Stephen Hawking and The Design of a Flawed Argument

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big bang

Article from the Guardian:

In the new work, The Grand Design, Professor Stephen Hawking argues that the Big Bang, rather than occurring following the intervention of a divine being, was inevitable due to the law of gravity.

Before getting into an argument about whether you agree or disagree, believe or disbelieve this statement, just notice the space from which this formulation arises.

Hawking’s theological reflections are descriptions of classic modern debates from the 17th-19th centuries (e.g. William Paley and David Hume). As humans began to explain the workings of nature through science, God became banished from the natural world. God was therefore assumed to exist outside of the universe and therefore had to “intervene”. This view is called Theism. Or this Creator God set the world in motion and let the world run its own course—a view called Deism.* Atheism is the honest recognition that the theistic god does not exist and the deistic god were he to exist is totally useless. But atheism (especially in its modern variety) does not therefore disprove the existence of Divinity as such (contra to its own understanding).


atheism vs. theism

The terms of the theological and philosophical debate over theism/deism/atheism as reflected in Stephen Hawking’s text are set however by modern consciousness--a consciousness that still has the same fights today (see photo above).

This modernist way of framing the issue is not the only (or even the best) way of approaching the discussion.  

"Does God Exist?"  The answer is either yes or no.  We all assume we know what the word God means and what the word existence means and then simply launch into pre-decided points of view with both sides claiming to scientifically "prove" their point of view as fact.  

Hawking's framing occurs through the lens of “design”. Notice that the stark choices offered for the “design” of life are either “intervention of a divine being” or “inevitable due to the law of gravity.” If you believe in the former you are a theist, if you believe the latter you are an atheist. Neither the theistic interventionist model nor the inevitable atheist laws of nature model allows for the truly new to take place.

Moreover, what’s never question is whether design is the best framework within which to describe creation (creation: from the same root as the word creativity). I’m not knocking designers. Designers can truly be creative beings. But the dark side of design often entails a very modernist mindset of control, power, and manipulation—as in a scientific lab.

Both the intervenionist theistic model and the atheistic laws of Science model deny any place for the truly emergent to manifest. The theistic model of a god who intervenes from outside creation has a dominating power over creation. This god also appears capricious (why did god supposedly cure this woman’s cancer but not this man’s AIDS?). Also this god is either directly responsible for evil (as cause of the evil in the world) or powerless to do anything about evil’s onslaught and therefore a fraud given the idea of how this god should be.

The inevitable laws of nature view also is deterministic in nature—only in this case the deterministic cause is material(ish) in nature as opposed to the idealistic tradition of divinity. I say material(ish) because how exactly material are “Laws”—particularly Laws of Nature? Humans laws are written on paper or stone or walls (that’s material). But most people I think would say the laws are not simply the actual letters scribbled or typed on some writing surface. The laws are the principles they enact, the rules that establish as well as the meaning of how they are to applied in various cases—none of which are entirely material in nature.

This point is an important one since human beings existed first and created laws to govern their social, political, and economic lives (via free will and consciousness) and only later did those laws become the metaphoric basis for interpreting the workings of nature by incorporating the legal lifeworld into scientific discourse.

In that sense—philosophically and mentally not physically—human politics preceded gravity.

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," he [Hawking] writes. "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

I wonder in what sense the term spontaneous creation is oxymoronic here given the previous sentence states “the universe will create itself from nothing?” How can something be spontaneous if its outcome is predetermined? How can there be a truly spontaneous creation (i.e. an emergent, creative creation) when there is a pre-existing Law that can and will create the universe?

In fact the notion of the universe creating itself from nothing is itself a nonsensical notion because if there were truly nothing, then there would be no universe by definition. The universe doesn’t create itself—the universe itself comes into being.

