Saturday, September 4, 2010

Ex nihilo

Father Robert Barron, whose comments on Christianity's relationship to the culture I often enjoy, is disappointed that Steven Hawking seems [at least in the publicity for his new book] to have joined the campaign of the "new atheists." From "Steven Hawking & More Tiresome Atheism":
So another prominent British academic has weighed in on the God question. Stephen Hawking, probably the best-known scientist in the world, has said, in a book to be published a week before the Pope’s visit to Britain, that the universe required no Creator. (I’m sure, of course, that there was no “intelligent design” behind that choice of publication date!). I confess that something in me tightens whenever I hear a scientist pontificating on issues that belong to the arena of philosophy or metaphysics. ....

Here’s an example from Hawking’s latest book: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” Well, first of all, which is it: nothing or the law of gravity? There’s quite a substantial difference between the two. If Hawking is saying that the universe, which is marked in every nook and cranny by stunning and mathematically describable intellegibility, simply came forth from Nothing, then I just throw up my hands. The classical philosophical tradition gives us an adage that is still hard to improve upon: ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing comes nothing). ....

So suppose we say (to return to Hawking’s rather incoherent statement) that gravity is the ultimate cause of the universe. This would mean that a force within nature is the source of the being of the world. To be sure, this sort of claim has a long pedigree, stretching back at least to the pre-Socratics, but it remains highly problematic. The question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is not searching after a thing within the universe, but rather the being of the universe. It is wondering why (to use the technical term) contingent things exist, that is to say, things that do not contain within themselves the reason for their own being. You and I are contingent in the measure that we had parents, that we eat and drink, and that we breathe. In a word, we don’t explain ourselves. Now if we want to understand why we exist, we cannot go on endlessly appealing to other contingent things. We must come finally to some reality which exists through the power of its own essence, some power whose very nature it is to be. But that whose very nature it is to be cannot, in any sense, be limited or imperfect in being, and this is precisely why Catholic philosophy has identified this non-contingent ground of contingency, this ultimate explanation of the being of the universe, as “God.” To claim that something as finite and variable as the force of gravity is this ultimate explaining value is simply ludicrous. However all-embracing or powerful it is, gravity is still a worldly nature, something within the contingent cosmos.

There is a line from one of the articles describing Hawking’s book that I found, actually, quite helpful and illuminating. The author said, “in his new book, The Grand Design…Hawking sets out a comprehensive thesis that the scientific framework leaves no room for a deity.” Quite right. Since the true God is not a being alongside other beings, not one thing in the universe among many, he is not circumscribable within a scientific frame of understanding. He should not, therefore, even in principle, be either affirmed or denied from a purely scientific perspective. There is, of course, rampant today a “scientism” which would reduce all legitimate knowing to the scientific mode of knowing. You can find this form of dogmatism in the writings of all of the prominent “new” atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, etc. I must confess that I’m disappointed that Stephen Hawking appears to have joined their company.
Fr. Robert Barron's Word On Fire - Theology:Steven Hawking & More Tiresome Atheism