Hawking and God on the Discovery Channel

Last week I got to spend time in the NBC studio where they record Meet The Press — re-decorated for this occasion in a cosmic theme, with beautiful images of galaxies and large-scale-structure simulations in the background. The occasion was a special panel discussion to follow a Stephen Hawking special that will air on the Discovery Channel this Sunday, August 7. David Gregory, who usually hosts MTP, was the moderator. I played the role of the hard-boiled atheist; Paul Davies played the physicist who was willing to entertain the possibility of “God” if defined with sufficient abstraction, while John Haught played the Catholic theologian who is sympathetic to science.

The Hawking special is the kick-off episode to a major new Discovery program, called simply Curiosity. I predict it will make something of a splash. The reason is simple: although most of the episode is about science, Hawking clearly goes all-in with “God does not exist.” It’s not a message we often hear on American TV.

The atheistic conclusion is really surprisingly explicit. I had a chance to talk to someone at Discovery, who explained a little about how the program came about. The secret is that it was originally produced by the BBC — British audiences have a different set of expectations than American ones do. My completely fictional reconstruction of the conversation would go something like this. Discovery: Hey, blokes! Do you have any programs we could use to launch our major new series? BBC: Sure, we have a new special narrated by Stephen Hawking. Discovery: Perfect! That’s always box office. What’s it about? BBC: It’s about how there is no God. Discovery: Ah.

[Update: Alas, reality is intruding upon my meant-to-be-funny imaginary dialogue. The episode was actually originally commissioned by Discovery, not by the BBC, although it was produced in the UK. More power to Discovery!]

At first, I will confess to a smidgin of annoyance that an opportunity to talk about fascinating science was being sacrificed to yet another discussion about religion. But quickly, even before anyone else had the joy of pointing it out to me, I realized how spectacularly hypocritical that was. I talk about religion all the time — why shouldn’t Stephen Hawking get the same opportunity?

The more I thought about it, the more appropriate I thought the episode really was. I can’t speak for Hawking, but I presume his interest in the topic stems from similar sources as my own. It’s not just a coincidence that we are theoretical cosmologists who happen to go around arguing that God doesn’t exist. The question of God and the questions of cosmology arise from a common impulse — to understand how the world works at its most fundamental level. These issues naturally go hand-in-hand. Pretending otherwise, I believe, probably stems from a desire on the part of religious believers to insulate their worldview from scientific critique.

Besides, people find it interesting, and rightfully so. Professional scientists are sometimes irritated by the tendency of the public to dwell on what scientists think are the “wrong” questions. Most people are fascinated by questions about God, life after death, life on other worlds, and other issues that touch on what it means to be human. These might not be fruitful research projects for most professional scientists, but part of our job should be to occasionally step back and look at the bigger picture. That’s exactly what Hawking is doing here, and more power to him. (In terms of his actual argument, I’m sympathetic to the general idea, but would take issue with some of the particulars.)

Nevertheless, Discovery was not going to feature an hour of rah-rah atheism without a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Thus, our panel discussion, which will air immediately after the debut of Curiosity (i.e., 9pm Eastern/Pacific). The four of us had fun, and I think the result will be an interesting program — and hopefully I did the side proud, as the only legit atheist participating. Gregory seemed to enjoy himself, and joked that he might have to give up politics to do a weekly show about cosmology. (A guy can dream…) But we all agreed that it was incredibly frustrating to have so little time to talk about such big issues. The show will run for half an hour; subtract commercials, and we’re left with about 21 minutes of substance. Then subtract introduction, questions, some background videos that were shown … we three panelists had about five minutes each of speaking time. Not really enough to spell out convincing answers to the major questions that have troubled thinkers for centuries. Hopefully some of the basic points came across. Let us know what you think.

  1. What caused the Big Bang? Let us assume that there is no multiverse. What caused the Big Bang? Did time have a beginning? If time did have a beginning, how can the “laws of physics” cause a universe to exist from nothing? Nothingness implies no laws, hence no quantum mechanics, hence no universe. From nothing comes nothing. Hence, no universe.

    Now, let us assume that the multiverse exists and that, presumably, our universe originates as one of many in this multiverse. One cannot prove the multiverse exists, is that correct? Likewise, one cannot prove that God exists.

    So if it is proper for atheists to believe that a multiverse exists, then it is proper for others to believe that God exists.

  2. To add to the discussion about God, I recommend that everyone watches this video:

    entitled, “Lecture – Dr Peter Williams – New Evidences the Gospels were Based on Eyewitness Accounts”.

    Cheers!

  3. “The question of God and the questions of cosmology arise from a common impulse — to understand how the world works at its most fundamental level.”

    Yes and no. There are a lot of different ways one can take the phrase “how the world works.” You you mean physically? Morally? Spiritually? Socially? Economically? Metaphorically? Aesthetically?

