Stephen Hawking, God, and Consciousness

On September 9, 2010, Larry King interviewed Stephen Hawking and Cal Tech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, who together co-authored The Grand Design. In this book, they propose that “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without a need for a creator.” They go on to say that “The scientific account is complete. Theology is unnecessary.”

While these statements may seem controversial, Hawking and Mlodinow are not the first theoretical mathematicians to attempt to remove God or theology from the halls of science. Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton all did the same thing with varying degrees of success.

It’s important to realize that none of these men stated that God did not exist. What they said was that everything about the workings of the universe could be explained by mathematics. In fact, Newton did such a splendid and thorough job of explaining the clockwork of the heavens, and other topics of physics, that many scientists of the day declared that the last volume had been written on those matters and there was nothing new to learn.

If the history of scientific discovery teaches us anything, it’s that there is
always something new to learn and it either overturns previous certainties,
or shows them to be true only under a limited range of circumstances.

Hawking also presented the idea that ours was not the only universe. In fact, he stated that there are a “great many universes” and all of them were created out of nothingness. He went on to state that “these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science.” Hawking isn’t the first to suggest that idea. It began to gain acceptance as the notion of inflationary cosmology took hold, which describes how the universe took shape from its earliest moments to what we see now. It’s also been criticized as a theory invented solely as a way for cosmologists to remove God from the equations. (Note: the multiverse theory is a fairly recent development and completely different from the Many Worlds theory, which was proposed by Hugh Everett in 1957.)

Something from Nothing

During the panel discussion that followed the one-on-one interview with Hawking, both Father Robert J. Spitzer, (Jesuit priest and author of New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy) and Deepak Chopra (spiritual teacher and best-selling author) took issue with the idea of something from nothing. They are not alone. Several physicists, including those who study quantum theory, M theory (of which string theory is a part), and the multiverse theory, are trying to write the equations that will explain the existence of both time and matter prior to the Big Bang. (A side note. One of my favorite physicists on this topic is Lisa Randall, Professor of Physics at Harvard, who authored Warpped Passages.)

In response, Mlodinow briefly touched on the subject by suggesting that quantum theory upholds the old axiom that nature abhors a vacuum by stating that, “You can have nothingness in quantum theory. But from that, things will arise.” Basically, things pop into and out of existence so rapidly that we don’t even notice. He somewhat deflected the question about nothingness being the beginning of existence and cited the time-before-time problem as the reason there is no satisfactory answer to that question yet.

Consciousness

From out of left field, King asked Mlodinow what happens to us when we die. After recovering from being stunned at the question, he deflected it a bit, but it led to a very interesting response about consciousness and the limits of science to quantify it. He said, “there’s no physics explanation for consciousness. And as far as I can tell, I’ve never seen consciousness defined in a way that a scientist can really deal with.”

One of the TV shows I enjoy is Closer to Truth, which deals with many of the same questions presented in this King interview, including cosmology, consciousness, and God. In each episode, the host, Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn, asks a question from one of these topics and then presents interviews with 4-7 leading thinkers in those areas giving their perspective. One of the elements I most enjoy about the show is the diversity of those Kuhn interviews and the balance of ideas it brings forth. Kuhn never draws a conclusion for his audience, although he does tastefully interject his own opinion and commentary between interviews.

The reason I bring up this show is that I’ve been watching it for a couple of seasons and I’m impressed with the wide range of ideas held about what consciousness is. During the time I was researching The Sage Age, I came to the conclusion that each individual branch of study has its own working definition of consciousness, but there is no over-arching definition, and certainly nothing concrete enough for science to quantify outside of measuring the shadows of consciousness, which is brain activity.

The Limits of Science

Given that is the case, Mlodinow was wise to respond that, “physics is not an axiomatic system. Meaning that you state a few mathematical principles and derive everything using mathematics from those principles. That’s not what science is. Science is based on ideas that come from observation and consequences.” And, he was also wise to re-emphasize that the book he and Hawking wrote was fundamentally about answering two questions, which were where the universe came from and why the laws of nature were as they appeared today.

By stating that “God was not necessary to create the universe or to make the laws what they are,” neither author is attempting to do away with the existence of God or to explain every mystery. As Kuhn says in the episode, What Things are Conscious?, when all the great answers of physics have been found, we will not have begun to unravel the mysteries of consciousness.

I am satisfied that consciousness, or Mind, can exist without theology or the need for a personified god being. I also acknowledge that we often marvel at the abilities of our intelligence to recognize patterns in something as vast and complex as the cosmos almost as much as we marvel at the cosmos itself.

We are More than Physics

The comment Father Spitzer made toward the end of the discussion sticks in my mind, which was, “[Humans] want to know who they really are at their deepest level, whether that be empirically obvious or not. Perhaps there is something more to human beings than merely physics or M Theory.” He goes on to say, “We’re constantly inquiring because we want the most out of our lives. And so basically we don’t quash the mystery. We enter into the mystery. Most of the time, we enter into the mystery by asking questions.”

The book that Hawking and Mlodinow present is what they, and many other scientists, believe to be the answers to their questions about one aspect of the mystery. It doesn’t answer everything and it doesn’t completely close the doors to other possibilities. In fact, when King asked Hawking if he could travel through time, which way would he go, Stephen replied, “I would go forward and find if M theory is indeed a theory of everything.”

2 thoughts on “Stephen Hawking, God, and Consciousness”

  1. In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  2. Ron, I believe Einstein continued to work on a Grand Unified Theory until the day he died. But, his version was not based on quantum theory, which he postulated was incomplete.

    Your revision of Einstein’s equation is very creative analogy.

    To Hawking, physics can answer everything. But, I agree with you that consciousness is the real key. As you stated, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. As I mentioned in the post, there’s not even a good working definition of consciousness that all science branches can use. I believe finding that is the Holy Grail of a lot of disciplines these days.

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