(Photo: AP Photo: / PA Wire, David Parry)
Physicist Stephen Hawking made headlines this past week for taking on arguably the most influential scientist in human history, Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton, who left enduring legacies in mathematics and the natural sciences, had centuries ago warned against using the law of gravity - which he discovered - to view the universe as a mere machine, like a great clock.
“Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done,” the 17th century scientist and non-Trinitarian Anglican stated.
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being,” he added.
Hawking, however, says “the universe can and will create itself from nothing” because there is a law such as gravity.
"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” he writes in his soon-to-be-released book, The Grand Design. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper (fuse) and set the universe going."
While Hawking has long been known to be a deist – believing in the existence of an impersonal god on the evidence of reason and nature only – his denial of a personal god was notably more explicit in the excerpts from his latest work.
In The Grand Design, Hawking refers to the 1992 observation of a planet orbiting a star other than the sun and says it “makes the coincidences of our planetary conditions – the single sun, the lucky combination of Earth-sun distance and solar mass – far less remarkable, and far less compelling as evidence that the Earth was carefully designed just to please us human beings."
Not surprising, Hawking’s comments sparked a number of responses from Christian apologists and theologians of different faiths.
In the United Kingdom, where Hawking resides, Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, said Hawking was “missing the point.”
"Science provides us with a wonderful narrative as to how [existence] may happen, but theology addresses the meaning of the narrative," he said, according to CNN.
Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, similarly, accused Hawking of making a "misinterpretation" - one that he said "is damaging to religion and science in equal measure."
"Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation," he wrote in the U.K.-based Times, which first printed excerpts from The Grand Design on Thursday.
"Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. They are different intellectual enterprises," Sacks added.
Meanwhile, in the United States, scholars at the ministry Reasons To Believe have argued against the idea that God is not necessary because laws such as gravity exist and said even with the laws there is the requirement for something that transcends the universe to bring it into being.
Hawking, said RTB research scholar Dr. Jeffrey Zweerink, “is putting the laws of physics or the mathematics on that basis of … this transcendent entity … that is ultimately responsible for the cause of the beginning of the universe.”
“It’s a transcendent impersonal entity but nonetheless it’s a transcendent entity,” he added.
Furthermore, RTB President and Founder Dr. Hugh Ross said there's a “fundamental flaw” in Hawking’s reasoning.
“A fundamental flaw in this Hawking idea is that God is no longer personal, and yet we human beings are personal,” he said in his ministry’s podcast Friday. “We have a mind, we have a spirit, and you’re attributing the development of the human mind, the human spirit, the minds for that matter we see in the higher animals, the personalities that we see in all of us from completely impersonal soul-less and spirit-less laws of physics. How can the lesser produce the greater?”
Like Hawking, RTB scholars agree that God is "the Grand Mathematician” but go further by saying He is more than that.
And, they say, the laws of physics in nature "are a reflection of God’s intimate sustaining care for the universe.”
“From a naturalist perspective, there need not be any laws of physics," said Zweerink. "But from a Christian perspective, we expect to see these laws of physics given God’s character and what He’s revealed to us.”
With only excerpts of the book having been released, the discussion is expected to continue and expand with the release of Hawking’s upcoming book.
The book, co-authored by physicist Leonard Mlodinow, is scheduled to be published by Bantam Dell on Sept. 9.
The Grand Design is Hawking's first major work in nearly a decade.