I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing, and neither does Stephen Hawking

Over on his excellent blog, In the Dark, Peter Coles quotes Stephen Hawking saying,

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.

He then asks

Huh? I can’t make sense of it at all. Is it just me that finds it entirely devoid of either logic or  meaning?

He has a poll where you can vote on whether the statement is meaningful.

I voted, and then I wrote a comment explaining my vote. Having written it, I figured I might as well throw it up here, so that two or three more people might see it:

I find the intended meaning of the statement tolerably clear: given that there are certain laws of nature, including gravity (among other things such as quantum mechanics), a vacuum state (“nothing”) can and will evolve into a state containing a universe like ours.

That strikes me as meaningful and quite possibly even true. As a piece of science communication to the general public, though, it’s counterproductive. In context, it’s clear that Hawking means to claim this as an answer to hoary old questions of the “why is there something rather than nothing” variety, and it doesn’t do that. If you’re the sort of person who’s inclined to be bothered by questions of that sort, you’ll be just as bothered after understanding this claim as you were before. You’ll just want to know why there was a vacuum state lying around obeying these particular laws of physics.

Similarly, this argument certainly doesn’t prove the non-existence of God, as Hawking seems to be claiming.

Scientists harm our brand when we make overly broad claims about what science can “prove.” Hawking should know better.

Scientists who try to explain things to the general public are on the side of the (secular) angels, but it drives me crazy when they make overly grandiose claims, either about the science itself or about its philosophical interpretation. Every time a scientist does this, it erodes the credibility of the entire profession.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

5 thoughts on “I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing, and neither does Stephen Hawking”

  1. I think its Lawrence Krauss who argues that the reason there is something rather nothing is that ‘nothing’ is unstable. I find it hard to understand, however, how an intelligent person can think that something with behaviour (instability) is nothing.

    Harming the brand and eroding credibility are legitimate complaints. Science is nothing, after all, without integrity.

  2. You may enjoy the book “The Origin of the Universe – Case Closed”. I find it to be compelling. It has easy to follow math in the Appendix to back up its claims. It is hard to argue with math! It’s an easy read with many pictures.

  3. Hawking’s quote is not super clear, at least not taken out of context (and I don’t know what context it was taken from). But I’m not sure why you accuse him of being excessively grandiose.

    If it’s true that a vacuum state spontaneously creates universes like ours, I think that does considerable damage to the god hypothesis, for the same reason that Darwinian evolution does: because it radically simplifies the explanandum.

    If this theory holds up, theists determined to worship the God of the Gaps will find their god greatly diminished.

  4. I think this is awful science communication. Hawking makes the statement “because A exists, B will absolutely follow”. This is not at all an intuitive statement and if this is all he has said then he provided no evidence to back the statement up. Why does gravity create something from nothing? I have yet to see a compelling explanation of how something could be created from nothing, and this statement does little to differentiate itself from the god hypothesis. I think statements like these do damage to the work of science communicators because it gives people such a negative perception of scientists.

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