    As a Christian, I think the cosmological argument against the existence of God on the grounds of necessity is one of the weakest of all arguments. It might blow the minds of Creationists, but that’s a fairly small subset of Christianity regardless of how threatening it happens to be in the United States. From a theological perspective, that argument is basically meant to disprove a “God of the Gaps,” which hasn’t been a relevant model for centuries. God’s lack of necessity for causally complete phenomena doesn’t blow my mind because I don’t treat God like a scientific hypothesis (in fact, I might be a bit disappointed if God were sloppy enough to be necessary to solve for a theorem). In my opinion, one of the most interesting fields of theology today is asking how the findings of science, whatever they may be, reflect on the character of God. For example, how does evolution impact our understanding of God as Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer (i.e.: those are the same thing) and the implications of that (i.e.: the problem of theodicy – why does God allow evil – has no meaning in a universe that is still in the process of being Created). The existence of God is assumed because I have compelling reasons for believing in Her that have nothing to do with scientific necessity.

    Anyways, just babbling incoherently. I’m more interested in your round-table than I am in the actual program preceding it!

  4. YAY I am glad to see you mention this. I saw it advertised but it was not showing on my guide yet. I will be setting a series record for the show. I am even more excited now that I know who will be on the opening episode 🙂

  5. By the way, as the above video shows, there is more evidence that the Gospels are based on eyewitness accounts than evidence in favor of the multiverse! 🙂

  6. Pingback: Hawking, God, and a new Discovery Channel Series | Friendly Atheist

  7. Is the existence of God a fundamental issue in cosmology? The answer might be no from most of the working cosmologists (both atheists and theists) but yes from most of the general public.
    “The religion of the Latter-day Saints is not hostile to any truth, nor to scientific search for truth.” — Joseph Fielding Smith, “Quorum of Twelve”
    Mormonism and Islam claim 100% compatibility with every form of truth. No doubt there is “a desire on the part of religious believers to insulate their worldview from scientific critique.” However, attitudes to Milgrom’s Modified Newtonain Dynamics (MOND) show that a semi-anathema can exist in science.
    http://www.astro.umd.edu/~ssm/mond The MOND pages
    http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~pavel/kroupa_cosmology.html Pavel Kroupa: Dark Matter, Cosmology and Progress

  8. Hawking isn’t creative enough.. the thing is, we need to create god… there’s already placeholders for it in everyones brain…and since time is illusion we’ll realize it was always there after its done

  9. I look forward to the program. However, I don’t think it will actually convince anyone. That’s just me.

    By the way, one question, which I think is related, that I always wonder about:
    Is the universe infinite?
    (I define universe to mean “contiguous space that follows the same physical laws.”)
    If the universe is infinite, then everything happens somewhere.

    Anyway, if you have a chance, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

  10. Hawking says that M-theory explains the creation of the universe. M-theory does nothing of the kind. M-theory does not explain anything. His story is no more plausible than the Bible.

  11. What is M-theory anyway? Nobody knows. It’s a mystery, just like God! M-theory is the god atheists believe in and Witten is their Pope.

  12. I really look forward to the program! To attempt an answer to Phil (#2): Neither god(s) nor the multiverse are scientific issues; you may consider these topics to be within the realm of metaphysics/philosophy. Finally, you *can* create something from nothing.

  13. Mean and Anomalous,

    So how does the origin of the universe obtain a scientific explanation?

    Please give me an example of something being created from nothing. You know I had to ask.

  14. @ Phil:

    It is very difficult to give a reply in the context since you don’t describe modern cosmology.

    For instance, you don’t “prove” in science, you test for faulty explanations, in the decade old standard cosmology inflation preceded “big bang” expansion, and multiverses may be testable. (This very blog had an article on observing the multiverse.)

    Moreover, you insist that there is something called “nothing”, which the article author has once described as a mistake – universes are distributions of something.

    The absolutely most simple model is that there is an inflationary multiverse that always existed. At the current state of knowledge we can’t reject that as invalid.

    As for a comparison with religion, we can’t test magic.

    I could stop there, but one may also consider: creationism inserts unnecessary, invisible and complex agents. In contrast to processes they can’t handle infinities; demanding creator agents demands previous creator agents to create the first ones by construction, so have the problem of infinite regress.

    Also, in nature processes creates complex structures from simpler, but creationism demands that the most complex structure, the agent, came first. So besides the problem that you can never show any of that, nothing of it seems very reasonable, even less a priori likely.

  15. @Gory Cross
    “The existence of God is assumed…”
    Well exactly. Science is more honest.

    As for your rambling about how evolution impacts on your god? – it shows that he didn’t do it.

    To all those asking how to create something from nothing – why don’t you ask your god?

