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Hawking's wager

A bold physicist says science will defeat religion, but we've heard that before

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

Here's the obvious: Stephen Hawking is brilliant, courageous, and an excellent communicator. (I've read or attempted several books on quantum physics and his Brief History of Time is the most understandable.) His recent announcement that God is not necessary for the universe to exist, coming a few days before the release of his most recent book, proves he's a savvy publicist as well.

Though it made news, the announcement should have taken nobody by surprise. Some Christian apologists have regarded the last sentence of Brief History as proof that Hawking left the God hypothesis open: "If we find the answer to [why the universe exists], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God." But that sentence is purely metaphorical, as he uses "God" throughout the book to represent that which we don't yet know. He's been working feverishly to close all possible gaps before he dies-which surely won't be long. When first diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, he was expected to live about 10 years. He's almost 70 now, an astonishing achievement in itself. Work has been his life and no doubt contributed to his longevity, but his own brief history is running out and he may want to exit with, excuse the expression, a big bang. Namely, his best guess at a unified theory of everything.

An overarching principle linking all forces in the universe has been the holy grail of physics since the dawn of the 20th century. The problem that defies solution is reconciling gravity at the macro level with quantum mechanics at the sub-micro level, a challenge leading to complex theories of multi-universes and multi-dimensions. Without going into detail-which I couldn't even if I wanted to-some physicists have staked their hopes on "string theory," an extrapolation of which ("M-theory") forms the premise of Hawking's new book.

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The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, has received skeptical reviews from scientists who are not convinced. My uneducated guess is that string theory and M theory will prove a dead end, simply because we're running out of ways to test them. Strings can't be observed, by any means in the foreseeable future; they can only be conjectured, and calculated, and used as the basis for predictions that may or may not pan out. In the last decades we've seen science edging into territory occupied by religion. God can't be observed either; we know Him by His effects, just as we know the uncertainty principle.

Every report of "scientific evidence" for the nonexistence of God is followed by reams of commentary pro and con, with the pro side confidently asserting that God will soon be disproved if He isn't already. That's what Stephen Hawking predicted in an interview with Diane Sawyer last June: "Religion will be defeated by science." We've heard that before, but it seems even less likely now, for the farther we push the frontiers of knowledge, the less we know for certain. Hawking's personal story gives the declaration a noble ring: a fertile mind in a shriveled body, boldly taking Pascal's wager. "Science will win because it works."

Faith also "works," and a God-shaped hole remains in the heart of humanity that science can't explain. Accounting for our innate sense of soul or morality by naturalistic causes can only produce theories of what might be the cause. Unbelievers regard this speculation as "proof," but God can't be scientifically proven, or disproven. His provenance is outside of science. As Jesus said (John 7:17), "If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether [my] teaching is from God." In other words, one must believe before one can know.

"There is no god!" (Psalm 14:1) is a starting point, not an inevitable conclusion. God exists, or He doesn't-those are the only two basic presuppositions. The believer and the atheist will find the evidence they're looking for. But eventually, only one will be judged a "fool."
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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