When I was a teenager, I became an atheist at the precise moment I formulated the following thought: “Just because science can’t currently explain how the Big Bang happened, doesn’t mean that it will never be able to do so, or that we need to say that God did it.” BOOM.
A similar thought seems to have occurred to Stephen Hawking, whose 2010 book The Grand Design (which I’ll confess I haven’t read) claimed that recent advances in cosmology render a supernatural creator entirely redundant. In doing so he claimed to have answered the rhetorical question posed in A Brief History of Time:
So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
Now Hawking, tells us, we have our answer: string theory shows us that our universe is just one of a multitude of universes that “arise naturally from physical law”. There is no “beginning”, and hence no need for a “creator” to explain it.
But against that we have William Carroll, the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Science and Religion at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford, who addresses Prof Hawking’s an essay entitled Stephen Hawking’s Creation Confusion (and see also Dr Carroll’s Aquinas and the Big Bang).
Stephen Hawking’s book “invites us to think again about what it means ‘to create’ and what, if anything, the natural sciences can tell us about it”, Dr Carroll writes, continuing:
The assertion—which is broadly philosophical and certainly not scientific—that the universe is self-sufficient, without any need for a Creator to explain why there is something rather than nothing, is the result of fundamental confusions about the explanatory domains of the natural sciences and philosophy. What is often being affirmed is a kind of “totalizing naturalism” that eliminates the need for any appeal to explanations which employ principles that transcend the world of physical things.
However, Prof Hawking and his fellow “totalizing naturalists” are misunderstanding the concept of creation. Creation is not about whether the universe has a “beginning” or needs a god to “set it going”. Rather:
Creation, as a metaphysical notion, affirms that all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause. … [It] is the radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists.
Cosmology, evolutionary biology, and all the other natural sciences offer accounts of change; they do not address the metaphysical questions of creation; they do not speak to why there is something rather than nothing.
And he reiterates this point later in the essay:
Creation is not primarily some distant event. Rather, it is the ongoing, complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be nothing at all.
It’s important to note, too, that God’s intimate causation of all that is doesn’t exclude the existence scientifically-observable processes. Rather, we need to recognise that God’s causation and “natural” causation operate on different levels of reality:
To say that God is the complete cause of all that is does not negate the role of other causes which are part of the created natural order. Creatures, both animate and inanimate, are real causes of the wide array of changes that occur in the world, but God alone is the universal cause of being as such. God’s causality is so different from the causality of creatures that there is no competition between the two, that is, we do not need to limit, as it were, God’s causality to make room for the causality of creatures. God causes creatures to be causes.
“Ah, though,” interjects my inner atheist. “Now you’re cheating! Because science has conclusively disproved the Christian account of how the universe and life on earth began, you now move the goal posts and claim that God’s involvement happens on a level that is inaccessible to scientific refutation! This is just ‘God of the gaps’ with a bigger gap – or rather, the final metaphysical smile left after the disappearance of the cosmic Cheshire Cat!”
Well, if the goalposts are being moved, then they were moved first in the 13th century, long before the scientific discoveries invoked in support of God’s obsolescence. Thomas Aquinas, working “within the context of Aristotelian science and aided by the insights of Muslim and Jewish thinkers as well as his Christian predecessors”, formulated this understanding of creation and science, of the different levels of causation for God and his creation. And while he “accepted as a matter of faith that the universe had a temporal beginning”, he also “defended the intelligibility of a universe simultaneously created and eternal”.
Thomas would also warn us, Dr Carroll advises, against appealing to cosmology as evidence for creation.
Thomas … thought that neither science nor philosophy could know whether the universe had a beginning. He did think that metaphysics could show us that the universe is created, but he would have warned against those today who use Big Bang cosmology, for example, to conclude that the universe has a beginning and therefore must be created. He was always alert to reject the use of bad arguments in support of what is believed.
Even if science swings back round to the idea of a “beginning”, that would still not be the “beginning” in the sense understood by the doctrine of creation. In short, as Dr Carroll concludes:
When some thinkers deny [or even, we might add, affirm] creation on the basis of theories in the natural sciences, they misunderstand creation or the natural sciences, or both.