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More Responses to Hawking’s “The Grand Design”

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September 14, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
More Responses to Hawking’s “The Grand Design”

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

The discussion surrounding Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlondinow’s latest book The Grand Design continues to swirl across the internet. For those not familiar with the debate, Hawking’s latest book makes the claim that science has made the need for a creator obsolete. Quoting the book, "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."

Karl Giberson engaged Hawking’s argument Monday, but today we’d like to point readers to two more responses by theologians Philip Clayton and Alister McGrath.

Philip Clayton

In his piece “Is Stephen Hawking Right About God?”, which ran yesterday on The Huffington Post, Clayton looks at four possible answers to Hawking’s assertion that modern physics has removed the need for creator:

  1. New atheists like Richard Dawkins are correct; Hawking’s has dealt the coup de grace to God’s place in the realm of physics.

  2. God does have a place in physics hypothesis and is necessary to explain the “fine-tuning” of the physical constants and the regularities of natural laws. The more we learn of physics, the more evidence there is for God.

  3. Science should not be limited from looking at certain questions, and physics should not be constrained by theology. It cannot comment on divine creative intent, supporting only “weak” anthropic principle (the universe is conducive to the evolution of intelligent life) but not “strong” anthropic principle (the universe was designed to produce intelligent life).

  4. Fourth way: science makes conclusions about God difficult, but they do not render God superfluous. Scientific inquiry should not be blocked by religion, but scientists must also realize they have not removed the place of mystery and the unknown. Scientific advances, like the ones Hawking speaks of, remind us of how much we don’t know.

This fourth option, which both Clayton and we at BioLogos support, seems the best response. As Clayton concludes:

But here the great physicist overreaches himself [by asserting that science rules out any notion of God]. When believers use claims about God to handcuff science, they act wrongly. But no such conflict is produced when we recognize that deep mysteries lie beyond the limits of scientific knowledge. Religious faith has its origins here, beyond the bounds of empirical demonstration. To declare this region empty of the divine is as much an act of faith as it is to find God here.

Alister McGrath

McGrath begins his piece “Stephen Hawking, God, and the Role of Science” with the assertion that science is neither atheistic nor theistic, though it can be interpreted in both religious and anti-religious ways. He points to the example of Richard Dawkins as someone who wields science as a weapon against religion. Yet he also offers the counter-example of Francis Collins, who argues that belief in God makes more sense of science than an atheistic interpretation.

In the case of Hawking’s argument, McGrath writes that he has confused laws with agency. Laws, notes McGrath, do not create; they merely describe what happens. He uses the illustration of the Mona Lisa to show that while the laws of physics can explain how the picture emerged, they wouldn’t lead us to write Da Vinci out of the equation as an unnecessary agent.

Furthermore, McGrath notes that implying that there is no need for a creator because the laws of physics already exist simply postpones the question of God one stage, as the question of where the laws came from still exists.

Finally, writes McGrath, Hawking’s very assertion about God oversteps the boundaries of science:

Darwin's great supporter Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895) famously declared that science "commits suicide when it adopts a creed." Huxley was right. If science allows itself to be hijacked by fundamentalists, whether religious or anti-religious, its intellectual integrity is subverted and its cultural authority is compromised.

That is one of the reasons why so many scientists are troubled by the New Atheist agenda. They see this as compromising the integrity of science, and hijacking it for the purposes of an anti-religious crusade.

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HornSpiel - #29986

September 14th 2010

I declared that declared that there is a typo above. Otherwise very wise comments. I can’t imagine Hawking’s book getting much traction.

Almost anyone should be able to see the irony in the quote: “Because there is a law such as gravity,...”

nedbrek - #29993

September 14th 2010

“they wouldn’t lead us to write Da Vinci out of the equation as an unnecessary agent.”

The funny thing is, from a materialist-deterministic point of view, the Mona Lisa is as much a product of evolution and natural selection as is an ant hill or beaver dam.

beaglelady - #30000

September 14th 2010

Nicholas Beale, who co-authored Questions of Truth with John Polkinghorne,  had some comments about this on his blog here

Adam - #30001

September 14th 2010

Hawking is wrong: M theory has yet to be proven. It might reconcile quantum physics and relativity, or it might not. It is the latest in a series of hypotheses that proported to do so (supergravity, superstring theory, m theory). This is the holy grail question in physics, and must be solved to understand what happened at the instant of the big bang. Physics can explain (with evidence) everything that happened beginning a fraction of a second after the big bang, but not before. Hawking is being misleading by claiming that physics can explain the instant of creation/big bang. No one seems to be calling him out on ths….

