Expanding universe. Photo by Mblegacy via Wikimedia Commons

Hawking’s Godless Universe? It’s Just an Opinion.

Massimo Robberto, astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in MD, responds to the theories of Stephen Hawking, who claims "...that advances in cosmology explain why the laws of the universe....[appear needless of] a benevolent creator.”
Paolo Perego

Did the universe need a creator? No, according to Stephen Hawking, world-famous astrophysicist, forced into a wheelchair by a disease that is paralyzing his muscles day by day. A categorical and irrefutable no, which Hawking expresses in his last book, The Grand Design, published on September 7th. “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.”

“Nothing new under the sun,” explains Massimo Robberto, astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute of Baltimore, where, using telescopes like Hubble, scientists are studying precisely the origin of the universe. “Recently, especially in some fields of theoretical physics that explore possibilities not verifiable in a laboratory setting, we observed the development of some studies that lead to the theory of multiverses, the hypothesis that an infinite multitude of universes would exist. And we would live in one of these realities, with its laws and its constants, but still just a bubble among the infinite possible bubbles that are formed. This would get rid of the problem of creation.”

Are these scientific theories solid?
For people like me, who perform experiments in astrophysics, they are mere curiosities, something you would discuss over coffee. But they bear no impact on our research. And besides, going back to talking about infinity contradicts some well-established physical discoveries. With the Hubble Space Telescope, we took the deepest image of the universe that was ever made. It is the size of a postage-stamp, if you set it against the sky. If we take the 10,000 galaxies in this stamp-sized image and we multiply them to cover the whole sky, we can count 400 billion galaxies. But at some point, we hit the limit at which the galaxies are not visible anymore, because they didn’t have the time to form. They are not infinite. The space all around us presents itself more and more clearly, as having a point of departure in time and with a finite number of bodies in it. Therefore, the sense of finitude in astrophysics is clear and evident.

What was your reaction when you read about Hawking’s book?
My first reaction was: “Here we go again!” There are some physicists–Hawking is one of their champions but definitely not the only one–who, exploring these grounds, make bad physics, because they put forth unverifiable statements. And, at the same time, this is bad metaphysics, bad philosophy. Against reason. Because the idea is that being would spring from itself, or from nothingness… but how can nothingness lead to something? This produces, in the public opinion, the impression of a science that is radical, scientistic. And this is bad for science itself. Just look at the blog comments reporting the news: so many were very critical. This provokes a negative reaction, because humanity, in its simplicity, perceives this position as non-correspondent. Of course, there are different cultures and traditions. But the question about meaning, especially in front of nature, is common to everyone. The distaste for science, and the skepticism, are born from these kinds of statements.

Stephen Hawking. Photo by NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Many people accused Hawking of presenting this theory as incontrovertible and universal. In the end, though, humanity doesn’t need just a theory that explains how the world was born, as it is constantly looking for its meaning.
You can take innumerable factors into account, but there will always be one, the X factor, that you can’t frame. And the concept of the extreme limit, of God, comes out at this level. Your conception of it is linked to your availability to account for the innumerable factors. If you are a caveman, the X factor will be the volcano; if you are an Egyptian, it will be the sun; if you are a Greek, it will be a philosophical concept… a greater reality. In our evolution, we have always been moving this conception, pushing it further. Hawking instead makes it wither, and in a very crude way, because he’s not even contemplating the problem of meaning, of logos. But the laws of physics, order, reason… for an evolved person, God is something more than the prime mover, the creator of the universe. Hawking turns God into a bronze-age caricature.

What would you reply to Hawking?
That what he’s stating is not verifiable. And if it’s not verifiable, measurable, and disprovable, it does not belong to physics. His statement comes from a specific vision, a cultural attitude, a personal history. But being made by a physicist, it acquires an authority that it does not deserve. Such things are speculations, ideas. They are not part of the scientific domain. The Physics Journal would never publish something like this. It is not verifiable, it is not disprovable. It is nothing. A respectable opinion, and nothing more.

Therefore, there is no science if one gets rid of the Mystery….
As a scientist, and as a Catholic, I will answer with a quote by Saint Paul from the Acts of the Apostles: “He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and He fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for Him and find Him, though indeed He is not far from any one of us.” All of reality is given to us, as if the Mystery kept telling us: “Look at Me. I am right here.” And you look around, and you can’t see Him. But you hear this calling. He doesn’t reveal Himself in this way. For Him to reveal Himself, the encounter with a Man is needed. I don’t know if physics can prove or disprove the existence of the Mystery. But reality carries within itself an objective calling, for everyone. We are looking for Him, He’s not far away, but we are not supposed to find Him: we need Someone to announce Him; He must come from a different path.

In this sense, a statement like Hawking’s is anti-scientific. In the end, he chooses to stop, to halt his search for this Mystery…
If somebody were to tell me, “I understand everything,” I would be sad. The way in which the Mystery acts in reality is a loving relationship toward us. I discover my wife more and more each day. And if I said, “I understand everything about you,” it would be over. A loving relationship is the source of a continuous newness. And reality follows the same dynamism: it is a constant spring of inexhaustible provocation and beauty. The more we discover, the more we become curious. Putting the word “end” to this would lead to melancholy, to desperation. I do this job precisely because I responded to this fascination as did many others with me. I’m curious about Hawking. I have met very few physicists who have reached a vision of the world through their jobs. But in one way or another, for many people, their studies brought to maturation, justified, confirmed a judgment that came before, a cultural background or a personal experience. This is what happened to me, but it’s the same for several people who hold opinions very different from mine. Take, for example, Jewish scientists, who for the large part stopped talking about God, after the Holocaust. There are preconditions that one needs to take into account while dialoguing with them, because science is read in the light of their experience. In the end, science is a heart looking at some equations. And the same is true for Hawking.