This article has been reproduced with permission from Public Discourse.

“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 set the Universe going.” Such
is the affirmation of Stephen Hawking found in his newly released book, The
Grand Design
. It is not unusual to hear a distinguished scientist
make the claim that the universe and everything about it is, at least in
principle, exhaustively explicable in terms of contemporary science.

his famous book, A Brief History of Time (1988), Hawking did
admit that perhaps a god was needed to choose the basic laws of physics
and that, accordingly, if a grand unified theory of scientific
explanation were at hand we would come to know “the mind of God.” Now
Hawking thinks that, more broadly, we can do away with an appeal to a
creator, at least as he understands what ‘to create’ means. Citing a
version of contemporary string theory, known as “M-theory,” Hawking
tells us that the “creation” of a great many universes out of nothing
“does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god.”
Rather, these multiple universes “arise naturally from physical law.”
Ultimate questions about the nature of existence which have intrigued
philosophers for millennia are, so he claims, now the province of
science, and “philosophy is dead.”

Hawking’s new book invites us to think again about what it means “to
create” and what, if anything, the natural sciences can tell us about
it. The assertion—which is broadly philosophical and certainly not
scientific—that the universe is self-sufficient, without any need for a
Creator to explain why there is something rather than nothing, is the
result of fundamental confusions about the explanatory domains of the
natural sciences and philosophy. What is often being affirmed is a kind
of “totalizing naturalism” that eliminates the need for any appeal to
explanations which employ principles that transcend the world of
physical things. Whether we speak of explanations of the Big Bang itself
(such as quantum tunneling from nothing) or of some version of a
multiverse hypothesis, or of self-organizing principles in biological
change (including appeals to randomness and chance as ultimate
explanations), the conclusion which seems inescapable to many is that
there is no need to appeal to a Creator, that is, to any cause which is
outside the natural order.

Many cosmologists who now routinely speak of what happened “before
the Big Bang” think that to reject some original Big Bang is to
eliminate the need for a Creator. They deny the need for a Creator
because they think that “to be created” means to have a temporal
beginning. In such a scenario, accepting or rejecting a Creator is tied
to accepting or to explaining away an original Big Bang. You might
remember Hawking’s famous rhetorical question: “So long as the universe
had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe
is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it
would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place,
then, for a creator?”

What place, indeed? Creation, as a metaphysical notion, affirms that
all that is, in whatever way or ways it is, depends upon God as cause.
The natural sciences have as their subject the world of changing things:
from subatomic particles to acorns to galaxies. Whenever there is a
change there must be something that changes. Whether these changes are
biological or cosmological, without beginning or end, or temporally
finite, they remain processes. Creation, on the other hand, is the
radical causing of the whole existence of whatever exists. Creation is
not a change. To cause completely something to exist is not to produce a
change in something, is not to work on or with some existing material.
When God’s creative act is said to be “out of nothing,” what is meant is
that God does not use anything in creating all that is: it does not
mean that there is a change from “nothing” to “something.” In the
quotation cited at the beginning of this essay we find Hawking telling
us that it is not necessary “to invoke God . . .to set the Universe
going.” But creation does not mean “to set the Universe going”—as though
some change occurred at a putative beginning. To deny such a change, as
Hawking does, is not to deny creation.

Cosmology, evolutionary biology, and all the other natural sciences
offer accounts of change; they do not address the metaphysical questions
of creation; they do not speak to why there is something rather than
nothing. It is a mistake to use arguments in the natural sciences to
deny creation. But it is also a mistake to appeal to cosmology as a
confirmation of creation. Reason can lead to knowledge of the Creator,
but the path is in metaphysics, not in the natural sciences.

To avoid confusion, we need to note different senses of how we use
the term “to create.” We often speak of human creations, especially with
respect to the production of works of art, music, and literature. What
it means for God to create is radically different from any kind of human
making. When human beings make things they work with already existing
material to produce something new. The human act of creating is not the
complete cause of what is produced, but God’s creative act is
the complete cause of what is produced. This sense of being the complete
cause is captured in the expression “out of nothing.” To be such a
complete cause of all that is requires an infinite power, and no
creature, no human being, possesses such infinite power. God wills
things to be and thus they are. To say that God is the complete cause of
all that is does not negate the role of other causes which are part of
the created natural order. Creatures, both animate and inanimate, are
real causes of the wide array of changes that occur in the world, but
God alone is the universal cause of being as such. God’s causality is so
different from the causality of creatures that there is no competition
between the two, that is, we do not need to limit, as it were, God’s
causality to make room for the causality of creatures. God causes
creatures to be causes.

Already in the 13th century the groundwork was set for the
fundamental understanding of creation and its relationship to the
natural sciences. Working within the context of Aristotelian science and
aided by the insights of Muslim and Jewish thinkers as well as his
Christian predecessors, Thomas Aquinas provided an understanding of
creation and science which remains true. The distinction between
creation and change—and hence between the explanatory realm of the
natural sciences and creation—to which I have already referred, is a key
feature of Thomas’ analysis. As he wrote: “Over and above the mode of
becoming by which something comes to be through change or motion, there
must be a mode of becoming or origin of things without any mutation or
motion, through the influx of being.”

