September 22, 2010
In their recent book, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow claim that the laws of nature are consistent with the universe popping into existence from nothing, and in fact, they affirm that this is exactly what happened. (A helpful rebuttal to this claim can be found here). Apparently, this desperate move results from the fact that they recognize that the universe had a beginning and they want to deflect the need for a transcendent Cause to explain the universe’s origin. To my knowledge, they do not argue that the laws of nature themselves created the universe, and that’s a good thing. Why? Because the laws of nature are formal causes that direct the “flow” of causation, but they are not efficient causes that produce anything whatsoever. Thus, this claim, if made, would be a simple category fallacy. However, their actual claim is just as egregious, and that for two reasons.
First, the laws of nature do not apply unless there already is a universe. Those laws govern transitions of state of entities that exist ontologically prior to the laws themselves. Thus, an appeal to the laws of nature to explain how the universe could come from nothing is otiose; those laws presuppose a universe for their applicability and cannot in any sense be employed to explain what they presuppose. And coming-into-existence is not a process that could be governed by laws; it is, rather, an instantaneous occurrence. In general, “e comes-to-be at time t” is to be analyzed as “there is some property P such that e has P at t, and there are no times t’ earlier than t or properties Q such that e had Q at t’.”
Second, the principle “something cannot come from nothing without a cause” is a metaphysically necessary philosophical principle that is known a priori from an analysis of “nothing” which, as it turns out, is the complete absence of anything whatever, including properties, relations, causal powers, and so forth. Thus, “nothing” is not some sort of shadowy thing that could serve as a material or efficient cause. Note carefully, that this principle is not a scientific one; it is not an empirical generalization, but a necessary truth of philosophy.
The fact that many people have been influenced by the claims of Hawking and Mlodinow is sad to me. Here’s why. In previous times when average people knew more philosophy, these claims would simply be laughable because they are philosophical assertions being made by scientists who have little or no philosophical training. Thus, however brilliant they are in their own field, Hawking and Mlodinow are laypersons when it comes to the relevant issue at hand. But we live in a scientistic culture. When a scientist speaks, he is taken to be an authority irrespective of what the topic is. And that attitude reflects poorly on the educational level of the public. Thus, the deeper issue for me in all this is not whether or not the universe could come into existence from nothing without a cause. It is, rather, the scientism that lies at the heart of Western culture. I have long believed that philosophical naturalism, with its unjustified scientism, has helped to create an intellectually unsophisticated culture, and this is one reason why I think this way.