More quotations from Stephen Hawking:

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

I agree but what if this assumes the wrong (metaphoric) model of God? What if there might be another God (or another understanding of God) then this Newtonian Deistic God? And even if it were necessary for some such god to light the blue touch paper, this god clearly doesn’t have influence, care, or insight really to provide us in our on-going lives so this god might not as well exist.

"The fact that we human beings – who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph."

What is the proof that humans are “mere collections of fundamental particles of nature?” Are humans nothing else?

The pure materialist doctrine that is so blithely and ignorantly assumed in this quotation speaks to the problems of so much talk of unifying religion and science. The problem is not religion or science. The problem is that both religion and science are suffused with philosophies that guide how they interpret, formulate, and understand the various streams of data from their own worlds.


Contrary to many schools of thought in religion and science, neither religion nor science can comprehend and synthesize their respective findings absent philosophy. Since both religion and science use the human mind and human language(s), they inherently enter the proper realm of philosophy.

And here’s the philosophical rub.

Religion and science are almost always standing in opposing philosophical camps—which is why reconciling religion and science never takes place. Religion and science debates take place at best on second order abstract levels without ever touching the first order question of their respective philosophical underpinnings.

The philosophical (not scientific) doctrine of materialism dominates science. Stephen Hawking is an uber-genius physicist no doubt, one of the greatest in human history, but he is a very poor philosopher (and a pathetic wannabe theologian). Materialism might in the end be a proper ontological description of reality, but it will have to be proved so by the canons of philosophical argument and logic not by science.


The notion that we humans are “mere collections of fundamental particles of nature” is classic garden-variety reductionist materialism. It does not take into account emergence. It reduces consciousness to an epiphenomenon of interacting “fundamental” particles.   Why else the qualifier “mere” in mere collections? Mere is a denigrating word. And why use the term collections? Collections implies a non-coordinated, rather rag-tag assemblage.

If one is only going to accept data accumulated by materialist practices, then I suppose that all makes a certain sense. When however we realize that the world is enacted (that the mind works through perspectives), then we can see there are other forms of enaction then simply material-based, 3rd person perspectives. Enaction simply means the world is (in part) brought into being through certain practices, actions, or injunctions.  Third person material-based forms of enaction are not flawed (science isn’t wrong in any sense); the 3rd person material perspective is simply limited. Other enactions give rise to a different worlds in which emotion, feeling, thought, memory and so forth are not simply the meaningless noise of interacting particles but fundamentally real in and of themselves. Emotions, thoughts, and feeling always arise in bodily material beings, but they are best examined and understood qua thought, feeling, and emotion through interior 1st person practices rather than 3rd person material ones.

It's not a fact that human beings are a mere collection of fundamental particles of nature. This view is an interpretation. In truth, it’s an (enacted) perspective. It may be a correct interpretation but it is an interpretation nonetheless. It's not a law. It's not scientific objective truth. It's a choice to see and interpret multitudes of often ambiguous data in a certain way.

It is certainly true to say that when a person undertakes a 3rd person material-based perspective humans are shown to be materially composed of atomic (and sub-atomic) particles. The interpretation part comes in when the word “mere” is added. Mere is a non-scientific interpretation. Again, a case can be made for it being a good interpretation (a strong case I think can be made against that interpretation), but either way the word “mere” in that sentence moves the discourse away from scientific descriptive language to philosophical prescriptive language. The word “mere” moves that sentence from describing (correctly) via science how materially humans are composed to philosophically arguing that only material things have reality. All I’m saying is that whether the philosophical opinion that only material things are real or not requires a non-material and non-scientific philosophical discussion.

I think the need to ground an argument in non-scientific philosophical argumentation calls into question the logic of scientific materialism (as a philosophical point of view).  That position of course is my interpretation of the data of philosophical materialism. Check the history of philosophical materialism to see if you agree with my assessment or not.

hav[ing] been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph."

Are these scientific “laws” governing us? Is gravity governing us humans? Yes insofar as we are talking about buildings, why I can’t jump through the solar system, objects falling, and so forth. But are they governing the whole of “us” (i.e. humans)?