Creation is not primarily some distant event. Rather, it is the
ongoing, complete causing of the existence of all that is. At this very
moment, were God not causing all that is to exist, there would be
nothing at all. Creation concerns the origin of the universe, not its
temporal beginning. Indeed, it is important to recognize this
distinction between origin and beginning. The former affirms the
complete, continuing dependence of all that is on God as cause. It may
very well be that the universe had a temporal beginning, but there is no
contradiction in the notion of an eternal, created universe, for were
the universe to be without a beginning it still would have an origin; it
still would be created. This is precisely the position of Thomas
Aquinas, who accepted as a matter of faith that the universe had a
temporal beginning but also defended the intelligibility of a universe
simultaneously created and eternal.

Thomas also thought that neither science nor philosophy could know
whether the universe had a beginning. He did think that metaphysics
could show us that the universe is created, but he would have warned
against those today who use Big Bang cosmology, for example, to conclude
that the universe has a beginning and therefore must be created. He was
always alert to reject the use of bad arguments in support of what is
believed. The “singularity” in traditional Big Bang cosmology may
represent the beginning of the universe we observe, but we cannot
conclude that it is the absolute beginning, the kind of beginning which
would indicate creation.

The crucial point here is that to offer a scientific account of the
Big Bang is not to say anything about whether or not the universe is
created. Those contemporary cosmological theories which employ a
multiverse hypothesis or an infinite series of big bangs do not
challenge the fundamental feature of what it means to be created, that
is, the complete dependence upon God as cause of existence. An eternal
universe would be no less dependent upon God than a universe which has a
beginning of time. For one who believes that the universe has a
temporal beginning, any theory of an eternal universe would have to be
rejected, but a believer should be able to ask what kind of universe God
creates (e.g., one with or without a temporal beginning) while
remaining secure in the fact that whatever kind of universe there is,
God is its Creator.

When it came to how to read the opening of Genesis, Thomas Aquinas
observed that what is essential is the “fact of creation,” not the
“manner or mode” of the formation of the world. Questions concerning
order, design, and chance in nature refer to the “manner or mode” of
formation of the world. Attempts in the natural sciences to explain
these facets of nature do not challenge the “fact of creation.” God
causes things both to be the kinds of things which they are and to
exercise the kind of causality which is properly their own. Even the
reality of chance and contingency depends upon God as cause. God
transcends the created order in such a radical way that He is able to be
active in the world without being a competing cause in the world.

The interconnected, and one might say horizontal, world of changing
things ought not to be confused with the vertical dimension of creation:
a vertical dimension upon which the horizontal continues to depend for
its very existence. Order, design, chance, and contingency all concern
the horizontal realm, whereas it is the very reality of all things that
depends upon the vertical dimension. We ought not to think that to
create, in its primary sense, means to produce order. To explain order
and design in terms of processes within nature does not eliminate the
need for a Creator, a Creator who is responsible for the existence of
nature and everything in it. Hawking thinks that modern arguments about
design, especially those which refer to the remarkable coincidence of
the initial conditions of the universe (the so-called strong anthropic
principle), do not lead us to the existence of a Grand Designer. Rather,
“the fine-tunings in the laws of nature can be explained by the
existence of multiple universes.” We just happen to live in that
universe (among perhaps an infinite number of other universes) which has
the right environment for us. Indeed, he notes, “just as Darwin . . .
explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could
appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept
can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a
benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.” The Grand
Designer rejected by Hawking is not the Creator, at least not the
Creator which traditional philosophy and theology affirms.

In The Grand Design, Hawking grants a near omnicompetence to
the natural sciences and writes: “Because there is a law such as
gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” But
there would be no gravity, indeed there would be nothing at all, were
God not creating all that is as it is. God’s creative power is exercised
throughout the entire course of cosmic history, in whatever ways that
history has unfolded. God creates a universe in which things have their
own causal agency, their own true self-sufficiency: a nature which is
susceptible to scientific analysis. Still, no explanation of
cosmological or biological change, no matter how radically random or
contingent such an explanation claims to be, challenges the metaphysical
account of creation, that is, of the dependence of the existence of all
things upon God as cause. When some thinkers deny creation on the basis
of theories in the natural sciences, they misunderstand creation or the
natural sciences, or both.

William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Science and
Religion at Blackfriars Hall and a member of the Faculty of Theology of
the University of Oxford. He is author of
Galileo: Science and
Faith; La Creación y las Ciencias Naturales: Actualidad de
Santo Tomás de Aquino, and co-author with Steven E. Baldner of Aquinas
on Creation.

William E. Carroll is the Thomas Aquinas Fellow in Science and Religion at Blackfriars Hall and a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford. He is author of Galileo:...