Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Grand Design: Is God Unnecessary?

Have scientific discoveries made God unnecessary? That is the claim of the bestselling book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow published in 2010. The book claims, "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." Readers of this blog have consistently asked me to discuss claims such as these, that there is no need to invoke a transcendent creator to begin the universe, especially when the claims are made by very smart people, like Stephen Hawking.

I read this book when it was first published with the expectation that someone as brilliant as Stephen Hawking would have something new and profound to add to the discussion about the cause of the universe, and the apparent fine-tuning of the universe. In fact, the opening chapter seemed to confirm my optimism because three questions are posed that Hawking claims he will try to answer: (1) Why is there something rather than nothing? (2) Why do we exist? (3) Why this particular set of laws and not some other?

These three questions touch on the very three reasons that I have argued give evidence for God from scientific inquiry. The first has to do with the origin of the universe in the Big Bang, which I claim gives evidence for a transcendent creator. The second question has to do, at least partially, with the quite rare characteristics of the planet earth we inhabit. The third question has to do with the anthropic principle and fine-tuning which seems to indicate the laws and parameters of physics are in a narrow range that allow life to exist.

Much of the book presents a good synopsis of many of the discoveries and theories of modern physics including quantum mechanics, the wave-particle duality, special and general relativity, particle physics, supersymmetry, Big Bang cosmology and string theory. If you are looking for an understandable explanation of these ideas, I highly recommend the book. But if you are looking for good thoughtful answers to the three questions posed above, then the book turns out to be very disappointing and even sophomoric. The answers provided by Hawking and Mlodinow are not new, are not insightful, and are easily dismissed based on known science. Let's look at the answers they pose and discuss why each one fails so miserably.

The origin of the universe is explained by an idea called "the no boundary condition" first proposed in Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time. Using a concept of "imaginary time" Hawking proposes that the universe doesn't have an initial moment of birth at a singularity, but rather a smooth continuous space-time curve that does not require a beginning. If I were to try to draw a representation of a space-time singularity I might draw something like a cone that comes to a point at one end. The no boundary condition would smooth out that point so there is a curved surface at the end of the cone, much like the north pole of the earth is a curved surface. Below is a picture of these two ideas taken from a web site about relativity where the top picture shows a universe with a singularity and the bottom shows a universe with no boundary.

Note that even though the surface is smooth in the bottom picture, there is still a turning point. That point would signal the beginning of our universe, despite the fact that it is not discontinuous. Thus even with no boundary, the universe has a beginning. The no boundary condition has a number of other fatal flaws as well. First, it would require that some kind of physical laws operate before our universe began. Where did they come from? Second, there is no observational evidence of anything like the imaginary time needed for the no boundary condition to operate. An idea with no observational support is hardly a scientific idea. Finally, all the observational evidence and theoretical calculations based on known physics that we do have point to an actual beginning of our universe, including ideas like the BGV theorem. The proposal for the origin of the universe in The Grand Design is not based on scientific observations or calculations, requires the laws of physics to already be in operation, and does not eliminate a real beginning of our universe. It utterly fails to explain the origin of the universe.

To explain our existence on the planet Earth, Hawking and Mlodinow simply claim that there are many planets so one must have the conditions necessary to support higher life forms. This statement is both naive and unscientific for we have enough information about the requirements necessary for a planet to support higher life forms that we are able to do a rough estimate of the probability of finding even a single planet like the earth. Many of the required parameters can be found in the book Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. I should write a blog post about this book in the future since I haven't touched on this subject yet in my blog. The astrophysicist Hugh Ross has done a rough estimation of the probability of finding a single earth-like planet by chance based on 322 parameters known to be necessary if a planet is to support higher life forms. He has taken correlations and longevity factors into account as well as the fact that there are at least 1022 planets in the visible universe. His order-of-magnitude calculation comes up with a probability of 10-282 for finding one planet capable of supporting higher life forms in the entire visible universe. Hawking and Mlodinow are wrong. Even with a lot of planets we should not expect to find one suitable for our existence purely by chance.

Finally, in regard to the laws of physics that seem to be finely-tuned to allow life to exist, Hawking and Mlodinow appeal to M-theory, the most recent and encompassing string theory. String theory proposes that the fundamental entities that make up our universe are "vibrating strings of energy." M-theory holds a lot of promise as a scientific theory, including the development of a consistent quantum theory of gravity, which has been an elusive goal for about 100 years. M-theory requires that there are 11 dimensions of space-time. M-theory has about 10500 possible configurations, and allows for the possibility that there are many universes. If ours is just one of many universes (a multiverse), with different laws and parameters of physics in every different universe, then just by chance one of the universes would have the laws and parameter falling in the necessary range to be able to support life. We are here because we happen to be in the right universe. There are many problems with proposing M-theory as the solution to the anthropic principle problem. Of course, the first problem is that, as with the no-boundary condition, there is no scientific evidence that M-theory is true, so a belief in M-theory is not based on science at all. Second, there are few, if any, definitive predictions of M-theory. For instance, we don't know if any of the "other" universes would actually be created or just have the potential of being created. When The Grand Design was published there was overwhelming criticism that M-theory would be invoked as the answer to the anthropic principle problem. For instance, in Scientific American, John Horgan wrote, "M-theory, theorists now realize, comes in an almost infinite number of versions, which "predict" an almost infinite number of possible universes. ... Of course, a theory that predicts everything really doesn't predict anything... Hawking is telling us that unconfirmable M-theory plus the anthropic tautology represents the end of that quest. If we believe him, the joke’s on us."1

