In the beginning, Chance – or God?

Review of Stephen Hawking’s “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” - Part 2

Hawking is eager to say that the universe could have started by chance. The fact that it “started” at all is a big concession from materialistic scientists. It leads to the questions “What was before?” and “How did it start?” (Even if not on purpose, i.e. the dreaded word “design”).

In doing this, Hawking misrepresents the creation story in the Bible. To be precise, he doesn’t mention it at all in this book. Instead, he describes the creation story of the Boshongo people of central Africa, which he describes thus: “[I]n the beginning, there was only darkness, water and the great god Bumba. One day Bumba in pain from a stomach ache, vomited up the sun. The sun dried up some of the water, leaving land. Still in pain, Bumba vomited up the Moon, the stars and then some animals – the leopard, the crocodile, the turtle and, finally, man.” (42)

He brings it in the context of the discussion about whether or not the universe had a beginning. I’ll return to that shortly. First, however, I want to highlight something else. And that is the question of purpose or design. A point Hawking studiously avoids. I have a hunch he may have chosen the above story because of its similarity to the biblical creation story. Maybe the unspoken subtext is: The biblical story of Genesis is nothing special, here’s another example where a god is hanging around with water and darkness and then creates a few things, in a certain order, ending with humans. Assuming this is what Hawking had in mind, there needs to be a Christian answer.

My answer to Hawking is this: The Genesis creation story differs fundamentally from the story of Bumba as conveyed by Hawking (and many other, similar stories from antiquity around the world), in that God doesn’t “vomit” out the sun, moon and all the rest of it. In many “creation” stories around the world, order results from chaos spontaneously, in some way or another by chance. However, in Genesis there is no chance element. There is nothing involuntary either. In the Bible, God does everything on purpose. Pre-planned. Moreover, during the creation he quality-checks his work: After almost every step, God ascertains that what He did was “good”. And, to crown it all, at the end of the creation week, he “looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!” (Gen. 1, 31, my emphasis). There are indeed many creation stories around the world. There are some overlapping elements. These overlaps are points of anthropological interest worthy of research. However, to my knowledge, none other than the biblical creation story includes purpose and the assessment of quality. This tells us something about the outlook, worldview and image of humanity that the author(s) of the biblical creation story had. Moreover, the story reinforced and transposed the outlook, worldview and image of humanity on to the following generations of those who adopted it and “believed” it. They believed it in the sense that they understood and accepted its core message, regardless of the material or “scientific” truth or otherwise of the story “facts”.

This significant, categorical difference in outlook, worldview and image of humanity is also worth investigating for another reason, namely in the context of “progress”. Did this worldview have an effect on how society was organised and structured? Did this outlook have an effect on the historical success or otherwise of societies? Did this image of humanity, wherever it was an active ingredient of society, aid or hinder human flourishing?

Hawking freely concedes that not only does science say that the universe had a beginning, but also that “many scientists were unhappy” with this fact. This was “because it seemed to imply that physics broke down.” Meaning that, “before” the beginning, physical laws did not apply. Moreover, one would have to “invoke an outside agency, which for convenience one can call God, to determine how the universe began.” (47)

After briefly discussing, and then discarding, alternatives such as the steady-state theory, he explains the dilemma for materialist scientists: According to the best available theories of the Big Bang, the universe began as a “single point of infinite density, a space-time singularity”. At this point, Hawking continues, Einstein’s general theory of relativity breaks down. “Thus one cannot use it to predict in what manner the universe began.” (50) But then he comes up with some possible ways of scientifically explaining the origins of the universe. One way might be incorporating Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle into Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Another way might be to combine Einstein’s theory and Richard Feynman’s idea of multiple histories of the universe. Hawking’s scientific contribution to this particular quest is that, very shortly after the beginning, quantum fluctuations, a consequence of the Uncertainty Principle, caused slight differences in the distribution of energy. These differences in turn caused differences in the density of matter. “The gravitational attraction of the extra density slows the expansion of that region, and can eventually cause it to collapse to form galaxies and stars.” (61)

Hawking also speculates about the possibility of multiple universes. That would solve the problem materialist scientists have with the fact that our universe seems to be finetuned, to an incredibly improbable degree, to the emergence of life as we know it. This is almost as troublesome to them as the knowledge that the universe had a beginning. With regard to these theoretical other universes, Hawking laments: “[W]e will never be able to explore them.” (63)

About the possible end of the universe, Hawking explains that the universe will either slow down its expansion and eventually collapse into a “Big Crunch”, or, if the density of the universe turns out to be below a critical value, the universe will continue expanding until all the stars burn out, “and the universe will get emptier and emptier, and colder and colder.” (64) In other words, a “Big Freeze” (my term). However, says Hawking: Either way, we still have at least a few billion years ahead of us. “You can do a lot of eating, drinking, and being merry before that.” (64) So why worry?

