Stephen Hawking Settles the God Question Once and For All

Stephen Hawking has a new book coming out (The Grand Design, with Leonard Mlodinow). Among other things, he points out that modern physics has progressed to the point where we don’t need to invoke God to explain the existence of the universe. This is not exactly a hot flash — I remember writing an essay making the same point for a philosophy class my sophomore year in college — but it makes news because it’s Hawking who says it. And that’s absolutely fine — Hawking has a track record of making substantial intellectual contributions, there’s every reason to listen to him more than random undergraduates waxing profound.

This issue is, of course, totally up my alley, and I should certainly blog about it. But I can’t, because I’m on hiatus! (Right?) So, as an experiment, I made a video of myself talking rather than simply typing my words into the computer. Radical! Not sure the amount of information conveyed is anywhere near as large in this format, and obviously I didn’t sweat the production values. I fear that some subtleties of the argument may be lost. But if we’re lucky, other people elsewhere on the internet will also talk about these questions, and we’ll get it all sorted out.

Let me know if the Grand Video Experiment is worth repeating and improving, or whether it’s just a waste of time.

Something that I should have said, but didn’t: there doesn’t need to be some sophisticated modern-physics answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The universe can simply exist, end of story. But it’s still fun to think carefully about all the possibilities, existence and non-existence both included.

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326 Responses to Stephen Hawking Settles the God Question Once and For All

  1. Rakesh says:

    Thank you sean, very nice explanation. Smacks of a little bit of trying to be politically correct, but nevertheless very well put

  2. riemann says:

    let me say, once and for all, that this format is definitely worth repeating.

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  4. Stephan Hawking is a very brilliant man, and his books and thoughts are well worth reading, but in all honesty if you were waiting for his say so to embrace atheism, you have just found another religion. Real autonomy comes from thinking for yourself, no matter what answer you come to.

  5. Felix says:

    Hawking is right of course. The universe self-creates under a single set of physical law.

    Hawking did not say God (or gods) do not exist. They do. Because all gods are created by the imagination of man. So in the minds of the believer, God (or gods) are real enough. Each god follows the rules created by the believer to serve their interests.

    Gods are part of human sociology. Both are part of the universe.

    Now let’s go and figure out what the hell is a singularity.

    BTW, do more video!

  6. Blake Stacey says:

    Well spoken, with good accent and good discretion.

  7. Josh Neal says:

    Not a big fan of the video. I can’t view it at work, and it takes far longer to view than to read the same amount of information. It is nice, though, to see the more emotive content that is best communicated with body language, but not worth the trade-off.

    As far as Hawking: It’s always good to hear another bright intellectual light voice his or her support for reason, logic, and skepticism!

  8. Frank Christiny says:

    Where is the bloody Like button when you need it!? 😉 Well done, Sean! I wonder what takes longer to do a text blog or a video blog?

  9. mary says:

    I’m an atheist but I don’t think Hawking’s argument resolves the question of “something” instead of “nothing”. The idea of “nothing with the potential for quantum fluctuations” is still “something”.

    The fact that “laws of nature” exist is itself puzzling. The true definition of “nothing” would be no physical world, no quantum fluctuations, and no laws of nature. If there is “nothing” then there should be no need for any laws of nature since there is nothing to describe.

    As soon as you invoke “laws of nature” you automatically begin to describe “something” and one can always say that “God” designed the laws of nature.

  10. Arun says:

    He changed his mind once, he can change it again.

  11. CW says:

    AT 1:18 – “You can create a compact, self-contained universe without needing any energy at all.”

    I understand that the net sum of the universe is zero, but I thought it was because energy was negated by gravity? Wasn’t there always some kind of existing energy, in which the particles involved in quantum mechanics could come into and go out of existence?

    Also, I approve of the video blog as well.

