Q.        In the movie “God is Not Dead,” the professor states that physicist Stephen Hawking proved that the universe just created itself, by the law of gravity. Is that depiction accurate?

In one sense I can answer “yes” to your question about accurate depiction: Hawking really did write in his 2010 book “The Grand Design” that the universe created itself.  On the other hand, on the matter of whether Hawking is right, I would emphatically say “no.”

Stephen Hawking is an eminent physicist who has contributed truly innovative ideas about the behavior of black holes, and our understanding of cosmology is better because of that. His work may earn a Nobel Prize in Physics someday. Moreover, Hawking suffers from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (A.L.S.), which distinguishes him further. He is famous and well-publicized, mentioned often on TV shows, including Sitcoms like “Big Bang.”

However, being famous doesn’t necessarily make you right. Hawking’s understanding of philosophy is poor and his grasp of theology is dismal. There is no reason to grant him credibility in either of those fields. Among other things, in The Grand Design he contemptuously says, “Philosophy is dead,” a point mentioned in the movie. Dismissing philosophy is hardly the way to ensure your own metaphysical speculations come true.

There are some basic facts about philosophy that need to be kept in mind, foremost among which is that it is impossible to prove a negative. You can’t prove that something does not exist. Suppose I make the claim “there are no aliens.” To prove that, I’d have to visit and inspect every planet in every solar system in every galaxy in the universe. If you wanted to prove me wrong, all you’d have to do is find one alien. Similarly, the claim “science proves that God does not exist” is utter nonsense.

Assorted philosophers have debated the existence of God for thousands of years, and “proof” is always elusive. Related questions such as “Did God create the universe?” likewise escape proof — an escape-hatch of some sort is always available. Among philosophers, attention has by now shifted away from absolute proof to a more manageable goal: the best approach is to ask “what is the most reasonable and responsible explanation?”

Evidently, Stephen Hawking didn’t get that memo. His dismissal of philosophy in favor of some favorite theory from physics is foolish arrogance. Those of us who are trained as physicists know that any theory is always subject to future revision and we’ve watched that occur many times over the centuries. A fundamental precept in science is that nothing in science is ever “final.”

To me, it seems likely that God has chosen not to force anybody to believe via some absolute proof. I’m fully comfortable going for the “most reasonable and responsible” answer.

Another long-standing principle of doing science (known as “Ockham’s Razor”) is that we choose the simplest theory consistent with the available data. Over the years, as data improves theory changes to account for that improvement. That is precisely how Einstein’s theory of relativity came to replace Newton’s classical mechanics. Newton’s theory wasn’t wrong, just limited in scope, and Einstein’s was more comprehensive. The principle of Ockham’s Razor tells us not to festoon a theory with extraneous notions that cannot possibly be observed, even in principle.

The universe that we see is “the available data.” Over the last several decades, scientists have realized that this universe is incredibly fine-tuned to permit galaxies, stars, planets and life to exist. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here to discuss it. There are certain constants-of-nature (i.e., numerical values that occur in physics; there are about 20 such numbers) that have very precise values, and without that precision there would be no possibility of intelligent life. The probability of our universe being an accident is less than one part in 10^(10^123) — 10 to the power of [10 to the power of 123].  That’s not a misprint. The number is so big that it could never possibly be written out. And, incidentally, there are only about 10^88 particles in the universe, and 10^88 is not even 10^(10^2). Trying to write it, you’d run out of atoms (and hence both ink and paper) just as you were getting started.

With such odds against us being here by chance, the most reasonable and responsible explanation is that it wasn’t by chance, but that God created the universe, using wisdom that enabled the incredibly accurate fine-tuning required.

However, if you believe only science constitutes real knowledge, you draw a border around your range of thinking, and disallow any explanation that comes from beyond science. God is ruled “out of bounds.” So you need an escape hatch, and that is the notion of a “multiverse” — you postulate that new little universes keep breaking off and expanding, somewhat like a froth of bubbles. There is an infinite number of such universes and we just got lucky and landed in the one where it all worked out just right.

The trouble with that explanation is that all those other universes are unobservable – even in principle. No data will ever reach us from outside our own universe. Thinking about a multiverse, the phrase “far-fetched” comes to mind. To believe in a multiverse, you must discard the very basic principle of seeking the simplest explanation of the available data (Ockham’s Razor). That puts you outside the realm of the scientific method. You’ve stopped being a scientist when you go there!

To make matters worse, the fine tuning needed to accommodate the ensemble of other universes is even more unlikely, so the complexity gets worse, which doesn’t help explain anything. Perhaps it bears mentioning that Hawking doesn’t bring up these little details in The Grand Design.

Getting back to the movie God is Not Dead, the student doesn’t prove the existence of God, but he successfully presents the most reasonable and responsible explanation, and the rest of the students in the class agree.

Reason is the ability of the mind to think and arrive at the knowledge of truth. That should never be overridden by the assertions of some famous scientist.

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.