The Day Stephen Hawking Unsettled His Atheist Peers

Just over a century ago, Albert Einstein rolled out his theory of General Relativity, a paradigm-shifting take on the nature of gravity and its relation to space and matter. Of the implications of his theory, one that has captivated the imagination of filmmakers and the scientistic hopes of researchers and laypersons alike, is the black hole—a cosmic “sinkhole,” swallowing up everything (even light) falling under the influence of its gravitational pull.

Now, after decades of probing the dark recesses of space, scientists have captured the first image of this mysterious object which, to those so inclined, is an important discovery supporting the naturalistic origins of our universe. How so? Let me explain.

Eerie Coincidences
For some time now, it has been known that our life-friendly cosmos depends on the delicate balancing of a host of universal constants: Newton’s gravitational constant, the mass and charge of the electron, and the strengths of the weak and strong nuclear forces, just to name a few. If the value for any one of these constants was slightly different, questions about the universe couldn’t be asked—intelligence, and biological life itself, would have never come about. And that makes scientists edgy, because conditions that depend on fine-turning suggest something of a “set-up” job. Take the late Sir Fred Hoyle, for example.

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Hoyle, a mathematician and astronomer, confessed that his atheism was shaken by research into the carbon atom. After realizing that the energy levels of carbon were precisely those required for carbon-based life, Hoyle remarked, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics.”

Regrettably, such common sense was insufficient to turn Hoyle away from naturalism. Faced with our “against-all-odds” existence, Hoyle, along DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, came up with a theory rivaling anything imagined by H.G. Wells or Gene Roddenberry: refuse from an extraterrestrial civilization containing the seeds of life were distributed throughout the cosmos on the “wings” of comets. (I’m not making this stuff up.) Of course, how those super seeds and their master producers came into existence is left to anyone’s imagination.

While Hoyle’s panspermia is a fringe scientific theory, there is another that has gained a growing following over the last couple of decades. According to astronomer Sir Martin Rees, if the universe is not a cosmic accident or the product of design, then it is a part of something much bigger—a place where anything (and everything) is possible. This would be a supercosmos called the “multiverse,” in which our delicately-tweaked universe is inevitable. That’s right. There’s not one but an infinite number of universes, ensuring that the intricate network of coincidences necessary for life is actualized in one of them.

As to where all these universes come from—well, there are some interesting theories about that.

As early as 1957, Princeton’s Hugh Everett III proposed the “many-worlds” theory. It starts with a controversial interpretation of quantum theory in which subatomic particles are thought to continuously split into separate quantum states. Everett imagined that each split created a parallel universe in which particles exist as mirror images of themselves. As a result, every possible state of a particle is realized somewhere!

Problems with this theory are many, including the questions of where all of these parallel universes exist and how an entire universe can be created by an infinitesimal change in a particle’s state. But the real showstopper is the endless stream of universes created by every object in the cosmos at every moment in time. Theorist David Lindley speaks for many in saying: “When you think about how many of these parallel universes you have to provide, the whole idea begins to seem cumbersome, to say the least.”

Nevertheless, the many-worlds theory finds appeal with those having a transcendental view of reality. For them, alternate states of existence and parallel universes follow naturally from belief in mind-creating omnipotence. For rank-and-file scientists, though, somewhat less mystical models are being embraced.

Chaotic Inflation
In 1981, Stanford cosmologist André Linde reasoned that the universe could have been created by an “inflationary” phenomenon. Through a set of mathematical gyrations, Linde showed that a sudden fluctuation in a subatomic vacuum could become a “bubble” of intense energy ballooning into a whole universe. While Linde’s inflation showed how a universe could be generated, it did not explain how a single bubble could lead to a world meticulously configured for life.

But, Linde mused, what if the initial “bubble” quickly disintegrated into a constellation of bubbles, much like the fizz created after opening a bottle of soda? And, what if inflation is a continuing process? (Is anyone counting the number of “ifs” here?) Then, Linde concluded, an infinite number of bubbles would be created leading to an unending variety of universes … and we just happen to live in the one that makes our existence possible. (How fortunate for us!)

Despite its highly contingent nature, Linde’s “chaotic inflation” (as it’s been called) resonates with many in the scientific community. Notwithstanding, the lack of empirical support relegates his theory—even under the most liberal scientific standards—to little more than hopeful speculation. As a result, some disquieted investigators have turned elsewhere: those mysterious objects called black holes.

Cosmic Cannibals
Black holes, it is conjectured, are insatiable cannibals gobbling up everything in their cosmic neighborhood. The late Stephen Hawking is among those who have proposed that black holes are birthing centers for Star Trek phenomena like wormholes, time tunnels and multiple universes.

Early in the life cycle of a star, the heat released from nuclear reactions in its interior produces an outward pressure that balances the inward gravitational pull of the stellar mass. As the star ages and its nuclear reactions diminish, gravity takes over upsetting this fine balance and stellar collapse begins. Eventually gravitational attraction becomes so intense that any object (including light) entering its “event horizon” becomes helplessly lost in its fearsome grip. It is at that point that a black hole is created.

But what actually happens inside the dark gourmand? While no one knows for sure, it is thought that deep in its recesses a black hole becomes increasingly violent until it causes a rip in space-time—a cervical opening, if you will, for its “digested” contents to burst out into a baby universe of its own.

For all its charm and appeal, “black hole creation” has a major problem. Unlike chaotic inflation, in which matter disappears over the microscopic time scales allowed by quantum uncertainty, in “black hole creation” matter disappears over macroscopic time scales, thus violating the law of conservation. This last has plagued researchers for over three decades.

Nonetheless, Stephen Hawking was so confident in the theory that he made a bet with a fellow physicist in 1997 that black hole creation would be proven right. Then, in 2004, Hawking made a startling announcement.

A Dramatic Reversal
Speaking at an international conference in Dublin, Ireland, Hawking said that he was wrong about his 30-year assertion that material entering a black hole leaves our universe.

Reversing his previous position, Hawking conceded that black holes are not cosmic birthing centers, nor mystical portals to some parallel universe—theories that gained currency through his best-selling book A Brief History of Time and his later book Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays.

Dr. Hawking said his new calculations debunk what he and others had speculated. In a dream-squashing conclusion, Hawking emphasized, “I’m sorry to disappoint science fiction fans, but if [mass and energy] is preserved [as required by the laws of physics] there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes.”

His peers were unsettled. Reflecting the thoughts of many in the audience, University of Chicago physicist Robert Wald responded, “He’s running away from what we still believe.” The angst in Wald’s remark is palpable.

A Theory in Trouble
Stephen Hawking’s announcement was a warning that the multiverse and, with it, philosophical naturalism is in trouble. Added to its technical difficulties, the theory fails to do what it sets out to do—namely, to explain how our universe turned out the way it did. Instead, it asserts that our world must exist, because in an infinite number of universes all configurations are possible—and we’re here, so that proves it! Such contrived reasoning leaves some researchers cold. A theory in which anything is possible is a theory that explains nothing.

Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind is among those who understand what is at stake. Susskind admitted that without some alternative “explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID [Intelligent Design] critics. One might argue that the hope that a mathematically unique solution will emerge is as faith-based as ID.” (Emphasis added.)

At least Susskind is forthright. When confidence in fantastic quantum behavior, imaginary singular events, and principles defying known physical laws begins to crumble, all that remains is belief in abstractions propped up by a set of mathematical relationships—in other words, unwavering faith in naturalism.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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