The Faith of Stephen Hawking

And his hope that there is more than just this universe

M-Theory Universe

A few weeks ago, the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking gave a speech at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. It was a popular event, with the audience overflowing out of the auditorium and onto a grassy courtyard where a giant projection screen showed the wheelchair-bound scientist communicating through a computer.

The speech, titled “The Origin of the Universe,” was a near repeat of a 2005 lecture Hawking gave at Oxford University. Using his digitized voice, the ALS-stricken scientist spoke not only of the beginnings of our universe, but about the history of research insights of those trying to uncover the secrets of where we came from. After mentioning the quantum theory and General Relativity as supports for his ideas, Hawking introduced the concept that our universe, in tandem with other parallel universes, generated spontaneously all on their own, like bubbles that form seemingly from nowhere on the surface of a boiling liquid. This view of a “multiverse” is a key component of his 2010 book The Grand Design, a text in which he posits a universe formed without the help of an omnipotent creator.

This rejection of any sort of god as the source of the universe isn’t simply a passing notion for Hawking. His Pasadena speech is riddled with reminders that religious belief is a useless path for understanding creation. He brings up those same old swipes at religious history, including the Inquisition, those who believed in a flat earth, and Bishop Usher’s proclamation that God created the world on an otherwise quiet evening in 4004BC. For Hawking, the idea of God speaking the world into existence is just plain funny: “What was God doing before He made the world? Was He preparing Hell for people who asked such questions?”

In a 2011 interview, Hawking said, “Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing.” As a conclusion from one of the most fascinating and reputable scientists of our generation, it’s quite intriguing, and quite wrong. Science, of course, predicts nothing, but is the framework in which predictions and hypotheses can be tested. But even beyond this admittedly picky detail about definitions, it is the multiverse theory (called “M-Theory”), and not science in general, that is fixated on the generation of multiple universes. Even worse, it is a theory that cannot be proved or disproved; it’s not falsifiable, in part because the nature of the scientific experiments that could prove or disprove it are limited by the confines of our universe.

Roger Penrose, Hawking’s compatriot in some of his most important scientific work, rejected the idea that M-Theory represents credible science. In his 2010 Financial Times review of The Grand Design, Penrose stated, “Unlike quantum mechanics, M-Theory enjoys no observational support whatsoever.” Paul Davies, another noted British theoretical physicist, agreed with Penrose, and in a New York Times editorial, he called into question the roots of Hawking’s idea.

“Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.”

Even if M-Theory enjoyed widespread scientific assurance, it would do little to solve the problem of where everything came from. Multiverse theory doesn’t propose a handful of parallel universes. Instead, it suggests that there might be an infinite number of such universes, each supporting a different set of physical properties, but some—that is, an infinite number of them—strikingly similar to our own. Given the mindboggling amount of mass and energy just in our own universe, the idea that there may be an infinite number of powerful and heavy universe bubbles begs the question of where all that energy and matter came from in the first place. Hawking and some of the more vocal New Atheists wet their pants over the thought that a multiverse scenario forces a creation without God, and yet it leaves unanswered the question of how the multiverse itself came into being.

M-Theory, for all its scientific language and support, is philosophy, and religious philosophy at that. It would be wrong to dismiss Hawking’s ideas as meaningless. He is a thoughtful scientist who has spent a lifetime grappling with some of the toughest questions of our era. But it is wrong to label as science any theory that is not backed up by the rigor of the scientific method. Perhaps there are other universes just out of our reach. Yet for an academic to talk repeatedly of their existence apart from any falsifiable research is not science, but prayer.

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