How C. S. Lewis “Prefutes” Stephen Hawking

Last summer Sarah Palin accidentally coined the word refudiate, apparently an amalgam of “refute” and “repudiate.” I would like to propose a kindred word, prefute, which means to neutralize someone’s arguments before they have even been proposed.

In a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 10, 2010), physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow try to explain “Why God Did Not Create the Universe.” I would argue that, more than half a century ago, C. S. Lewis had already prefuted the central claims of Hawking and his associates.

Hawking and Mlodinow begin by explaining that the Vikings thought eclipses were caused by great wolves catching the sun or the moon. The authors contrast this almost comically erroneous notion with contemporary methods for seeking truth: “Today we use reason, mathematics, and experimental test—in other words, modern science.”

For readers of C. S. Lewis, the stark contrast of the primitive superstitions of yesteryear with those cutting-edge words “today” and “modern” may well call to mind the advice of the senior devil, Screwtape, to an apprentice tempter: “Don’t waste time trying to make him [a human subject] think that materialism is true! Make him think it is  . . . the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about” (12).

Hawking and Mlodinow go on to discuss the ways in which our solar system, our whole universe, seems fine tuned in order to allow for matter and for life, including human life. They list an impressive array of cosmic variables that if altered only by infinitesimal amounts would have eliminated any chance of living beings in our universe. At first glance, this would seem to suggest a Cosmic Architect who custom-designed this universe to permit our existence on this planet. But the authors go on to note that there are perhaps billions of solar systems in this universe. And theoretical models in mathematics would allow for countless parallel universes, all with their own laws and their own evolution. We exist then, not because of a Creator, but because we won a cosmic lottery, beating nearly infinite odds amid billions of other planets, and perhaps billions of other universes, where the cosmic parameters would not permit life as we know it.

Hawking and Mlodinow conclude, “As recent advances of cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously 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 [fireworks fuse] and set the universe going.”

That conclusion seems to require a breath-taking logical leap from one sentence to the next. First we learn that the laws of physics would allow for a universe to arise ex nihilo. Then suddenly we are informed, as surely as night follows day, that this is what happened. The theoretical possibility becomes an unarguable reality. Some might not call this a logical leap at all, but rather a leap of faith.

Over half a century ago (in “The Laws of Nature,” 1945), C. S. Lewis asked readers to consider more carefully what we mean by the laws of physics. He noted that there are observed regularities in nature. If billiard ball A strikes billiard ball B in a certain way, then the second ball will move off at a predictable angle and rate of speed. But it was not any law of physics that set the second ball in motion; it was presumably the player who shot the first ball. As Lewis concludes, “In the whole history of the universe, the laws of Nature have never produced a single event” (God in the Dock, 77).

When Hawking and Mlodinow observe that “the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics allow universes to appear,” they are surely not asserting intention or agency, as if laws of physics allow universes to appear the same way parents might allow their children to go outside and play. But they seem to beg the prior question: from whence arose the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics? Who passed those laws?

Ironically, C. S. Lewis was not an early proponent of Intelligent Design. His book The Problem of Pain (1940) begins with one of the most forceful cases for atheism that has ever been made. After describing the universe as understood by contemporary science, Lewis concludes: “All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit” (1-2). Lewis goes on to build his case for faith not upon unexpected features of the physical universe but rather upon nature of human consciousness and the revelations of the Divine that have emerged in human history.

Lewis was not content to define God simply as a First Cause, a tradition that goes back at least as far as Aristotle and which apparently continues in the background thinking of Hawking and Mlodinow. Lewis noted that you can read all the plays of Shakespeare and never meet a character named Shakespeare who compels the others to act as they do. As Lewis concludes, “If God exists, he is related to the universe more as an author to his play than as one object in the universe is related to another. If God created the universe, he created space-time, which is to the universe as the metre to the poem or the key to the music.” In this way of thinking, it is pointless “to look for Him as one item within the framework which He himself invented” (Christian Reflections, 169).

Hawking and Mlodinow make the tools of modern science–our methods for discovering truth–sound simple and straightforward: “reason, mathematics, and experimental test.” To Lewis, the trained philosopher, this would sound woefully naïve. He would steer the discussion away from cosmology toward epistemology. Anticipating Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Lewis noted that new models of the cosmos emerge when “the mental temper” of an age demands them. He observes that new models are “not set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her” (The Discarded Image, 168-169).

Hawking and Mlodinow are renowned physicists who write on abstruse issues with admirable clarity. But Lewis almost seemed to have them in mind when he wrote a half a century ago that our external observations should always be supplemented by some alert inward gazing: “If you take nature as a teacher, it will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn.” (The Four Loves, p. 35).

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Downing has written four books on C. S. Lewis. He currently serves as a consulting editor for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. Downing’s next book Looking For the King: An Inklings Novel will be published by Ignatius Press in October 2010. His college website may be found at http://users.etown.edu/d/downindc/)

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