The curious metaphysics of Dr. Stephen Hawking


Why would a preeminent physicist make the claim that “the universe can come from nothing?”

Dr. Stephen Hawking

This is precisely what Dr. Stephen Hawking has done in his new book, The Grand Design, when he notes, "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."

This statement betrays Hawking's fundamental assumption about the universe, namely that it came from nothing. But why would a preeminent physicist assume that the universe came from nothing? Presumably, because he believes that there are reasons for thinking that the universe had a beginning.

Let me put it in reverse: If one believes that there is significant evidence for a beginning of the universe then one is confronted with the question, "what was the universe before the beginning?" If the beginning is truly a point at which the universe came into existence then one is confronted by the fact that prior to the beginning, the whole physical universe was nothing.

What's my point? If Dr. Hawking does not believe that there is any reason to think that the universe had a beginning (from physics or philosophy), then why does he even bother to speculate about how the universe could spontaneously create itself from nothing? I am left to assume that Dr. Hawking does believe there are reasons for thinking the universe had a beginning – otherwise his contention about "the universe coming from nothing" makes no sense.

It so happens that there is a considerable amount of evidence for a beginning of the universe from both physics and philosophy. In my new book New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Eerdmans, 2010), I speak about compelling evidence for the beginning of a universe from space-time geometry (the Borde-Vilenkin-Guth Theorem 2003, and the Borde-Vilenkin Proof – 1993) and from the second law of thermodynamics (entropy). I also speak about the evidence of a beginning from the mathematical argument (implicit in the work of David Hilbert) against actual infinities constituting aggregative wholes. I am not certain whether Dr. Hawking has used these or other kinds of evidence to implicitly adduce a beginning of the universe, but it is difficult for me to believe that he has come to the threshold of metaphysics without any sense of one.

If we grant this, then the next step would be to examine the value of his metaphysical argument. Bear in mind here that Dr. Hawking has moved from the domain of physics to metaphysics (literally "beyond physics") when he makes statements about "nothing" and "creation" and "the universe creating itself." These metaphysical topics have been taken up since the time of Parmenides and Plato, and quite frankly, answered by them in a more consistent and rigorous way than Dr. Hawking. Why would I say this? Because these thinkers use the term "nothing" to mean "nothing" (i.e. "that which there is no such thing as"). Nothing should not be thought to be a vacuum or a void (which is dimensional and orientable – where you can have more or less space); and it is certainly not a physical law. Inasmuch as the laws of physics have real physical effects, they must be considered to be something physical.

Let's take the law mentioned by Dr. Hawking above – the law of gravity. It has a specific constant associated with it and specific characteristics, and it has specific effects on mass-energy and even on space-time itself. This is a very curious definition of "nothing." Therefore, Dr. Hawking's phrase should be restated to say something like, "Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe has unfolded and developed." But what must be avoided are the rest of the statements – "can and will create itself from nothing" and "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing," etc. Now, if we rephrase Dr. Hawking's statement in the above fashion, then he has clearly not explained why there is something rather than nothing. He has only explained that something comes from something (i.e. the universe from physical laws such as the law of gravity).

In my view, Dr. Hawking has not yet shown the non-necessity of this reality. Indeed, he implies it by assuming the existence of a beginning in his assertion about the universe coming from nothing.

But let's go back to Dr. Hawking's underlying assumption, namely that there are reasons to think that something came from nothing – namely, reasons for a beginning. How have philosophers and metaphysicians traditionally responded to this question? With what many term the first principle of metaphysics, "From nothing only nothing comes." If you take nothing literally – that is if one acknowledges that there is no such thing as nothing, then one cannot attribute anything to nothing. One cannot attribute characteristics, actions, powers and so forth to nothing. In this absence of everything, one can only conclude that "only nothing can come from nothing." What does this mean?

It means that if the physical universe had a beginning (a point at which it came into existence" then prior to that point it was nothing. And if it was nothing then it could not have created itself (because only nothing can come from nothing). So what does that imply? The very reality that Dr. Hawking wants to avoid, namely, a transcendent power which can cause the universe to come into existence.

Why should we consider this power to be transcendent (that is – transcending the universe as a whole)? Because if the universe was nothing prior to its beginning, then the reality which causes it to exist must be completely beyond it (independent of it). This transcendent reality which causes the universe as a whole to exist is frequently termed "creator" or "God." In my view, Dr. Hawking has not yet shown the non-necessity of this reality. Indeed, he implies it by assuming the existence of a beginning in his assertion about the universe coming from nothing.


Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. on science and religion - EWTN Live




Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. "The Curious Metaphysics of Dr. Stephen." Magis Institute (September 3, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the Magis Institute.

The mission of the Magis Institute is to explore and share the close connection between reason and faith as revealed by new discoveries in astrophysics and philosophy.


Father Robert Spitzer, S.J. is currently the President of the Magis Center of Faith and Reason and the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership. The former is dedicated to showing the close connection between faith and reason in contemporary astrophysics, philosophy, and historical study of the New Testament. The latter is dedicated to personal and cultural transformation that supports principle-based ethics and leads to noble and enduring success. Father Spitzer was President of Gonzaga University from 1998-2009. He has published 5 books and numerous scholarly articles, started 6 national institutes, and speaks widely on the philosophy of science, philosophy of God, and ethics. Fr. Spitzer has as spoken to thousands of audiences, and has done ethics consulting for over 300 organizations, including Boeing, Caterpillar, Toyota, Costco, the British Prime Minister's Cabinet, the leadership of Costa Rica, Protestant and Catholic leadership in Northern Ireland, and the Orthodox Church in Russia. Father Spitzer is the author of New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy, Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active People, Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom, and the Life Issues, Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues, as well as videos such as Suffering and the God of Love, and Healing the Culture.

Copyright © 2010 Magis Institute

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.