Napoleon: "M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator."LaPlace felt previous ideas regarding the nature of God and its relationship to the mechanics of the universe were unnecessary. Indeed, the idea of making God into a puppeteer pulling the strings of the universe developed in response to the rise of empiricism and science under the belief it would allow for the kind of "proof" of God that had previously been unavailable, largely irrelevant, and in some cases blasphemous. It was based on the idea of God's necessity to explain the currently unexplainable in the workings of the material world.
Laplace: "I had no need of that hypothesis."
As explanations for such puzzles became available without explicitly referring to God, the apparent "need" for God as defined by such a system shrank. And as "proof" of God had been tied to such "need", the rise of science seemed to be connected with the decline of God. This phenomena is known in modern parlance as (the shrinking) God-of-the-gaps, where the gaps are lacunae in our knowledge of the workings of the material world.
Ideas about God long before, during and after the period leading up to the Enlightenment have not relied on the proof or reality of God being bound up with the perceived need of God for such mundane causal explanations. However, the historical weight of the decisions of those who placed all of their theological eggs in such a basket continues to shape how people in the West (and those to whom we have exported our worldviews) think and talk about the Divine. Movements such Young Earth Creationism, an American product originating in the 1800s, reinforce such perceptions and conceptions, so much so that those not buying into the God of empirical need may be accused of being outside of tradition!
Other consequences include a dumbing down of the (mis-)interpretation of what philosophers and theologians had said about God prior to the rise of the God-of-the-gaps as well as contemporary discussion of the similar questions. This lens has greatly distorted how people tend to address questions such as "Why is there something rather than nothing?" If one suggests the answer is God, then immediately the answer conjures the image of some cosmic super-being "waving a hand" and the universe subsequently popping into existence. If you had described that to the early church fathers, they would likely have been confused and disturbed by such an idea.
Enter the new book co-authored by Stephen Hawking and some of the quotes which have made the press:
Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes.So basically Hawking is demonstrating what others, including many theologians, have been saying for a long time -- invoking God isn't necessary to explain or study causal systems within material existence. To this end he is doing a great service to God and theology. But it really doesn't explain why there is something rather than nothing. Invoking gravity or the quantum field or the idea of a multi-verse is at best a description of "how" the universe could have arisen. This is not trivial, but it doesn't address why. Why is there anything? Why is there gravity or energy or a quantum field? This isn't asking "What caused them?" because that would only lead to asking what caused that which caused them and the problem of infinite causal regress.
Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing...
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.
Just taking the quotes above, we can get some useful ideas -- what Hawking describes as the source of existence appears to us to be "nothing" and unbound by space or time. Keep in mind that a source doesn't have to be a cause, so again we aren't talking about the "cause" of existence. Yet these causes might tell us something about their source. Here is where theological and historical ignorance or insight plays a role in what this might actually mean in terms of God. Reading the works of theologians such as Paul Tillich, Martin Buber and others, or the history of how people have understood God (which is presented in a basic overview by authors like Karen Armstrong), one finds that indeed there has been and continues to be an understanding of God that is not only consistent with the findings of theoreticians and researchers such as Hawking but which anticipates them.
Here are some theological notions that often don't make it into popular conversation:
God as transcendent in terms of being beyond any categories and in terms of not being (limited to) any particular phenomena or thing, yet being immanent in terms of being the raw potentiality of which phenomena arise and of which they are composed.In these views God is not "a thing", a specimen or example alongside others in a category of phenomena, even the most superlative representative of such a category. This kind of theology views God therefore as "no thing". Note that contrary to the logical conclusion reached by the theology responsible for God-of-the-gaps, these ideas do not make God either "irrelevant" or "impersonal". As I've written previously:
God as not being "a person" or "a mind" but rather the ground of a universal person-ness and non-localized consciousness which can through reflection be recognized and communed with by localized, finite manifestation of consciousness (i.e. sentient beings).
God when experienced in the purest way possible for sentient beings is revealed through a sense of boundless love and wisdom, an ineffable experience of complete fulfillment.
descriptions of God as imperfect metaphors fitting different needs and levels of realization rather than fixed or limiting identities (which is the basis of the most insidious forms of idolatry).
God is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, God is ineffable an beyond complete rational, logical comprehension. God is, as Tillich and others have suggested, not a "thing", even a super-duper thing, alongside other things. God is the ground of all being and existence, the ultimate source and reality, the raw potential out which all form (or phenomena) arise and return as well as their substance. God in this sense "doesn't exist". God is existence itself. This is what is apprehended by panentheism and expressed by apophatic theology.
Yet there is also the immanence of God, which comes in since we are in every sense "of God". This recalls oft-quoted opening lines from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: "To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour." But it pays to read the rest, as some additional lines attest:
"Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine Runs a joy with silken twine... We are led to believe a lie When we see not thro' the eye, Which was born in a night to perish in a night, When the soul slept in beams of light. God appears, and God is light, To those poor souls who dwell in night; but does a human form display To those who dwell in realms of day."
Thus the paradox. God is on the one hand incomprehensibly transcendent, yet on the other hand the fullness of God is contained in a single flower, whose true depth and mystery are boundless.
I am not going to go into a more detailed description or explanation of such views of God here. I have been looking into them for a while, so additional glimpses of my take on matters concerning theology are available elsewhere in various forms on this site. Yet they are glimpses only and described by an amateur. They may not be enough for a curious reader to develop an appreciation for the lack of depth that too often informs public discussions such as the relationship between science and religion, but for anyone who seeks such a depth I hope they will point you in the right direction.
[A follow-up to this essay can be found here. A brief addendum follows below.]
To clarify, I am not suggesting that the idea of God being an explanation for the unknown is a historically recent invention. People frequently invoked God, or gods, or powers, or angels, or spirits, etc as explanations for things that had no clear answer, whether it was a matter of "how" or "why"? Invoking the metaphor of God as a creator has a long history. But we cannot just pull such language and imagery out of historical and cultural context in which they originated for which they were aimed and apply modern assumptions in understanding it without greatly distorting the intent of the people using such descriptions. Many things we may find out of place or incongruent today would have been assumed be default by the original audience, and hence not as central to the stories being told as we might make them today.
The issue at hand is when people decided to invoke necessity for causal mechanisms of the physical world as evidence for God. It is one thing to think of God as a source or creator in broad terms, and such language still can be useful today. It is another reduce God to a link in a causal chain, to make God dependent on and dwell in the spaces of our ignorance and hence create a God-of-the-gaps. This leads to the charge on the part of skeptics of "moving the goal posts" of the definition of or evidence for God because God becomes dependent on our knowledge or lack thereof. What is suggested here is that God contains the goal posts, the field, the kicker and the ball, so moving them around isn't pertinent to the issue of God's existence.