Dr. "Fritz" Schaefer is the Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and the director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize and was recently cited as the third most quoted chemist in the world. "The significance and joy in my science comes in the occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, 'So that's how God did it!' My goal is to understand a little corner of God's plan." --U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 23, 1991.
(This article is a transcript of a lecture Dr. Schaefer presented at the University of colorado in the spring of 1994, sponsored by Christian Leadership and other campus ministries. Over 500 students and professors were present.)
Stephen Hawking's bestseller A Brief History of Time is the most popular book about cosmology ever written. The questions cosmology addresses are scientifically and theologically profound. Hawking's book covers both of these implications.
Cosmology is the study of the universe as a whole--it's structure, origin and development. I won't answer all the questions Hawking raises concerning cosmology, but I will try to make comments on many of them. I caution here that you should not confuse cosmology with cosmetology, the art of beautifying the hair, skin, and nails!
Here are some of the questions cosmology seeks to answer (As elsewhere in this lecture, I borrow heavily from astrophysicist Hugh Ross' excellent books The Fingerprint of God and The Creator and the Cosmos.):
Let me begin with five traditional arguments for the existence of God. It may seem an unlikely starting point for this topic, but I think you'll see as time goes on that these arguments keep coming up. I'm not going to comment right away on whether these arguments are valid or not, but I will state them because throughout astrophysical literature these arguments are often referred to:
The idea that the universe had a specific time of origin has been philosophically resisted by some very distinguished scientists. We could begin with Arthur Eddington, who experimentally confirmed Einstein's general theory of relativity in 1919. He stated a dozen years later: "Philosophically, the notion of a beginning to the present order is repugnant to me and I should like to find a genuine loophole." He later said, "We must allow evolution an infinite amount of time to get started."
Albert Einstein's reaction to the consequences of his own general theory of relativity appear to acknowledge the threat of an encounter with God. Through the equations of general relativity, we can trace the origin of the universe backward in time to some sort of a beginning. However, before publishing his cosmological inferences, Einstein introduced a cosmological constant, a "fudge factor," to yield a static model for the universe. Einstein later considered this to be the greatest blunder of his scientific career.
Einstein ultimately gave grudging acceptance to what he called "the necessity for a beginning" and eventually to "the presence of a superior reasoning power." But he never did accept the reality of a personal God.
Why such resistance to the idea of a definite beginning of the universe? It goes right back to that first argument, the cosmological argument: (a) Everything that begins to exist must have a cause; (b) If the universe began to exist, then (c) the universe must have a cause. You can see the direction in which this argument is flowing--a direction of discomfort to some physicists.
In 1946, George Gamow, a Russian-born scientist, proposed that the primeval fireball, the "big bang," was an intense concentration of pure energy. It was the source of all the matter that now exists in the universe. The theory predicts that all the galaxies in the universe should be rushing away from each other at high speeds as a result of that initial big bang. A dictionary definition of the hot big bang theory is "the entire physical universe, all the matter and energy and even the four dimensions of time and space, burst forth from a state of infinite or near infinite density, temperature, and pressure."
The 1965 observation of the microwave background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson from the Bell Telephone laboratories convinced most scientists of the validity of the big bang theory. Further observations reported in 1992 have moved the big bang theory from a consensus view to the nearly unanimous view among cosmologists: there was an origin to the universe approximately 15 billion years ago.
About the 1992 observations, which were from the COBE (the NASA satellite Cosmic Background Explorer), there was a story on the front page of virtually every newspaper in the world. The thing that the London Times, New York Times, etc. seemed to pick up on was a statement by George Smoot, the team leader from the Lawrence-Berkeley Laboratory. He said, "It's like looking at God." Obviously, this captured the public's attention.
A somewhat more sober assessment of the findings was given by Frederick Burnham, a science-historian. He said, "These findings, now available, make the idea that God created the universe a more respectable hypothesis today than at any time in the last 100 years."
Not everyone was ecstatic about these observations that revealed the so-called "big bang ripples." Certainly, those who had argued so strongly and passionately for a steady-state model of the universe didn't like the interpretation of these results at all--primarily two persons, Fred Hoyle, the British astronomer, and Jeffrey Burbidge, a very distinguished astrophysicist at the University of California at San Diego.
