Stephen Hawking is at it again; another of his slow to write, slow to read popular science books is coming out. First there was A Brief History of Time which I struggled about two thirds of the way through, more than once, before finally giving up (one day I will manage it). Then there was The Universe in a Nutshell which was basically the same material, but this time with less writing, bigger glossy pages, and lots of drawings of time funnels, Feynman diagrams, and floating wheelchairs. Easiest book on advanced theoretical physics I ever looked at the pictures of. Along the way he’s also written plenty of papers and science books for the professional. Each one written in the most arduous, pain-staking manner; as his Motor Neurone disease advances he can now only move his cheek. His computer is controlled via a laser beam shined onto his cheek which responds to his twitch. He uses a predictive text function and as his condition deteriorates he has decreased from 15 words per minute, to a mere four. When he gives interviews and speeches all questions have to be sent to him weeks in advance to allow him to compose and save his answers.
He has famously used the word God in a way which confuses the scientifically illiterate public. The last sentence of Brief History of Time reads thusly:
"If we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God."
This is clearly a metaphorical, poetic use of the word. He does not mean there is a creator god, and he certainly doesn’t mean a personal interventionist god that gives a shit about what humans do or say. This is the ‘God’ of Einstein; a non-personal god, a metaphor for the beauty, wonder and mechanics the universe holds for us to discover and admire.
While being functionally atheistic Hawking has always taken a practical agnostic stance on the existence of a creator God. His understanding of the early universe had not previously provided him with enough information to decide whether or not it is possible or necessary to postulate a godlike force which triggered the big bang. Unfortunately religious apologetics and fanatics will always jump upon any scientists who admit they don’t know everything, and force god into the gaps. They also love taking any poetic use of words like god or heaven literally, as when they often attempt to steal Einstein as one of their own. To them I can only repeat the quote of Einstein:
“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
Here the wishy-washy Anglican will try to say that any admiration for the world is simply an expression of a love of god. And what can you say to that? You can shrug and say whatever. Or you can say that when the definition of a word becomes so loose it has no meaning whatsoever. How can you profess to believe in something and in the same breath claim to have no idea what it is you believe in? Anyway, back to Stephen.
His new book The Grand Design is coming out soon; a title which will no doubt spawn endless intentional misunderstandings from history-denying religionists. Extracts have been published in The Times, which I haven’t bought and won’t go through the paywall. In the extracts I have seen however it is clear that Hawking has shifted his stance even closer to absolute atheism, postulating how the universe could have formed itself without any need for a weird non-specific space ghost to jump-start it:
"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. M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph."
I for one cannot wait to read this book, to find out how theoretical physics has advanced since last time I poked my head around the door. Come on guys, let’s get general relativity and quantum theory reconciled; I want to know how everything works. Oh, and please sort out warp drive while you are at it; I want to go to space. Thank you.