Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design, is a nuanced analysis of the intertwining of metaphysics and physics through the ages. But all anyone wants to talk about is that the book says God wasn't needed to create the Universe.
In a passage excerpted in the Times of London, Hawking wrote:
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.
Oh my (unnecessary) God! This has sparked outrage in England, where there seem to be entire television channels dedicated to the tiresome battle between boorish scientific critics of religion like Richard Dawkins and whatever person with a funny hat is currently defending God/Allah/G-d/whatever.
But Stephen Hawking is not a sophomore philosophy major debating his buddies while stoned in the Quad, and his argument is actually much more sophisticated than this out-of-context paragraph suggests. According to Alan Boyle at MSNBC:
What he's actually saying in the book is that when we study the universe's origins, we have to work our way back from the present, rather than assuming there's an arbitrary point 13.7 billion years ago when Someone pressed the button on a cosmic stopwatch. And when you look at it that way, the universe looks more and more like a quantum phenomenon, in which a multitude of histories diverge. This is what Hawking calls top-down cosmology.
Basically it seems Stephen Hawking's argument is normative—it's about how to study the universe—rather than descriptive. He... sorry, we just dozed off for a second. This is boring... let's get back to the "there is no God" stuff!
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