We can begin to get into the philosophical implications of these observations when we assess Burbidge's statement (made during a radio discussion with Hugh Ross) on these things. Burbidge discounts the new experiment. He is a strong advocate still today, in the face of overwhelming evidence, of the steady-state theory. He says these new experiments come from "the first church of Christ of the big bang." I can tell you that my former colleague George Smoot, at the Lawrence-Berkeley Laboratory, took strong exception to this statement. He absolutely insisted his observations were in no way colored by any religious presuppositions.
Burbidge does say something that is true, however. He favors the steady-state hypothesis and claims his view supports Hinduism and not Christianity. That is correct, because a steady-state theory of the universe, were it to be true, would provide some support for the endless cycles taught by Hinduism. The big bang theory is significant evidence against Hinduism.
Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist, has written very persuasively on this topic. He again brings us into the philosophical implications. Ross says that, by definition,
Time is that dimension in which cause and effect phenomena take place. . . . If time's beginning is concurrent with the beginning of the universe, as the space-time theorem says, then the cause of the universe must be some entity operating in a time dimension completely independent of and pre-existent to the time dimension of the cosmos. This conclusion is powerfully important to our understanding of who God is and who or what God isn't. It tells us that the creator is transcendent, operating beyond the dimensional limits of the universe. It tells us that God is not the universe itself, nor is God contained within the universe.
These are two very popular views, which brings us to something very significant metaphysically or philosophically. If the big bang theory is true, then we can conclude God is not the same as the universe (a popular view) and God is not con-tained within the universe (another popular view).
Stephen Hawking has said, in his writings, "the actual point of creation lies outside the scope of presently known laws of physics," and a less well-known but very distinguished cosmologist, Professor Alan Guth from MIT, says the "instant of creation remains unexplained."
I want to quote from a book that I don't recommend. It is by a brilliant physicist, Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize winner. It is called The God Particle and although the title sounds very appealing, the good information is all in the first paragraph. The rest of it is just a case for the building of the SSC, the Super Conducting-Super Collider, which we now know is not going to be built. Therefore the book is a bit of a Rip Van-Winkle sort of experience! But the first paragraph is wonderful; it's a great summary of what I have said so far:
In the very beginning, there was a void, a curious form of vacuum, a nothingness containing no space, no time, no matter, no light, no sound. Yet the laws of nature were in place and this curious vacuum held potential. A story logically begins at the beginning, but this story is about the universe and unfortunately there are no data for the very beginnings--none, zero. We don't know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billion of a trillionth of a second. That is, some very short time after creation in the big bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up--we are in the realm of philosophy. Only God knows what happened at the very beginning.
That is about all that Lederman has to say about God--in the first paragraph--and that's the end of it. The thing that has made Hawking's book so popular is that he is talking about God from beginning to end.
Hawking is probably the most famous living scientist. His book, A Brief History of Time, is available in paperback and I strongly recommend it. It has sold in excess of 10 million copies, and I think he sold about five million before the paperback version. For a book to sell so many copies is almost unheard of in the history of science writing.
There has been a film made about the book. The film is also good. There has even been a book made about the film. Hawking has a wonderful sense of humor. He writes in the introduction of the second book, "This is the book of the film of the book. I don't know if they are planning a film of the book of the film of the book."
I want to begin by saying something about Stephen Hawking's scientific research. Hawking has made his reputation by investigating, in great detail, one particular set of problems: the singularity and horizons around black holes and at the beginning of time. Now, everyone is sure if you encountered a black hole, it would be the last thing you ever encountered--and that is correct! A black hole is a massive system so centrally condensed that the force of gravity prevents everything within it, even light, from escaping.
Hawking's first major work was published with Roger Penrose, a physicist very famous in his own right, and George Ellis, during the period 1968-1970. They demonstrated that every solution to the equations of general relativity guarantees the existence of a singular boundary for space and time in the past. This is now known as the "singularity theorem," and is a tremendously important finding.
Later, working by himself, in 1974, he began to formulate ideas about the quantum evaporation of exploding black holes, the now famous "Hawking radiation." These are all tremendously important scientific works.
The work most referred to in A Brief History of Time is also the most speculative: the 1984 work with James Hartle, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Using an elegant vacuum fluctuation model, they were able to provide a mathematical rationalization for the entire universe popping into existence at the beginning of time. This is also called the "universe as a wave function." I need to emphasize that they were using very simple models. Now, while such mathematical exercises are highly speculative, they may eventually lead us to a deeper understanding of this creation event.