  16. Why is it that every time there’s a post about Global Warming or Atheism etc. all these people with extreme views show up? They’re never here when something else is posted. Is somebody putting up links on Reddit or Digg or something? That would explain it.

  17. Pingback: Hawking and God on the Discovery Channel Sunday August 7th | The Atheist

  18. @18, Chris,

    “@Gory Cross
    “The existence of God is assumed…”
    Well exactly. Science is more honest.”

    You forgot the rest of the sentence, which is that I have compelling reasons for belief in God which are, by implication, not scientific. I don’t have a problem believing in things that aren’t covered by science, nor does anybody else if they are being honest (otherwise your marriages, romances and friendships must be… interesting…). That is why the existence of God is assumed in the context of the field of theology I described, in contrast to the assumption that God’s existence is a scientific question.

    “As for your rambling about how evolution impacts on your god? – it shows that he didn’t do it.”

    That is one interpretation of evolution, but certainly not the only. It does presuppose the non-existence of God, which is fair enough, but it’s not a scientific presupposition. Nor is my presupposition that God does exist. You and I both are making theological arguments.

    @19, Dr. Morbius,

    I just found Discover’s blogs the other day. I grant that so far all I’ve done is post on religion (being religious), in reply to someone’s specific question about Christianity and Transhumanism (being Christian), and reposted an article on the sociology of climate change denial to my Facebook (being a public science educator). I’ll try and do better in the future.

  19. Cory:
    “I just found Discover’s blogs the other day. I grant that so far all I’ve done is post on religion […]”

    Arguably not the best subjects if you want to have a calm, reasoned discussion, but to each his own I guess. :)

    I had The Religion Discussion with a couple of friends of mine ages ago. In the end, it all boiled down to something like what you alluded to – “yeah, but I just *know*”, more or less. Keeping in mind that sometimes one’s fundamental assumptions isn’t everyone elses fundamental assumptions is hard, but can lead to interesting discussion once in a while. (On the Internet, maybe once in a decade.)

    By the way, Friendly Atheist ( patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ ) is another place that might be interesting if you want to talk religion with people who have a different perspective.

    Over here, be sure not to miss Bad Astronomy and Not Exactly Rocket Science!

  20. I would like to thank you, Hawking, and Dawkins for pushing this argument and giving every psychotic preacher a rallying point to push anti-science out here in the bible belt. All these types of arguments do is preach to the choir and piss off every religious person who hears about your argument. So you take moderate religious people and turn them against you when you could have talked them into agreeing with you if you would have just left religion out of the argument.

    I respect you guys as scientists and I enjoy this blog and your appearances on documentaries, but at times it seems like you could either talk the majority of Americans into accepting science or you could argue against religion. I just think improving the understanding of science is more important than turning everyone into an atheist.

    PS Don’t get me wrong if they are pushing something easily provably wrong and dangerous ideas, such as creationism, faith healing, etc fight that. But if all they are saying is “I think there is a God” but I’m completely open to a rational explanation to our universe get them on your side, don’t alienate them. Get them on your side, and worry about the religious implications later, after everybody understands science

  21. @ #17, That article you linked to contained lots of bull&^%$. You can’t observe the CMB for signs of other universes. That’s just plain silly. Mind you, saying “God did it” does sound silly, I’ll agree. But if physicists can believe in a multiverse, then religious people can believe in God. It’s just silly to say “I need to convince those religious people that God doesn’t exist. But I believe in the multiverse.” That’s hypocritical. Multiverse ideas are untestable.

    So what came before inflation? What caused the cause of inflation? We don’t know. Maybe the multiverse idea can explain how our universe initially came to be and why the laws of physics and constants of nature are just right to admit life. Too bad you can’t test the multiverse notion.

    The inflationary multiverse always existed? Well, so did God.
    Do we know that our universe existed in some form before the Big Bang or inflation? No.

    By the way, I wasn’t talking about creationism. I subscribe to evolution whole heartedly.

    As for how one can explain that God did not have a creator, read the Summa Theologia by Thomas Aquinas.

  22. I’m not sure it’s reasonable for anyone to make a claim that there “is” or there “is not” something on the other side. Established religions are undoubtedly skewed either by calculated manipulation of truths or centuries long games of telephone. Atheists are just as naive in their claims. Can one’s life experience, total knowledge and gut feelings replace actually going there? Sadly there’s no way to just peak your head in the door and check. As Jimmy Buffett says, “don’t try to describe the ocean if you’ve never seen it”.

    I’m sure the show is filled with great insight, but in the end, that insight is just hot air and bloated opinions. We all have one of those and any could be as valid as the next.

    Regardless of whatever is on the other side, we’ll all know for sure at one point or another. I for one hope there’s an afterlife… an afterlife absent of worry and full of naked women.