By the way Hawking is more of a celebrety than a productive physicist. He hasn’t made major contributions since the 1970s, and spent much of the last 30 years arguing that black holes violate the 2nd law of theormodynamics (to physicsts, this is like saying 2+2=5). He lost this war, as documented in the book “The Black Hole War”. Interestingly enough this issue also relates to the unsolved question of M theory.

conrad - #30011

September 14th 2010


You guys are getting better.

“Deep Mysteries beyond science” is a good way to phrase it.

beaglelady - #30028

September 14th 2010

On Sept 11, The Wall Street Journal printed a review by Sean Carroll (not the biologist). 

The review ends like this:

Answers to the great “Why?” questions are going to be subtle and difficult. Our best hope for constructing sensible answers lies with scientists and philosophers working together, not scoring points off one another.

sy g. - #30034

September 14th 2010

I have always had the deepest respect and admiration for Hawking, as a man and as a scientist. I do not understand why he chose to publish this book now. What troubles me is the possiblitity that he has decided to join the battle being waged by that other eminent British scientist Richard Dawkins on the side of militant anti theism. I hope this is not true, but I fail to see any other motivation.

EricG - #30047

September 14th 2010

Good post. In reading the book, Hawkins clearly sets up the idea of diety as purely a response to scientific gaps; he can make the bold claims he makes about the non-necessity of God because he is merely addressing specific god-of-gaps arguments that concern him.  In reality, the arguments he offers (if true) merely means that the Universe did not have to have a starting point for time as we conceive it (see page 135), and explains apparent cosmological fine tuning (see ch. 7).  If you read him closely, he is not saying there is no God; he is saying there is no need to posit deity to fill these particular gaps in scientific understanding; there are possible explanations.  And he doesn’t even say those explanations are correct—note the “ifs” throughout the book, even at the conclusion!  And that leaves plenty of other gaps, of course—where did space itself come from, since his logic suggests it has simply always existed (compare p. 135)?  Later, he says gravity is necessary because of energy constraints, and M-theory is the only current viable theory because of other constraints (see pp. 180-81), but the mere necessity for these for a universe to exist doesn’t explain how in fact they got there to begin with.

EricG - #30053

September 14th 2010

Sorry, I mean “Hawking” in the last comment.  Anyway, the other key point is that many of us don’t believe in God simply because we want to fill gaps, which is his fairly obvious assumption.  So his attempts to fill these gaps don’t mean anything to me.  I believe in God because I have a strong sense that there is more than the scientific determinism he directly relies on (the evidence he offers in support of determinism is surprisingly weak, by the way, and of course contrary to the views of just about anyone who gets out of bed in the morning).  I believe love, justice, and beauty are actually real, and they come from somewhere.  And all sorts of other reasons to believe in a loving God, unrelated to gaps in scientific knowledge.

EricG - #30055

September 14th 2010

One more point: I think we should be very slow to criticize his theory as untestable. He is somewhat vague on p. 142-43 (at least to me), but is suggesting that his version of the multi-verse idea is testable—in particular the idea he describes as his top-down theory of “alternative histories” based on the quantum sum-over-histories, which seems different to me from the other multi-verse theories I have seen. I’d like to hear a reponse to this particular suggestion if someone wants to say this is untestable. 

And even aside from Hawking’s explanation (which is new to me, at least), Guth published a paper a few years ago purporting to prove that any version of inflation (the dominant model of the Bib Bang) leads to multiple universes, and of course inflation can be (and has been) tested. Heck, there was even a cosmologist months ago who proposed that the big (relative) hole in the cosmic background radiation could be where another universe split from ours. I don’t think that went anywhere, but my point is this: This stuff is developing, why not remain agnostic about the arguments, since they may be true, and at least some folks are thinking of ways to test them.  They don’t undercut claims for God anyway, as noted above.

sy g. - #30067

September 15th 2010


I see your point, and I am probably too quick to dismiss the multiverse idea. For quantum events, it actually appears to be the only logical solution. But lets remember that all of this kind of physics is pure mathematics, not observational. The proof that inflation leads to multiverse is purely mathematical. This leaves us in the same position as string theory did. Great mathematical evidence, and absolutely no confirmatory observational data. I understand that sometimes that is unavoidable in modern physics. Einstein was lucky in that general relattiviy made predictions that could be tested by observation. The concept of observing another universe from outside of it (like from another universe) is impossible by definition, so no confirmatory evidence will ever be generated. This doesnt mean that a mathematical proof is impossible.

I agree with your comment that all of this is beside the point. While atheists are constantly attacking “God of the gaps”, most theists dont care about this. We dont need “proof” of God (I wouldnt actually want that) in order to have faith. All we need is the absense of proof that He doesnt. Which it appears is consistent with Hawking’s message.