I think it's worth noting that the whole idea of being “governed” is a direct and in fact inevitable consequence of using the metaphor of law to frame the data of gravitation. Is the fact that when I jump I return to earth due to gravity best thought of as me being “governed” by gravity? Maybe. But then again maybe not.

I’m not saying gravity is just some metaphor or that the scientific analysis of gravity is somehow invalid. It’s not. Gravity is real (3rd person objective truth). What I am saying is that as humans inevitably seek to communicate (2nd person intersubjective dimension) these truths they will do so through the use of language. Language is inherently metaphoric. Law may be a proper (maybe the proper) metaphor in which to frame gravity—along with its attendant familial metaphoric relations: orderliness, governance, regularity, unilateral power over, etc. But then again it might not—or it might be fine so long as we remember it’s a metaphoric frame and not the thing itself.

The realization that metaphor (language) is inherent to human communication and thought is characteristic of the postmodern turn in consciousness.** Hawking is a classic modernist and therefore cannot see the way in which metaphor permeates everything he does and thinks. Without the awareness of metaphor and language, Hawking naively believes he can see (via science) directly into the way “things are”. He is (very badly) committing the metaphysical myth of the given.

Notice that in order to argue over which metaphor or metaphors would be the best to communicate gravity it would require a different definition of and common agreement about what is right and wrong than science could provide.  

What I mean is, does physics offer any solution as to what constitutes an illuminating or a piss poor metaphor and how to tell the difference between the two? Btw, illuminating and piss poor are themselves both metaphors, neither of which are really that strong as metaphors in my opinion. Though strong there is also a metaphor. I could have said neither are very “solid” or “beautiful” or “thought-percolating”. Notice the subtle but real shift between a “strong” metaphor (and all the images that evokes in your mind) and a “solid” metaphor. Notice that I asked you to notice a “shift” there (itself a metaphor)—I could have asked you to notice the subtle but real “boundary” (very different than a shift) between the two. This could go on forever—which is exactly why postmodernism taught that “outside the text (language) there is nothing.”

So back to Hawking’s point about gravity governing us humans…does the law of gravity determine the governance of say human governments? I mean is there something about the law of gravity that suggests that democracies are superior to autocracies or to monarchies or to hippie communes, etc etc? If we know (via Kepler) The Laws of Planetary Motion (which we do), does that give us any real concrete insight into what to do about crime?


Science does not tell us how we ought to live—science isn’t ethics. Science doesn’t need to be ethics. But we need to stop thinking therefore that science is the fount of all knowledge. It’s simply not.

When we realize (via postmodern practices) the fundamentally metaphoric nature of things, then we can see the same applies to the notion of God as intervener. Usually this theological view implies a rather ham-handed intervention with “supernatural” or “magical” events taking place—God zapping people into health or helping someone win the lottery or some nonsense like this. This view is itself metaphor and therefore able to be changed, modified, adapted, disregarded and so forth.

And for those would say, “No that’s how God is actually described in The Bible. God is outside creation and intervening in the affairs of creation”, I would say something like, ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’

In the Christian Bible God is understood to “intervene” by becoming a helpless human baby. That’s not normally what we think of as “intervention.” Is God (in the Christian tradition), having an “intervention” with humanity like people do with alcoholics? Is God locking us in a room with “her” and saying that she isn’t leaving until we admit we have a problem as a species and need help?

infant Jesus

The notion that one can say exactly how God is in The Bible is a product of the same modernist mentality that gives us scientific materialism. Both the atheist and theist models that claim to say exactly “how it is” are a myth—the myth of the given to be precise.

For example, how can we talk about an “intervention” when The Bible never uses the word intervene?

Etymology online tells me that the word intervention was first used in the 15th century coming from the Latin roots meaning to “interrupt” or “come between”.

