In the last several years, famous retired Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking has made headlines several times for advancing claims which seem bold, even if they are largely restating conclusions long held by a large number of his professional colleagues. He has, for instance, suggested that time travel (at least forward in time) might be not only possible but a useful way of escaping from an environmentally devastated planet. Before that, he attracted some controversy for suggesting that if (and it remains very unlikely) we do make contact with an alien civilization within our lifetimes, the consequences for humanity would probably be devastating. This time, Hawking is in the news for suggesting that we do not “need” God to explain the origins of the universe or the evolution of everything (including life) within it.
The claim comes in Hawking’s new book The Grand Design, co-written by Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow and hitting store shelves this fall. The book is an attempt at a popular explanation of quantum mechanics (just as Hawking attempted to popularize theoretical cosmology in his earlier book, A Brief History of Time). Among other things, however, the book advances the claim – sure to be controversial – that because of natural laws the universe is capable of spontaneous self-creation and, therefore, “it is not necessary to invoke God to… set the universe going.”
The claim, of course, is fairly standard fare in atheistic circles, even if only a minority of the general public spend much time thinking or talking about it. In point of fact, it is worth questioning whether the statement would have justified headlines at all had the scientist-celebrity Hawking not been the one uttering it. (Outspoken atheist-evangelist Richard Dawkins, for instance, makes similar statements on a daily basis.) Indeed, those familiar with Hawking’s life and work would also not have been entirely surprised by this comment. In the past, Hawking has occasionally invited favourable attention from a few religious people for his occasional invocations of God in his discussion of the universe. In its search for a full understanding of the natural world, Hawking once famously declared, humanity was striving to “know the mind of God.”
However, given a fuller understanding of Hawking’s life and beliefs, it has always been fairly apparent that such statements were meant metaphorically rather than literally. Hawking has never publicly affiliated himself with any religious tradition, and has declined being religious, although never specifically embracing atheism. Thus, his new declaration that God was “not needed” in the creation of the universe is a new level of commitment on his part, but is not overly surprising. Nor would many fellow physicists (some of whom are religious, and others of whom are not) be surprised that one of their colleagues was claiming that the origins of the universe were entirely natural.