Hawking is certainly the most famous physicist in history who has not won the Nobel Prize. This has puzzled people. They automatically assume he has won the Nobel Prize. He has not yet. This is because the Swedish Royal Academy demands that an award-winning discovery must be supported by verifiable experimental or observational evidence. Hawking's work, to date, remains unproved. The mathematics of his theory, however, are certainly beautiful and elegant. Science is just beginning to verify the existence of black holes, let alone verify "Hawking radiation" or any of his more radical theoretical proposals.
My opinion is that within the next year or two we will have firm evidence for the existence of black holes. Unfortunately, I think the person who will get the Nobel Prize will be the observa-tionalist who comes up with its data. So I think Hawking may not get the Nobel Prize soon, even though he's the world's most famous scientist.
Even if some aspects of Hawking's research turn out to be wrong, he will have had a profound impact on the history of scientific thought. Einstein was wrong about all matter of things, especially quantum mechanics, and we still recognize him as one of the three great geniuses of physics.
A Brief History of Time says a lot about God. God is mentioned in this book from beginning to end. So let us try to put Hawking's opinions about God in some sort of a context. The context is that Stephen Hawking made up his mind about God long before he became a cosmologist.
The principle influence in his early life was his mother, Isabel. Isabel Hawking was a member of the Communist Party in England in the 1930's, and her son has carried a good bit of that intellectual baggage right through his life.
By the time he was 13, Hawking's hero was the atheist philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell. At the same age, two of Hawking's friends became Christians as a result of the 1955 Billy Graham London campaign. According to his 1992 biographers, Hawking stood apart from these encounters with "a certain amused detachment." There is nothing in A Brief History of Time that deviates in a significant way from the religious views of the 13-year old Stephen Hawking.
The most important event of his life occurred on December 31, 1962. He met his future wife, Jane Wilde, at a New Year's Eve party. One month later, he was diagnosed with a terrible disease, ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was given two years to live at that time. That was 32 years ago. I have had three friends die of this disease. It's a horrible disease. They lasted two, three, and five years, respectively. By anyone's estimation, Stephen Hawking is a medical miracle.
At this point in his life, 1962, Stephen was by all accounts an average-performing graduate student at Cambridge University. Let me quote from his biographers, White and Gribbon, on this point:
There is little doubt that Jane Wilde's appearance on the scene was a major turning-point in Stephen Hawking's life. The two of them began to see a lot more of one another and a strong relationship developed. It was finding Jane that enabled him to break out of his depression and regenerate some belief in his life and work. For Hawking, his engagement to Jane was probably the most important thing that ever happened to him. It changed his life, gave him something to live for and made him determined to live. Without the help that Jane gave him, he would almost certainly not have been able to carry on or had the will to do so.
They married in July of 1965. Hawking himself has said that "what really made a difference was that I got engaged to a woman named Jane Wilde. This gave me something to live for."
Jane Hawking is an interesting person in her own right. I think she decided early on to get into an academic discipline as far as possible from her husband. She has a doctorate in Medieval Portuguese Literature!
Jane Hawking is a Christian. She made the statement in 1986, "Without my faith in God, I wouldn't have been able to live in this situation;" namely, the deteriorating health of her husband. "I would not have been able to marry Stephen in the first place because I wouldn't have had the optimism to carry me through and I wouldn't have been able to carry on with it."
The reason the book has sold 10 million copies, i.e., the reason for Hawking's success as a popularizer of science, is that he addresses the problems of meaning and purpose that concern all thinking people. The book overlaps with Christian belief and it does so deliberately, but graciously and without rancor. It is an important book that needs to be treated with respect and attention.
There is no reason to agree with everything put forth in A Brief History of Time and you will see that I have some areas of disagreement. It has been said that this is the most widely unread book in the history of literature. I first prepared this material for a lecture in December 1992, because I was asked by a friend in Australia to come and speak on it. He told me, "A great many people in Sydney have purchased this book. Some claim to have read it." So I encourage you to be one of those who have actually read A Brief History of Time.
Part 2 of Schaefer's lecture will appear in the next Real Issue, March/April, 1995. He will critique Hawking's "no boundary proposal" and theological statements in A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1988).