Gottfried Leibniz vs. Stephen Hawking
Simon Rwoney shares an email he received — Stephen Hawking's God gaffe:
- “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
In this quote the reference to “why there is something rather than nothing”, alludes to Leibniz’s version of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. In this small paragraph are a number of confusions and questionable inferences including the following:
Hawking confuses two senses of “the law of gravity”. The first sense refers to the concrete entity known as “gravity”, this entity is the well know force of attraction that acts on matter. Being a concrete entity, gravity is part of the known universe and therefore (according to Leibniz) is as much in need of an explanation as to why and how it came to exist as the rest of the concrete universe. The second sense refers to an abstract entity more commonly called “the law of gravity”. This law governs the way gravity behaves. Being a law, it is an abstract entity. It is not a force, in fact it has no causal power at all. It can not even make two material bodies attract each other, it is even less capable of “creating something from nothing”. As far as I’m aware this confusion is original with Hawking.
Even the abstract entity known as “the law of gravity” needs explaining. That is unless we assume that physical necessity is the highest form of necessity. In other words, unless we assume that physical necessity is equal to, or higher than metaphysical necessity. This is a very big assumption and has the weight of most of the philosophical tradition against it. It also has some truly bizarre consequences. For example, Hawking would be forced to say that being subject to the law of gravity is as much a part of a human being’s essence as is his or her rationality. I can't see how this could possibly true. The failure to distinguish the types of necessity is common to many recent physicists.
Hawking fails to grasps Leibniz's great insight that the universe must have a contingent cause. Without positing a contingent cause everything is necessary. For example the fact of "high winds in NSW on Fathers' Day" is just as necessary as "the law of gravity". Of course this is just bizarre and goes against our ordinary intuitions. It is also contrary to much of modern science. Leibniz was brilliant enough to discover a contingent cause in God's free choice to create the universe. Hawking doesn't have a contingent cause, he offers a (physically) necessary cause and so fails Leibniz's criterion. This error is again common to many recent physicists.
Hawking added to his confusion with the following:
"it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going"
This argument confuses the one, true Creator with the mere creature known as the God of the Gaps. This creature was invoked by Newtonians to explain all the physical phenomena unexplained by current science. This idea is very much like the ancients, who would envoke dieties to explain lightening, volcanoes and other natural phenomena. Such a being has been called a demiurge and is simply another creature. The demiurge is not God. God is the creator not just another physical cause.
With this quote Hawking reveals just how little he knows about the theistic tradition and the real insights contained in the Cosmological argument and other philosophical and theological thesis.
Hawking may have rational grounds for not believing in God. I am not privy to his private thoughts, I don't know what he has read, what he has been taught nor what insights he has had. But the reasoning, as presented to us, is confused at best and is well below the standards appropriate for a former Cambridge professor.