Hawking: God was not needed to create the universe

Excerpt of self-described atheist's new book causes stir; Israeli scientists blast off at British physicist's views about the "Big Bang."

Stephen Hawking 311 (photo credit: Bloomberg News)
Stephen Hawking 311
(photo credit: Bloomberg News)
A few days before traditional Jews celebrate the 5,771st anniversary of God’s creation of the world on Rosh Hashana, eminent British theoretical physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking has created a stir by declaring that the “Big Bang” that is believed to have kicked off the creation of the universe “did not need” a divine being to happen.
A self-described atheist, the 68-year-old scientist has been paralyzed for decades by amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and can communicate with the world only by batting his eyelids toward a sensor that turns the movements into electronic letters.
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An extract of his new book, The Grand Design, was released on Thursday in The Times of London and presented his views on the Big Bang.
Hawking, who visited Israel with an entourage of assistants in December 2006, is known for his controversial opinions.
Among them is his call for the urgent colonization of another planet or the Moon so that mankind will have a place to go after it destroys Earth by pollution or nuclear catastrophe.
“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,” Hawking writes, as a coauthor with American physicist Leonard Mlodinow.
(Both of Mlodinow’s parents were Holocaust survivors. His father, who spent more than a year in Buchenwald, was a leader in the Jewish resistance against the Nazis in his hometown of Czestochowa, Poland.
Mlodinow, who currently teaches at the California Institute of Technology, first became interested in physics when he spent time at a kibbutz in the Jerusalem foothills at the end of the Yom Kippur War.) “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going,” Hawking wrote, as part of a new series of theories making a creator of the universe “redundant.”
In the new book, he states that the laws of physics were enough to trigger the Big Bang that made the expanding universe and that God was not needed for this.
“That makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single Sun, the lucky combination of Earth-Sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable and far less compelling evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings,” writes Hawking, who recently retired from his professorship at Cambridge University that was once held by Sir Isaac Newton.
Hebrew University physics Prof. Jacob Bekenstein, a religious Jew and leading theoretical physicist born in Mexico City, who studied black hole thermodynamics at the same time that Hawking did and whose work reportedly influenced the British scientist, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that Hawking’s new statements “are a bit simplified. We learn things about the universe from watching and conducting experiments, but we are limited and can err about physical laws. He has reached a grandiose conclusion that even many non-believer scientists would agree is too much.”
Asked why he thought Hawking had suddenly come out with a book on the subject, Bekenstein suggested: “He is a known atheist, from the time I first met him in the 1970s when he was able to communicate by saying ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ His care is very expensive, so he lives from his books and other projects. It’s not hard for him to get attention and publish.”
Bekenstein added that “many more people around the world would agree with his call for colonization of the Moon or an extraterrestrial planet than with his statement that God need not have been involved in the creation of the universe, although many people still would agree” on the latter.
Whether God created the universe or not is “not a pure scientific problem. The Big Bang of creation used to be very central in theoretical physics, but today, people don’t make an issue of it.”
Bekenstein added that he doesn’t believe a new universe could be launched in a lab by meeting the specific conditions believed to have occurred before the Big Bang.
“If it were possible in nature, with existing energies, it would have, but it didn’t, as far as we know. Scientists at the particle accelerator under Geneva are trying to understand some aspects of the Big Bang, but they can’t create all the conditions and exactly reproduce them,” he said.
Prof. Hagai Netzer, a secular physicist at Tel Aviv University who also met Hawking during his visit here, said: “The main question is what Hawking means. He apparently is saying that the physical laws that run our world make it possible for the creation of a new universe with our existing means. We know a lot about it, but not all. In general, I agree with him, that creation could occur spontaneously without divine intervention. We physicists don’t know all the details necessary; maybe in the future we will find some conditions are missing. Yet, if we have all the necessary conditions, maybe a new universe could appear.”
Netzer added that “God is beyond the natural laws. We are talking about the laws of nature, and there is no connection between them and religion.”
Observant Jewish theoretical physicists constitute about about a fifth of the few dozen in this country who work in the field.
“There has not been any argument between the secular and the religious on science. I highly value Prof. Bekenstein, my university colleague Prof. Zvi Mazeh and others who are religious. Religion is a personal belief, and it doesn’t prevent the observant from going into this field,” Netzer said.
Prof. Elia Leibowitz of TAU’s School of Physics and Astronomy told the Post that he agreed with Hawking in general about the Big Bang, “but not on everything,” and strongly supported his views on the need to colonize parts of outer space, “because we are destroying ourselves.”
Leibowitz, the son of the late Orthodox Israeli scientist and philosopher Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz and nephew of the late world-famous Orthodox biblical scholar Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, said he himself is an atheist and not religious at all, even though he grew up in a very observant home.
“From time immemorial, every time people find some major phenomenon they don’t understand, there is always the explanation that God did it. When the Greeks wanted to explain the rising and setting sun, they claimed that the god Helius did it. If we don’t understand the world and the Big Bang, many people say God is the answer.”
But, added Leibowitz, “the history of human knowledge proves that this explanation is not good enough. It doesn’t advance our knowledge about this at all.”
He added that he does not personally know Hawking, but “I guess he sees what is going on in the world – fundamentalism is spreading. People reach a lot of conclusions that are dangerous; think of Iran, al-Qaida. They want to blow up the world.
There is harmful extremism among Jews as well that can be harmful.”
Leibowitz added: “I don’t say I have all the explanations on how the universe began. I don’t know many things. We learn a bit more as time passes.”
He does not recall arguing with his father, who had controversial views about Orthodoxy and wrote that the sole purpose of religious commandments was to obey God and not to receive any kind of reward in this world or the world to come.
“I think he would agree with Hawking about the Big Bang and God, but my aunt Nechama – that would be an entirely different thing.”