So by that etymological definition, God could be said to intervene in The Bible insofar as God “interrupts” human plans. It would also be true to say that humanity intervenes with God as humanity “interrupts” God’s plans on multiple occasions—if of course plan is the right metaphor there (see how fun language is?). Language is not only intrinsic to science but to religion (postmodern turn in relation to religion).  

But that understanding of intervention (the etymological one) is quite different than how the term has come to mean in current debates.  When Hawking talks about intervention he means something like “on top of” or “over” humanity. As the postmodern philosophers might say, one of the great fears of modernity is “interruption”—the new, the wild, the hybridized, the thing that “comes between” our regularly scheduled and mechanical plans.  

i.e. We interrupt your regularly scheduled modernist thinking with this special message from postmodernism.

All of these ways of thinking and feeling intervention I’ve been describing stand in radical contrast to Hawking’s use of the term intervention as the creation of the world necessitating “the intervention of a divine being.”

Here my metaphoric investigations (as a practice) have given rise to a postmodern and more deconstructive space—deconstructing both the modern forms of atheistic materialism and theistic supernaturalism. In this postmodern worldspace, there is no need to reconcile religion and science but rather a great need to deconstruct and dismantle both of them with their arrogant pretensions.

Ken Wilber (along with others) has argued that the two greatest insights of postmodernity are contextualism and constructionism. These twins insights mean that all truths resides in contexts and that all truths are in fact (partially) socially and linguistically constructed. Though gravity is not humanly constructed, the way in which we understand it is (e.g. “governing” us). Einstein figured out that gravity was simply the consequence of the curvature of space-time. Einstein in other words contextualized Newtonian notions of gravitation. Einstein didn’t disprove Newton; he simply showed the limit of Newton’s particular (genius) insights.

Hawking believes that M-theory (a form of string theory) will be the truly unified theory Einstein sought after—uniting both Einstein’s general relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Maybe Hawking is right, maybe not. Only time and scientific experimentation will tell. But notice that Hawking is actually saying that String Theory would contextualize Einsteinian General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics not invalidate their central insights.

And as a consequence, inevitably somebody would ask—assuming M Theory does turn out to reconcile General Relativity and Quantum Theory in a larger context—what is M Theory? What context does it arise from?

(Modernist) Materialism as a philosophy fails because it is always trying to argue that some context is the final context. It just doesn’t recognize contexts. It always promises to be just on the edge of figuring out the final truth, the final scientific insight the one context that will explain all contexts.

But materialism never does fulfill its promise of finality—it always finds only deeper and deeper contexts.

I say that God is simply the space in which all those contexts are arising and falling. God is The Condition of their conditions. As such materiality is always arising (“spontaneously”) from, through, and as this Creative Void (“In God we live and move and have our being”). Materialism as a philosophical doctrine can never give the final answer because there is always a new moment arising from this world and the material effects are always the outgrowth of that spontaneous arising. Scientific materialism as such cannot get back to that arising. It need not but in its pretensions to ultimate truth it forces itself to make such unachievable claims.

A more post-postmodern worldview therefore take then brings us back to the notion of Creativity—the spontaneous, mysterious moment to moment arising of existence in Love. What would it mean to have a truly “spontaneous creation” (i.e. a truly spontaneous and mysterious creation)? What if we let go of both the idea in atheism of “Laws” and in theism of a “necessary divine being” and marveled at the possibility of true Creativity, of true Unknowability? What if as in process thought, creativity was considered the true substrate of all existence—including of God, all creatures, even creation itself? What if Laws were simply habituated (originally creative) Patterns to existence as the great thinker C.S. Peirce had it?

With that philosophical framework (process thought), one could theologically hold to a process understanding of divinity (or not), easily accepting the facts of scientific discourse without holding to its materialist-only philosophical clothing. This same basic attitude and insight applies to the other great scientific debate of our day: evolution. I will write more about this later, but a post-postmodern view is not an argument from design (theistic supernaturalism), it’s not Neo-Darwinian materialism (atheistic modernism), nor does it see evolution simply as a cultural mythology (postmodern critique). When we see creativity as inherent in life itself, then we see both the question of cosmic origins of matter (physics) and the origins of life (biology) as simply different orders of manifestation of this same basic Evolutionary Impulse.


