When people claim there is a conflict between science and religion, they are often referring to some alleged conflict between the theory of evolution and a belief in a designer God. Sometimes an argument is put forward that is supposed to show a conflict between the laws of physics and a belief in God. Stephen Hawking puts forth such an argument in his 2010 book The Grand Design. His arguments makes several philosophical mistakes that ought be addressed.
Part 1: Hawking, Gravity, and God
In The Grand Design Stephen Hawking along with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow put forth a controversial candidate for a theory of everything called M-theory. The bulk of the book is spent explaining this theory which is really just a collection of various theories that try to explain the universe. In the book, Hawking and Mlodinow conclude “because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (pg 180). Anyone with a little training in philosophy can immediately identify the self-contradictory nature of this claim. If we say that X creates Y, then we are already presupposing the existence of X in order to account for the existence of Y. In the first part of the above quote, Hawkings is presupposing the existence of gravity (X) to explain the existence of the universe (Y). Therefore the universe is not created from nothing, it is created from gravity.
Hawking then piles another contradiction on top of his first. In the second part of the above quote, he asserts that, "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." If we say that X creates X we already pressupose the existence of X in order to account for the existence of X. This also is logically incoherent. If any scientific theory makes such as obvious error, then that theory ought to be revised or abandoned.
Throughout his book, Hawking suggests that there is no God because the laws of physics explain the existence of the universe. He writes, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” (pg 180). But how then does Hawking explain the existence of his metaphorical "blue touch paper" that set the universe going? How does Hawking explain the existence of gravity in the first place? He doesn't! He simply presupposes that it exists. Hawking does not know how to explain gravity. To him that is simply where explanations come to an end.
Then why is he so confident in suggesting that God does not exist? Perhaps he has this argument in mind:
Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is God, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who created God. (pg 172)
This is the same argument that Richard Dawkins put forward in The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. I offered a rebuttal to that argument in my previous post. Hawking and Dawkins seem to suggest that using God as an explanation for the universe is somehow invalid because it cannot explain the existence of God himself. But if that is true then Hawking's argument is also invalid. One can equally use Hawking's argument against him. Below is Hawking's same quote but I replaced the word God with Gravity:
Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is Gravity which created the universe that way. It is reasonable to ask who or what created the universe, but if the answer is Gravity, then the question has merely been deflected to that of who or what created Gravity.
Believing that all explanations end in gravity is not logically incoherent nor is it intellectually unacceptable. But, believing that all explanations end in God is likewise NOT logically incoherent nor intellectual unacceptable. Certain beliefs about gravity (like the one mentioned above) or certain beliefs about God may be shown to be fallacious, but the general belief that all explanations end somewhere is not. What is intellectually unacceptable is pretending that one's scientific conclusions show that God does not exist.
Part 2: Hawking, Scientists, and Philosophy
Hawking's logical errors can be explained by his ignorance of philosophy. In the beginning of The Grand Design Hawking lays out some questions about reality including the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Referring to these questions, Hawking writes, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” (pg 5)
The irony of this statement is not only that Hawking uses philosophical arguments throughout his whole book, but that the statement "philosophy is dead" is itself a philosophical proposition. Hawking cannot be making a scientific claim here. He is making a metaphysical claim about science. Therefore even when Hawking is trying to dismiss philosophy, he is contradicting himself. I agree with the philosopher Daniel Dennett who said, "There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” (Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea)
Scientists like Dawkins and Hawking hurt scientific progress when they mingle their own philosophical assumptions with science. Their philosophical pronouncements cause confusion because it gives lay people the false impression that they must choose between God or science when the clash really exists between the scientist's philosophical assumptions and God.