EricG - #30073

September 15th 2010

sy g—

I agree with parts of what you are saying.  But he is suggesting that observations can be made to test their consistency with his quantum theory of alternative histories—i.e., he seems to be suggesting that the observation would be the degree of variation in the cosmic background raditation, p. 143.  I’m not qualified to say whether he is correct that various theories can be distinguished in this way, but he is at least proposing a test (however vague it is).  And at the quantum level various tests have been consistent with multiple histories within our universe (if I am reading you correctly, you agree), so it doesn’t appear entirely pie in the sky (particularly given the small scale of the universe right after the big bang).  Although I have to agree with you that something like relativity seems very different in terms of whether it can be tested than what he is suggesting—the pure math there has been confirmed in so many different ways; it is hard to imagine anything like that here.  But I think it is better to remain agnostic as they work these things through.

EricG - #30075

September 15th 2010

Sy.g—the other thing Hawking seems to be saying is that our observations to confirm various theories often don’t “directly” observe anything—e.g, when dealing with very small particles for example.  But nobody doubts they are there, or that the models related to them are useful.  I understand that isn’t a total answer to the point you are making, but thought his point is worth considering, in conjunction with the other points he makes.  And if something like alternative histories have been observed at the quantum level (or at least results are consistent with that theory), it makes me nervous saying his view of alternative histories of the universe (which he equates to the multi-verse) can never be tested.

sy g. - #30096

September 15th 2010


I have not been able to get a copy of the book, so it might be prudent for me to shut up until I have actually read it. Thanks for your analysis, which sounds convincing. Hopefully there will be more discusssion of this book, once it becomes more widely avaliable. What I am not sure about, is that the alternative histories from quantum theory is identical to the cosmological concept of the multiverse, and I dont know if Hawking addresses this. Also I agree with your comment on observations. We dont observe genes directly either, of course, but we can do an awful lot with our indirect observations.

conrad - #30101

September 15th 2010

Eric the Richard Feynman idea of alternate histories has some evidence to support it.

supposedly the “sum of the histories” can be used to calculate the orbits of electrons.

conrad - #30104

September 15th 2010

Well I have had so many prayers answered I cannot believe in a universe without God.

  A spiritual reality has not been found in the laboratory but it may be just as real and I think it is.

And God has always been there for me.

conrad - #30115

September 15th 2010

BUT ON THE OTHER HAND ...I have 5 fingers,......[sorry I can never resist that old Soupy Sales line]

But seriously,....... alternate pasts and alternate futures that coexist,.... solves the problem of explaining “Free will”.
The old “Hard Shell Baptist” position of “what is to be, will be!” no longer restricts what you are free to do.
Predestination takes a hit and we have our choices opened up again.

I repeat my mantra,.... science largely EXPLAINS scripture. It doesn’t conflict with it

Also parallel universes make heaven and hell seem like reasonable mainstream ideas.

New science upsets our preconceived ideas but never contradict scripture as written.
    [It may not jibe with how we have previously interpreted what is written.]

Glen Davidson - #30117

September 15th 2010

I like this from New Scientist:

“Others remain skeptical, including Craig Callendar, a philosophy professor at the University of California, San Diego:

“M-theory in either sense is far from complete. But that doesn’t stop the authors from asserting that it explains the mysteries of existence: why there is something rather than nothing, why this set of laws and not another, and why we exist at all. According to Hawking, enough is known about M-theory to see that God is not needed to answer these questions. Instead, string theory points to the existence of a multiverse, and this multiverse coupled with anthropic reasoning will suffice. Personally, I am doubtful. (New Scientist)

“Either way, it’s pretty good buzz for a book launch.”  Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/hottopics/detail?entry_id=71557#ixzz0zc3nFVbm

A healthy dose of skepticism, along with the obvious fact that it was said at the US book launch.

Glen Davidson

conrad - #30122

September 15th 2010

I always thought that it would be impossible to prove God through reason.

If that were possible smart people would have an advantage over dumb people,... and I don’t think God would set up a plan of salvation that was merely an intelligence test.

conrad - #30153

September 15th 2010

I actually have the book now.
Thanks to my post office.

It is chatty and rambling and only slightly more profound than the stuff we generate her on this board.

There is no smoking gun,,[at least in the first 1/3 of the book].

I do think it can be used to damage faith and should be addressed,.. calmly.

I go back to concordance with the Bible. I agree with Hawking that the big question is “Why is there anything instead of nothing?”

  We felt creation required a Creator when we only went back as far as the Big Bang.

  He claims he can explain things before the Big Bang by postulating the Grand Design.

That still leaves the question of “Who dun it ?”
Whether you call it a creation or design it still leaves the question of WHO?

I still wouldn’t know who did it except for one thing. HE LEFT ME A NOTE!
And that note is sufficiently detailed to authenticate itself.

But that is why concordance is SO important.

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