Before his death back in March, I found that every new prophetic statement from Stephen Hawking, invariably heralded by the media, was bound to make me sad. It seemed clear he was being exploited for his famous name to promote lugubrious causes having nothing to do with the genuine source of his scientific renown. And this still goes on, with Dr. Hawking having already passed on to the next world.
A new book is out under his name, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, “published posthumously with material pulled from interviews, essays, speeches, and questions often asked of the famous physicist,” as Center for Science & Culture fellow Nancy Pearcey writes at CNS News. She responds to the book’s most touted claim. The first chapter asks, “Is there a God?” Answer: No.
“I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science.” After all, [Hawking] argues, “If you accept, as I do, that the laws of nature are fixed, then it doesn’t take long to ask: What role is there for God?”
An Open Cosmos
Is Hawking right that scientific laws rule out any role for God? Despite being a brilliant physicist, he seemed unaware that his objection has already been answered — most famously by the popular literature professor C.S. Lewis, himself a former atheist, who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge University.
In his book “Miracles,” Lewis concedes that, at first glance, the regularity of nature does seem to rule out the possibility that God is able to act into the world.
But not so fast. Natural laws tell us only what happens if nothing interferes. People playing a game of pool are applying the laws of physics, which decree that when a billiard ball hits another one, the second ball will start moving. But the laws do not tell what will happen if a mischievous child grabs the ball.
The laws are still true, of course, but the child has interfered with the physics.
Humans interfere with natural processes all the time, yet we do not break any laws of nature. We cut down trees to make houses, we weave plant fiber into cloth, we smelt metals to build bridges, we turn sand into silicon chips for computers. Through technology, we are constantly accomplishing things that nature on its own could not produce.
But do we break a single law of nature? No.
“All interferences leave the law perfectly true,” Lewis points out. And it’s the same when God acts in the world: He does not need to break any scientific laws. The cosmos is open to the actions of creative humans and a creator God.
A better way to understand miracles, Lewis writes, is that they feed new events into the existing structure of nature: “The divine art of miracle is not an art of suspending the pattern to which events conform but of feeding new events into that pattern.”
Pearcey offers the helpful image of the universe not as an inviolable clockwork but as a musical instrument, implying the need for an artist’s hand in designing and creating the instrument and in playing it.
Dembski Expands on a Helpful Image
William Dembski has written about this in some detail. A musical instrument without someone to play it is incomplete:
Granted, if the universe is like a clockwork (cf. the design arguments of the British natural theologians), then it would be inappropriate for God, who presumably is a consummate designer, to intervene periodically to adjust the clock. Instead of periodically giving the universe the gift of “clock-winding and clock-setting,” God should simply have created a universe that never needed winding or setting. But what if instead the universe is like a musical instrument (cf. the design arguments of the Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nazianzus, who compared the universe to a lute — in this respect I much prefer the design arguments of the early Church to the design arguments of the British natural theologians)? Then it is entirely appropriate for God to interact with the universe by introducing design (or in this analogy, by skillfully playing a musical instrument). Change the metaphor from a clockwork to a musical instrument, and the charge of “withholding gifts” dissolves. So long as there are consummate pianists and composers, player-pianos will always remain inferior to real pianos. The incompleteness of the real piano taken by itself is therefore irrelevant here. Musical instruments require a musician to complete them. Thus, if the universe is more like a musical instrument than a clock, it is appropriate for a designer to interact with it in ways that affect its physical state.
The “clockwork” notion is one that ID critics adore because it makes design appear naïve and clumsy. If you look up intelligent design on Wikipedia, you’ll see that the editors have used the insides of a pocket watch to brand all their series of (highly misleading) articles on ID. If it were actually possible to edit Wikipedia, I’d substitute a different image; among musical instruments, a lute seems as good a choice as any.
Photo: Stephen Hawking, by NASA/Kim Shiflett [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.