*Still others simply equated the Nature only world with God (a view called pantheism).

** What characterizes post-postmodernism is the realization that all facts/interpretations grow out of enacted perspectives.

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  • Comment Link Ron Krumpos Tuesday, 14 September 2010 21:15 posted by Ron Krumpos

    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.”

    E=mc², 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.

  • Comment Link bruce sanguin Thursday, 16 September 2010 04:07 posted by bruce sanguin

    Thanks Chris, Did you happen to catch Peter McKnight's article in the Sun on the weekend? He illustrates how Hawking simply gets his philosophy wrong - associating Karl Popper with materialism (he actually argued strongly against it). He really made quite a mess of it all.

    Thanks again. Look forward to your further thinking on creativity and process thought.

  • Comment Link Chris Bateman Thursday, 16 September 2010 06:42 posted by Chris Bateman

    I originally started my education in astrophysics... I became discouraged when I realised what a mess it was. Although not philosophically trained at the time, I could see quite clearly that a lot of what was being proposed went far beyond any claim to empiricism.

    Today, I can confidently report that astrophysics today is about three quarters metaphysics (i.e. the philosophical realm of the untestable). But because scientists are not required to study any philosophy (even philosophy of science), most scientists are blissfully ignorant of the situation. As for the remaining quarter, a great deal of it depends upon the assumption that the speed of light has always been constant (which it need not have been).

    The bigger the scientist's aim, the shakier their foundations become.

    Best wishes!

    PS: your Captcha just gave me a word *in Greek* to enter... Since I don't have Greek characters on my keyboard, I'm at a loss to know how to respond!

  • Comment Link Rapa Friday, 24 September 2010 07:25 posted by Rapa

    If we are so convinced that life is just the offspring of the material world or the forces of physics, I reckon we may have undersupposed or never listen to the voices of Nature. Have we ever known that if the rotation of Earth tilted just one degree from the original stage, we would never have this world and we would never have life on Earth. Earth is in a miracle balance and no matter we are religious or not, we must admire the works of Nature or the Divine.Never overestimate our understanding of the Universe or that we human beings are everything or the king of the Universe. Under the sunshine, we are just like the dust of the Universe that may have existed for more than 20 billion years after the Big Bang. We should admire evolution found by Charles Darwin but even Einstein could not admire the works of the Creator. Shall we be so greedy to say that there is no God? Good fences make good neighbours. Never try to be an intruders of the unknowns.

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 28 September 2010 02:00 posted by OV

    I'm a big proponent of the design concept, the theology of teleology, as can be seen by the link on my name above. However, design and all the products of modern, and beyond, reason originate from the left brain and need to be balanced with the right brain aspects of image and integration.

  • Comment Link Ryan Tuesday, 28 September 2010 04:39 posted by Ryan

    GOD is Dead a long ago....A perspective...

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 30 September 2010 18:05 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Hey OV, glad to see you back, I had been wanting to respond to your comment/question on my article but the moment slipped through my fingers. I did, however, look into the Leonard Slain book you mentioned and am intrigued by this topic of right brain/left brain analysis (that you also mention here), and would be keen to learn more. Perhaps you and I can write something together on that topic? If you're interested, send me a note at the Contact Us email at the bottom of the site, and we can throw some ideas around about how to approach the topic. Cheers!

  • Comment Link necklace Tuesday, 17 May 2011 02:49 posted by necklace

    The 'multiverse' theory does not solve the problem. It simply begs the question... 'what/who created the multiverse?'

    Everything exists because of something before it. Either there is an infinite self sustaining first cause or we have an infinite regress of dependecy. Which is it?

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