Stephen Hawking's new book, "The Grand Design," co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, contends that God is not necessary to create the universe because the laws of physics can do it alone. The "new atheist" crowd will cheer this message, but their credulity is a matter more of fiery sentiment than of coolheaded logic.
Mr. Hawking asserts that "as recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously 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." But "spontaneous creation" minus any cause illustrates the lack of an explanation rather than scientific comprehension. It also runs counter to a question Mr. Hawking voiced years ago: "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?"
Mr. Hawking should take a cue from his earlier self. His question notes the difference between mere mathematical descriptions and genuine explanations. Mathematical descriptions tell us what mathematical relationships hold among phenomena but not why they hold. Genuine explanations tell us how things actually work - that is, why such descriptions apply and are effective. Quantum theory applied to gravitation and cosmology allows mathematical descriptions of highly speculative conjectures that, even if taken seriously, provide no explanation of the events they conjure. Aside from the dearth of evidence lending credence to these speculations, their explanatory impotence is inherited from ordinary quantum mechanics, which describes measurable phenomena with great accuracy but provides no understanding of why particular quantum outcomes are observed. As Richard Feyman said, "The more you see how strangely nature behaves, the harder it is to make a model that explains how even the simplest phenomena actually work, so theoretical physics has given up on that." Quantum physics forsakes genuine explanations for amazingly accurate mathematical descriptions in which efficient material causality is nowhere to be found.
This state of affairs led Albert Einstein in the 1930s to argue that quantum theory was an incomplete description of the world. What we have learned since then is that quantum theory cannot be supplemented to remedy this deficiency. When we try, we end up either with a theory that yields false predictions or with irremediably deficient modern versions of Louis de Broglie's and David Bohm's proposals. So quantum theory is not an incomplete description of reality, as Einstein supposed. Instead, we find that material reality itself lacks a principle of sufficient causation: The physical universe is causally incomplete and therefore neither self-originating nor self-sustaining. The world of space, time, matter and energy is dependent on a reality that transcends space, time, matter and energy.
This transcendent reality cannot merely be a Platonic realm of mathematical descriptions, for such things are causally inert abstract entities that do not affect the material world. Neither is it the case that "nothing" is unstable, as Mr. Hawking and others maintain. Absolute nothing cannot have mathematical relationships predicated on it, not even quantum gravitational ones. Rather, the transcendent reality on which our universe depends must be something that can exhibit agency - a mind that can choose among the infinite variety of mathematical descriptions and bring into existence a reality that corresponds to a consistent subset of them. This is what "breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe." Anything else invokes random miracles as an explanatory principle and spells the end of scientific rationality.
Nowhere is this destructive consequence more evident than in the machinations of multiverse cosmology to "explain" cosmological fine-tuning. Cosmic inflation is invoked to "explain" why our universe is so flat and its background radiation so uniform. All possible solutions of string theory are invoked to "explain" the incredible fine-tuning of the cosmological constant. But the evidence for cosmic inflation is both thin and equivocal; the evidence for string theory and its extension, M-theory, is nonexistent; and the idea that conjoining them demonstrates that we live in a multiverse of bubble universes with different laws and constants is a mathematical fantasy. What is worse, multiplying without limit the opportunities for any event to happen in the context of a multiverse - where it is alleged that anything can spontaneously jump into existence without cause - produces a situation in which no absurdity is beyond the pale.
For instance, we find multiverse cosmologists debating the "Boltzmann Brain" problem: In the most "reasonable" models for a multiverse, it is immeasurably more likely that our consciousness is associated with a brain that has spontaneously fluctuated into existence in the quantum vacuum than it is that we have parents and exist in an orderly universe with a 13.7 billion-year history. This is absurd. The multiverse hypothesis is therefore falsified because it renders false what we know to be true about ourselves. Clearly, embracing the multiverse idea entails a nihilistic irrationality that destroys the very possibility of science.
Universes do not "spontaneously create" on the basis of abstract mathematical descriptions, nor does the fantasy of a limitless multiverse trump the explanatory power of transcendent intelligent design. What Mr. Hawking's contrary assertions show is that mathematical savants can sometimes be metaphysical simpletons. Caveat emptor.
Bruce L. Gordon is an associate professor of science and mathematics at the King's College and editor of the forthcoming collection "The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science" (ISI Books, 2010).