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of The Grand Design is that the attempts made to support Hawking's and Mlodinow's case are, in many cases, simply unsophisticated, unsupportable, naive, and even fallacious. I believe that in a college class on logic, philosophy, or religion, this book would receive a failing grade. For example, the question is posed, "Are there any exceptions to the laws of physics?" or "Are miracles possible." The answer given is, "…the modern scientists answer to question two [exceptions to the laws of physics]…is…a scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to intervene." This is a clear example of the logical fallacy of "begging the question." Hawking is dismissing miracles outright because they don't fit his preconceived definition of what science is. If this were your answer to the question of miracles in a logic class I guarantee you would get an F.

Consider also the quote from the book mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog, "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing." It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or someone as smart as Stephen Hawking, to realize how ridiculous this statement is. Gravity works within the space-time dimensions of our universe so it is impossible to invoke gravity as the cause of our universe. The physicist Gerald Schroeder wrote, "Therefore if the laws of nature created the universe, these laws must have existed prior to time; that is the laws of nature would be outside of time. What we have then is totally non-physical laws, outside of time, creating a universe. Now that description might sound somewhat familiar. Very much like the biblical concept of God: not physical, outside of time, able to create a universe."2

Many scientists and scholars who read the book The Grand Design were extremely disappointed that the arguments presented were poor and simplistic. In The New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote, "The real news about The Grand Design is how disappointingly tinny and inelegant it is."3 I'm tempted to quote dozens more of the negative reviews to emphasize my point, but I'll let you look them up if you need more persuasion.

Once again, we see that the conclusions most consistent with the known facts from scientific observations and theoretical calculation are that the universe seems to have a transcendent beginning and seems to be designed with humans in mind, two ideas consistent with the teachings about the God of the Bible. This attempt by Hawking and Mlodinow in The Grand Design to circumvent such straightforward conclusions is entirely inadequate, illogical, and invalid. If you are looking for reasons to make God "unnecessary" you will have to look elsewhere.

P.S. For regular readers of my blog, I would like to write new entries approximately every other week as my schedule allows, but due to personal issues I haven't written anything new in about twice that long. Hopefully, I will be able to get back to a consistent schedule shortly. Stay tuned.

1 John Horgan, "Cosmic Clowning: Stephen Hawking's 'new' theory of everything is the same old CRAP," Scientific American, September 13, 2010.
2Gerald Schroeder, The Big Bang Creation: God or the Laws of Nature, at
3Dwight Garner,"Many Kinds of Universes, and None Require God," New York Times, September 7, 2010.


  1. Thanks Dr. Strauss

    I have a question. Some atheist friend of mine told me that since space is infinite according to evidence, then, there is no room for a creator; probably the universe was always there.

    Is he right? Is there evidence that the space is infinite?

    I think that he must be referring to the flatness of space…but if im right, it is possible to have a space that is flat, boundless and finite if the topology permits it (and there is no evidence against that posibility).

    Am i correct?

    Thanks for your valuable time.

  2. Thanks for your question. We know the universe is nearly "flat" which means that if the space of the universe were 2 dimensional rather than three dimensional, then it would look nearly like a piece of flat paper. That means the universe is probably much larger than we can actually see. But that doesn't necessarily mean it is infinite for a few reasons. First, we don't know the universe is exactly flat. If you look at the earth's surface from your house it looks flat, even though we know it is not. The curvature is just so minimal from your perspective that you don't see it. So our universe may look flat from our local perspective but it is not because the "curvature" is so large. In addition, a flat universe is still not necessarily infinite depending on the topology, which is what you have stated in your comment. Only the simplest topology would be infinite in an exactly flat universe, but we don't know that the universe is exactly flat nor if it has the simplest topology. So you are right that even a flat universe may not be infinite. Then again, there is the question of whether or not actual infinities can really exist in nature. Some would say "no" so that the universe can't be actually infinite in size. And finally, to the core of your question. Even if the universe were infinite, that might solve the problem of why we have a planet like the earth that can support life because there could be an infinite number of planets, but it does not solve the other two major problems discussed in this post. The universe would still have a beginning in the Big Bang so we still have a beginning with an apparent transcendent cause which looks a lot like God, and we still have the problem of the anthropic principle, that the laws and parameters of this universe are precisely tuned to allow life to exist. With only one universe, even if it is infinite, the anthropic principle and the low entropy at the beginning of this universe would point to an intelligent designer who cares about humanity. So even if your friend's proposition were correct, his conclusion would not be correct. Thanks for your insightful question.

  3. Dr. Strauss, you may appreciate this recent video that touches upon the 'Theory of Everything':

    Gödel, Infinity, and Jesus Christ as the Theory of Everything - video

  4. The lack of existence of actual infinities make the universe not only impossible to the eternal but also unable to be infinite.