God, the Multiverse, Stephen Hawking, and You
This past September, physics genius and celebrity Stephen Hawking released a new book, The Grand Design (coauthored with Leonard Mlodinow and published by Bantam Books). A short passage in the book quickly caught the media’s attention. “Stephen Hawking says God did not create the universe,” announced the headlines.[i] The book immediately hit the tops of best-seller lists.
Hawking’s book is primarily about M-Theory, a generalization of string theory under development since the 1990s and currently the best candidate for a “theory of everything” in physics. Hawking adds some comments about theories in which universes can appear 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 [i.e. fuse] and set the universe going.”[ii] Today, says Hawking, science can interpret the moment of Creation.
Believers in God should not be worried or even surprised if a scientific description of Creation is somehow proven to be true. We have learned after seeing our favorite design arguments squashed by Newton, Darwin, etc. that we should not depend on a “God of the Gaps” for monotheism. Instead of looking for God in events that the laws of nature have yet to explain, today we find His wisdom in the laws themselves. Thus, for example, explains R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik:
“In nature as a whole – and especially in its systematic regularity and in the technical character of its processes, in the scientific drama occurring within it, in the exact mathematical relationships between natural phenomena and especially in the permanent laws of physics – the primeval will of the Master of the Universe is reflected. A man goes outdoors on a fair summer’s day and sees the whole world blossoming – that man comes ‘to know’ that there exists a Primary Being Who is the originator of all that is.”[iii]
The power and consistency of natural law reveals God’s wisdom. I will not defend Hawking’s dismissive attitude, but his book dismisses a God of the Gaps, not God Himself.
Hawking’s book also contains a more surprising claim. “Philosophy is dead,” he pronounces on the first page.[iv] Science has done away with it. The big questions of existence shall no longer be pondered in armchairs but rather answered in laboratories and observatories. That is a bold claim – definitely great for selling books.
But has modern science really answered the questions of existence? Can it make God’s role as Creator irrelevant? A few issues deserve consideration.
Nothing and Something
How can a universe appear spontaneously from nothing?
The leading theory today is that our universe began as a random fluctuation of energy in a vacuum, where conditions were right to set off a Big Bang. Indeed, vacuums are proven to have energy fluctuations, and recent observations by NASA support other aspects of the theory. However, a fluctuation in a vacuum is not creation from nothing; a vacuum, with dimensions and energy, is far from nothing. God’s creatio ex nihilo is (traditionally) creation from absolute Nothing, a Nothing that has no properties whatsoever: it is not dark, it is not empty, it is not existent; it is pure Nothing. Nothing cannot be governed by natural laws, because Nothing plus laws is Something. There is an infinite gap between Nothing and Something. Absolute Nothing is not blue touch paper.
The continued existence of Something is not so straightforward either. We are so used to existence that we take it for granted. Why should Something exist? Physical laws describe Something, but they are just equations; they do not create Something. Hawking expressed it best in his first best-seller, A Brief History of Time: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”[v]
So we still ask: why is there Something rather than Nothing?
Hawking concedes that the laws of nature appear fine-tuned to permit the existence of life:
“The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned, and very little in physical law can be altered without destroying the possibility of life as we know it. Were it not for a series of startling coincidences in the precise details of physical law, it seems, humans and similar life-forms would never have come into being.”[vi]
Hawking says a “multiverse” can explain this. There are many universes beyond our own, the story goes; Hawking says that M-Theory allows for “perhaps as many” as 10500 distinct universes.[vii] (10500 is notation for the number written as a one followed by 500 zeros. For comparison, there are about 1080 atoms in the visible universe, or one followed by 80 zeros; note that every time you write six more zeros after a number you multiply it by a million.) Most of these universes obey laws much different from ours and thus are devoid of life. A universe will eventually appear where life-permitting laws are fulfilled by chance; life forms like us must find themselves in such a universe.
This passage from Hawking appears to be a victory for recognition of the fine-tuning problem. Many positivist thinkers have totally dismissed the problem using various excuses; here is a high-profile positivist acknowledging the need for explanation. All that remains for the theist is to argue that the multiverse is a less satisfying explanation than God is.
First, the magnitude of fine-tuning is tremendous. In recent decades, physicists have noted dozens of ways that numbers appearing in the equations of physics seem fine-tuned for life to exist, occasionally with unfathomable precision – down to a few parts in numbers like 1040, 1060, even 10100.[viii]
Take the force of gravity, for example. If its strength, relative to the nuclear weak force (a force between the components of a proton), were different by as little as a few parts in 10100, then our universe’s early expansion might have been disastrous.[ix] If its strength, relative to the electromagnetic force (the force that governs our interactions with everyday objects), were different by a few parts in 1040, the energy of starlight would be either too weak or too strong for life to survive.[x]
Fine-tuning is required all over physics: e.g., in the strengths of forces, the masses of particles, the geometry of space, and so on. It is needed for nearly every stage in the universe’s progress toward life: e.g., the avoidance of immediate collapse after the Big Bang, the appearance of matter, the feasibility of atoms, the stability of stars, the production of any elements beyond beryllium (like carbon and oxygen), and so on. The overall picture is overwhelming.