We have arrived at the nub of the problem for materialist scientists. At the beginning of the first chapter, Hawking writes this: “Nowadays, science provides better answers [that make sense of natural phenomena, instead of relying on supernatural explanations], but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not understand or trust science.” (25) This is a gross misrepresentation, a “straw man argument” of the reason why people “cling to religion”.

The actual reason for why materialist scientists have a problem getting their message accepted by a great number of people was, maybe unconsciously, touched on precisely when he said, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that we still having billions of years to “eat, drink and be merry”. It’s not that people don’t understand science. Not even that they don’t trust science. What people do not accept or trust is a creed that insists that everything is created by chance. They understand the logical consequence of that creed: That ultimately their lives do not matter. At all. Here today, gone tomorrow. Nothing matters. By and large, people reject that.

Maybe Hawking didn’t know who he was quoting when he quipped that saying (“You can do a lot of eating, drinking, and being merry before that.”). Let me enlighten you. It was from the Bible. More precisely, from Isaiah. In chapter 22 of the prophet’s book, he laments how the people of Jerusalem are reacting to the threat from enemy forces. They felt they had no hope. When people have no hope, they despair – or try to numb their hopelessness by distracting themselves. What they should have done, according to Isaiah, was to turn to God. But instead, he observes, “there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! ‘Let us eat and drink,’ you say, ‘for tomorrow we die!’” (22:13, NIV).

Hawking inserts this saying as a kind of joke. The joke does a poor job of masking the spiritual void he has inadvertently exposed. Namely the spiritual void of hopelessness in the face of either a “Big Crunch” or a “Big Freeze” that lie in wait for us – or rather our descendants. Basically he is saying: What are you worrying about – the end is ages away. And don’t worry about your descendants’ fate.

It is this that many people instinctively turn away from – the hollowness of that outlook. They are right to turn away. Maybe more right than they know. For the outlook has implications for the worldview and the image of humanity in the present. And we shall see what that means in the case of Hawking and those who laud him and hold him up as an example to follow.   

But before that, lest anyone thinks the above quote is ‘just’ Old Testament stuff, ‘fire and brimstone’ etc., we should take a look at the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the Rich Fool. It goes like this: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12, 16-21, NIV, my emphasis.)

Jesus will have known that his listeners understood the reference to Isaiah. His message was at least twofold. The first was: Whatever your circumstances, remember that God is in charge. Plan your life accordingly. The second was: Your life on earth is limited. What are you doing in that limited time to make the world a better place? The latter question implies: better for whom? In particular: Who will get what you leave behind? What have you done today to prepare for that eventuality? Jesus’ listeners will have known this proverb: “A good person leaves an inheritance for their children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous.” (Proverbs 13:22, NIV) It is this that the above parable refers to: Do not just “eat, drink, and be merry”. Think also of the future, and not just your own, but that of your children and grandchildren (or, if you don’t have any of your own, those of others). Why? Because that gives our lives meaning. In biblical terms: Our lives are to be dedicated to expanding the Kingdom of God. This includes, fundamentally, to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28, NIV) and to “work and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15, NIV).  

Hawking refuses to consider the question: What then? What happens to “us” when the universe dies? All he has to offer is despair, but he doesn’t have the courage to say it out loud. Instead, he attempts to cover it up with a joke.

Hawking’s answer is the answer of all who have rejected God down the ages: “I don’t care.” Louis XIV of France is said to have put it this way: “Après moi, le déluge.” Yes, Hawking has, in the same book, written about the perceived dangers of climate change, nuclear war, overpopulation, viruses and the possibility of artificial intelligence taking over the world. He has even cautioned us to not blast too loudly into space a message that we exist, lest potential aliens might treat us like the conquistadores did the American Indians. Doesn’t that show that he cares? Yes, but only up to a point. And it’s insufficient. He proves he doesn’t care in his following chapter, under the title: “Are we alone in the universe?” – which I will review in the next part of this series.

Next part of the review: Human beings are parasites – or the image of God?