  12. bjkeefe says:

    Maybe I’m just an old fart, but I’d rather have read the same words than had them spoken at me. You have a pleasant voice and a fine manner of speaking, Sean, but … bandwidth. Plus, user(audience)-controlled pacing. I can get the information at exactly the rate I want it when I’m reading — sometimes slower, sometimes faster. I don’t have the problem of my mind wandering, or, at other times saying, “Wait, what?”

    This is not to say that I never enjoy listening to a good lecture, but for a short, essentially one-question/one-answer thing, I’d rather read.

    I appreciate that it often takes more work to convey thoughts in text, so, if the choice is 100% hiatus or vlogging, I’ll take the latter. But as long as you asked …

  13. Paul Sheldon says:

    I choose to believe in a God that is so kind as to permit me to understand without dismissing me with “Just because I said so”. Such a God does do something in the universe: he is what Jaim Ginnott called a good teacher/student.

    My faith says I and the entire research community are manifestations of God.

    As Ann Druyan and Richard Dawkins aid, we can have a religious experience understanding without needing God, but I add we might want this larger thing than any one of us believing in us.

  14. WhatMeWorry says:

    Occam’s Razor explains all.

    I prefer to read, but since that would make Sean a cheater, I can live with the clip.

  15. AI says:

    text >> video

    Hawking is getting senile.

  16. Tanya McPositron says:

    Wait. I thought Stephen WAS god. No?

  17. SoloGen says:

    Thank you! I enjoyed the video. I think it is a good idea to occasionally have a video-based post.

  18. Josh Neal says:

    If Hawking is god, and Hawking is getting senile, then that would explain a lot about reality lately.

  19. CoffeeCupContrails says:

    1. I second the bandwidth issue others raised. Always remember your developing-nations audience. I prefer the text version of you… there’s a joke to be made there.
    2. All that body language didn’t make it through (zoom out?)
    3. Lot of echo, obviously. Plus, that patch of wall to your right is a little annoying; if you sat in front of the middle of the book shelf, that symmetry would be more pleasing. While we’re at it, adjust the tripod just a little bit more, so the top the book shelf is at a level parallel always with the top of the video.
    4. Did I see cyan shadows at the beginning for the text that said ‘Sean Carroll’? CYAN??? Who uses Cyan? Who uses shadows? Bad Powerpoint users, that’s who. Also, make that two lines, centered. And, I presume you are talking in your capacity as super-blogger-physicist and not Caltech-person? So maybe the caption should say Sean Carroll, Theoretical Physicist/Author/Blogger.
    5. Video needs more… contrast.

    I can appreciate your placement of books with just the appropriate titles behind you. Is that a half-attempt at subliminally manipulating your audience?

  20. Peter Lynds says:

    “there doesn’t need to be some sophisticated modern-physics answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The universe can simply exist, end of story.”

    Hi Sean

    I would agree that there doesn’t need to be a sophisticated physics answer to the question, but there does need to be an answer. If the existence of the universe is necessary (which I think it is), there must be an explanation to ground its necessity and justify our asserting it as so. With one obvious difference, stating that the universe exists, end of story, is akin to stating that God exists, end of story.

    Best wishes


  21. Kevin says:

    Whether or not people agree that Hawking resolves the issue or whether he will change his mind or not, I think he definitely summarized correctly the attitude scientists should adopt when doing science. That’s the important point, right?

    I like the idea of videos. But I felt some pros and cons in either format. Video form makes it easier for us to “spread your word” (sharing links on Facebook, etc.) especially in the internet where many people have short attention spans.

    The bandwidth issue is a good point. And text version is good for links…usually you reference by linking to earlier posts, the original source and other stuff like that. And usually I click through them and discover new nuggets of knowledge on the internet – that would be lost in video form.

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  23. bad Jim says:

    I thought that was a pretty good talk. Like most, I’d rather read it than hear it, but if it works for Sean it works for me.

  24. onymous says:

    to the point where we don’t need to invoke God to explain the existence of the universe. This is not exactly a hot flash — I remember writing an essay making the same point for a philosophy class my sophomore year in college

    I hate to break it to you, but I think Laplace might have said something along these lines even earlier than you did… 😉