In a recent news article, world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking said that he now knows what happened before the dawn of time. He had explained previously in his lectures, “All the evidence seems to indicate that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning, about 15 billion years ago.” In this most recent interview, he told physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson something very interesting: that amid the almost infinitely small quantum foam of the singularity before the Big Bang, time existed in a “bent” state. When I heard this comment, I was a bit surprised. Hawking’s intelligence and expertise in the fields of physics and cosmology is legendary and beyond dispute. Which makes it all the stranger that he should make such an untenable philosophical statement.
When cosmologists and astrophysicists refer to the “universe,” they are referring to all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, life, and all other forms of matter and energy. This branch of science is dominated by the Big Bang theory, which says that the universe began at the Big Bang.
But in his recent statement, Hawking claims that at least two things existed prior to the beginning of the universe: quantum foam and time (in a “bent” state). If the universe contains all matter and time, how could matter (quantum foam) and bent time have existed prior to the universe? That is like saying, “X existed before X existed,” which is a nonsense statement that violates the laws of logic.
If anything existed before the Big Bang, then the Big Bang was not the beginning of the universe. So what of quantum foam and bent time? Have they existed forever, or did they, too, have a beginning? If quantum foam and bent time had a beginning, then the beginning of those things would be the actual beginning of the universe. And if those things did not have a beginning and are past eternal, then we’re left with the same problem that Hawking himself pointed out regarding a universe that is past eternal:
There must have been a beginning. Otherwise, the universe would be in a state of complete disorder by now, and everything would be at the same temperature. In an infinite and everlasting universe, every line of sight would end on the surface of a star. This would mean that the night sky would have been as bright as the surface of the Sun.
This wasn’t the only questionable philosophical concept Hawking presented in his interview. He also cited a new idea introduced by quantum theory called imaginary time which Hawking describes as, “finite in extent, but without boundary.”
The first problem with this statement is that if you look up the word “finite” in the dictionary, you’ll find the first definition is “having bounds or limits.” In other words, the essential and necessary characteristic that makes something finite is the presence of boundaries. So something being “finite but without boundary” is the logical equivalent of a round square; it’s a self-negating contradiction.
Secondly, Hawking uses a problematic analogy to explain this concept. He states, “The surface of the Earth is finite in extent, but it doesn’t have any boundaries or edges. I have been around the world, and I didn’t fall off.” But the surface of the Earth does have boundaries. For example, once you’ve taken off in a jet, you’ve left the vertical boundary of the Earth’s surface. No, he didn’t “fall off” the Earth as if it was a flat shape, but once airborne, he was no longer within the boundary of the surface of the Earth. He was flying above it.
There is one more statement Hawking made during this interview that I found curious. When talking about the state of the universe at the Big Bang, Hawking said, “It would have been what is called, a singularity. At a singularity, all the laws of physics would have broken down.”
This statement introduces two difficulties. First, Hawking has still not solved the philosophical problem that there is something—in this case, a singularity—that existed prior to the existence of the universe. So the illogical “X existed before X existed” line of reasoning has not been resolved. Hawking admits that the universe must have had a beginning. Yet he, along with the other leading voices in modern cosmology, is unable to posit a scientific theory that makes sense of the fact that the universe came into being ex nihilo, out of nothing. Prior to the universe, there was no matter and no time, which means no singularity, no quantum foam, no bent time. There was nothing. And then there was something. And as the ancient Greek cosmologist, Parmenides so astutely observed 2,500 years ago: ex nihilo nihil fit—out of nothing, nothing comes.
The second issue I found with Hawking’s statement about the singularity has to do with the idea he presents that there are certain natural phenomena in which the laws of physics can break down. It’s telling that scientists will allow the possibility that the laws of physics can break down when it comes to explaining the Big Bang and black holes, but not when it comes to miracles. When it comes to the possibility of supernatural events scientists like Hawking claim there is no room for the laws of nature to be broken. Yet it makes perfect sense both philosophically and scientifically to posit that miracles—such as the parting of the Red Sea or the resurrection of Jesus—can be explained by saying that the laws of physics “broke down,” or perhaps more accurately, were temporarily overruled. This is logically consistent with the idea that in the course of miraculous events, physical laws could easily be circumvented by the Creator God, who fashioned them in the first place.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
By definition, the arena of inquiry for natural science is necessarily limited to the physical universe. Therefore, metaphysical or extra-natural explanations are outside of its explanatory scope. Which I suppose may be why brilliant scientists sometimes philosophically trip over their own feet in an effort to avoid contemplating supernatural conclusions.