Then, philosopher John Leslie drops a bomb: there are so many reasons the values of constants are precariously linked to each other in our universe by fine-tuning requirements, it is a miracle that no two requirements of life conflict![xi] You cannot fine-tune a constant to meet one requirement and then again to meet others; a constant must satisfy all requirements simultaneously. How amazing that every one of the narrow requirements of life overlaps with all the others!
Were a multiverse to explain Leslie’s point, it would need vast regions ruled by laws radically different in their fundamental structure from those that rule our own, so that ours would be the rare region where fine-tuning of constants even has a chance.
Truth be told, Hawking’s M-Theory offers the first plausible multiverse I have ever seen considered that does vary the structure of physics between universes. But I am not convinced that the variation is enough to explain the miracle. Further, it remains to be seen whether M-Theory is itself fine-tuned. For this issue, then, I recommend patience: first, wait for the full picture of M-Theory to emerge and gain empirical support, then we can worry about its implications for fine-tuning.
The question stands in the meantime: why does the possibility of life appear to be almost inherent to the observed laws of nature?
There is another sort of fine-tuning that does not get much attention because it is more subjective. The laws of nature appear to be fine-tuned for elegance. A law may be called “elegant” when it is expressed by math that is both simple and deep.
Consider gravity again. Gravitational orbits obey the laws of Kepler, which comprise three simple equations. Those laws can be derived from any of three distinct mathematical models: namely, a central force, a potential energy field, or the principle of least action. Each model is itself a short line of mathematics. These interpretations of gravity are all simple, but their interconnectedness is deep; we then say that the law of gravity is “elegant.”
The entire edifice of physics is a complex structure, with numerous layers of principles and derivations that interact in subtle and surprising ways – elegant ways. Legendary physicist Richard Feynman expressed wonder that you “cannot modify the laws much” without destroying their elegance.[xii]
Why does nature appear to value elegance?
Laws at All
Fine-tuning is a trivial problem compared to a deeper question: why does nature follow mathematical patterns, as opposed to total chaos? As Hawking, quoting Albert Einstein, writes, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”[xiii]
Why should nature obey laws at all?
God and the Multiverse
The existence of a God Who cares about life immediately resolves all the questions I have raised so far. A multiverse could only explain some of the fine-tuning questions.
Also, note that God and a multiverse are not mutually exclusive. It is possible that God created a mostly uninhabitable multiverse with the laws to produce a habitable universe, just as within our mostly uninhabitable universe God used natural law to eventually produce a habitable planet.
In any event, modern science clearly leaves important metaphysical questions unresolved. Any qualified philosopher since Immanuel Kant could have predicted that outcome.
This whole discussion should be irrelevant to a Jew’s commitment to serving God. There is simply no way to unequivocally prove the personal God through nature – and we do not demand proofs. In the words of R. Eliezer Berkovits: “No doubt, the familiar proofs for God’s existence may suggest a Supreme Being as a likely metaphysical hypothesis. But can a man pray to a hypothesis, let alone trust and have faith in it? The God of religion is clearly not a hypothesis.”[xiv]
We do not need to investigate God’s presence; we experience it.
Why, then, should we care about fine-tuning and spontaneously-forming universes? First, one must “know what to respond,” in the words of R. Eliezer.[xv] We should know that our faith stands strong even as science illuminates the foundations of nature.
But more importantly, God created an incredible world for us to appreciate and thereby draw closer to Him. Quoth the Rambam:
“And what is the path to loving Him and fearing Him? When man contemplates His great and wondrous works and creations and sees in them His immeasurable, infinite wisdom, he immediately loves, praises, glorifies, and yearns with a great desire to know His great Name, as David said, ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.’[xvi] And when he considers these things, he immediately trembles and fears and knows that he is a small, lowly, obscure creature, standing with minimal, trivial knowledge before the All-Knowing, as David said, ‘When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers […] What is man that You should recall him?’[xvii]”[xviii]
We can appreciate Rambam’s words now more than ever. We live in an exciting time, when new discoveries in physics and astronomy are being made faster than we can keep up with them. The grand design is unfolding – offering a glimpse of the grandeur of the Designer.
Rafi Miller is a senior at YC majoring in Mathematics and Physics.
[i] E.g., “Stephen Hawking Says God Did Not Create the Universe: What Do You Think?” ABC News (September 2, 2010), available at: http://abcnews.go.com/WN/stephen-hawking-god-create-universe-question-day/story?id=11542128.
[ii] Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), p. 180.
[iii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, On Repentance: In the Thought and Oral Discourses of Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, adapted from the Yiddish by Pinhas H. Peli (Jerusalem: Oroth Publishing House, 1980), p. 147.
[iv] Hawking & Mlodinow, p. 5.
[v] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 192.
[vi] Hawking & Mlodinow, p. 161.
[vii] Ibid., p. 118.
[viii] A great, but partly dated, list of sourced examples is provided by John Leslie, Universes (London: Routledge, 1989), chapter 2. I highly recommend the book to readers interested in having their minds blown.
[ix] Leslie, p. 23.
[x] Ibid., p. 37.
[xi] Ibid., p. 64.
[xii] Richard Feynman, The Character of Physical Law (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1967), p. 54.
[xiii] Hawking & Mlodinow, p. 87.
[xiv] Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man, and History: A Jewish Interpretation (New York: Jonathan David, 1959), p. 12.
[xv] Avot 2:14.
[xvi] Tehillim 42:3.
[xvii] Ibid. 8:4-5.
[xviii] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2 (translation mine).