the compelling argument for a Creator. In The Illustrated Theory of Everything (pp. 71-73), after discussing the parameters of a hot early universe, Hawking raises the following questions: “…it leaves a number of important question unanswered…why did the universe start out with so nearly the critical rate of expansion to just avoid
recollapse? If the rate of expansion one second after the big bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present size. On the other hand, if the expansion rate at one second had been larger by the same amount, the universe would have expanded so much that it would be effectively empty now…Why should the universe have started off at the big bang in just such a way as to lead the state we observe today? Why is the universe so uniform, and expanding at just the critical rate to avoid recollapse? …It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”
To avoid that difficulty, Hawking goes on to present Guth’s “Inflationary Model,” which would potentially explain the exactness of the rate of expansion in great detail, seemingly escaping the uncomfortable conclusion that there must have been a Creator involved. But, alas, he concludes that this model would not suffice and, on page 78, seems to despair.
Hawking finally concludes, (with his co-author Mlodinow), in his book The Grand Design, “Just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit. Because there is a law like 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.”
They then explain the basic theory behind the “multiverse.” “According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.”
Scientists have pointed out the circular reasoning involved here. You can’t have a universe without it being created, you can’t have spontaneous creation without physical laws, and you can’t have physical laws without a universe. As brilliant a scientist as he was, Hawking becomes irrational when it comes to explaining away the universe sans a Creator.
My hypothesis is that, as we so often have found historically, that even scientific theories can be the result of a deeper agenda or emotional issue; here it is no different. I conjecture that Hawking was in the grips of an emotional wrestling match with his debilitating condition, ALS, and couldn’t accept that if there is a God involved in our lives He would allow such a condition to take over his production and brilliant life. This, I have often thought, was the undercurrent pushing him to often state that his mind knows all that God knows, and, furthermore, what he knows makes a God unnecessary. I always have considered this a great tragedy; rather than appreciation and humility to a God who has kept him alive and productive far beyond the norm and all predictions, Hawking chose to reject his great Benefactor.
The miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, writes Nachmanides, are our historic refutation of the atheism of the time, and of all time. There we witnessed that there is a God, who is in charge, and does know what is happening in the world and even communicates with humans. As we approach Pesach we, as Jews, say “out with the atheism of Hawking” and in with our belief in a loving, all-powerful God.
A joyous Pesach to all the readers, and blessings of peace to our brethren in Israel and throughout the world.
Dear Rabbi Fried,