BY C. S. MORRISSEY
Special to The B.C. Catholic
What does physics have to do with proving or disproving whether God exists? Lately, the question has been keeping Father Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., very busy. Father Spitzer has mounted a highly visible challenge to physicist Stephen Hawking’s claim that “we don’t need God to explain why there is something rather than nothing or why the laws of nature are what they are.”
The past few days have seen Father Spitzer go on CNN’s Larry King Live right after Hawking, debate physicist Leonard Mlodinow (Hawking’s co-author on The Grand Design), post YouTube videos, and write essays for his Web site. Hawking’s book “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),” writes Father Spitzer in a recent blog post.
As author of his own book, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (released just this August), Father Spitzer is a rare sort of specialist, a Catholic priest highly skilled in both science and philosophy.
In his philosophical response to Hawking, Father Spitzer argues 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.”
Father Spitzer shows that the way from physics to the metaphysical account of God’s existence is a rational argument, not a leap of faith: “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),” and this independence is not something that can belong unconditionally to the laws of gravity and quantum theory (which Hawking mistakenly thinks can replace God as the only truly unconditioned reality).
The fact that scientists like Hawking (and not just metaphysical philosophers) are talking today about the universe coming “out of nothing” is revealing, argues Father Spitzer. It shows that physics today, as never before, has overwhelming evidence pointing to how the universe has a beginning.
“I think we are fortunate to have such an abundance of evidence,” writes Father Spitzer in New Proofs for the Existence of God. The perfect antidote to Hawking’s faulty presentation, Father Spitzer’s book presents a more reliable account of recent developments in physics, especially those of the past decade which make the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence understandable today in a surprisingly fresh way.
Contemporary cosmology clarifies how the universe requires a transcendent Creator to produce the Big Bang and the beginning of time, insists Father Spitzer. It also requires a Super-Intelligent Designer to precisely “fine tune” the inflationary expansion of the early universe so that it later supports life.
While these developments in physics do not by themselves constitute “new proofs” (and thus many leading scientists like Hawking may remain unconvinced), Father Spitzer nevertheless shows how they still contribute to “the strongest rational foundation for faith that has come to light in human history.” He argues that the new physics developments do not contradict but rather “complement traditional proofs for the existence of God” which distinguish creation (God’s proper action) from a beginning in time (which physics mathematically models).
A great strength of his book is that Father Spitzer does not explicitly rehash the traditional proofs (the “Five Ways” of St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae). Instead, he indirectly defends the premises of these “old proofs” by simply showing how their “old” arguments now in fact make even more sense.
The brilliant originality of Father Spitzer’s book lies in this new approach. It does not devote itself to translating the latest physics into the “old” philosophical jargon in order to defend the “old proofs.” Instead, it boldly formulates fresh “new proofs” for a contemporary mind willing to be informed by the “new” language of the latest cosmology. If you are not already pre-disposed to swallow Hawking’s philosophical mistakes, then it will stimulate you onto a path of rigorous thinking.
Father Spitzer’s “new proofs” use knowledge gained by modern physics in order to speak about God as “unrestricted” and “absolutely simple” and “unconditioned Reality.” Readers familiar with the traditional proofs, however, will recognize this as Father Spitzer’s way of making the traditional terminology of “infinite” and “immutable” and “pure Act” more intelligible to minds familiar with modern cosmology.
Indeed, his book should reinvigorate and rekindle interest in (and appreciation of) the “old proofs.” For me, Father Spitzer’s “new proofs” are really the “old” ones, but updated, deepened, refreshed. The renovation of the old arguments, however, is so stunning that I shall not begrudge him the rhetorical claim to “new proofs.” I will point out, however, that his “new proofs” are five in number, as with Aquinas’s "good old" Five Ways. Coincidence? No, and I will explore the correspondences to the “new proofs” in my Thomas Aquinas philosophy class at Redeemer Pacific College next semester.
Readers looking for rigorous, but accessible, explanations of the “good old” Five Ways themselves should consult two books by the Catholic philosopher Edward Feser: Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, and his polemical firebomb, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. Feser demolishes the ignorant and dishonest misrepresentations of Aquinas’ arguments found not just in recently popular books promoting atheism but even among professional scholars.
Today the case for atheism has never been weaker. Father Spitzer and Feser, in highlighting the supreme rationality of the traditional proofs, suggest a coming renaissance of studies inspired by Thomas Aquinas. Father William A. Wallace, OP, wrote in 1968, “Thomists have been content to remain at a very general level, concentrating on metaphysics, and neglecting the specialized disciplines that have developed because of the needs of modern man. Without intending to do so, they have promoted a divorce between philosophy and science, and as a result, they have allowed their theology to be completely untouched by scientific progress.”
Father Spitzer’s magnificent New Proofs for the Existence of God, however, rectifies that sin of omission. Theologians, therefore, should take notice of this indispensable contribution to healing the divide between faith and reason in contemporary thought. Once again, the dawn breaks: physics meets metaphysics, and Aquinas is rising.
C. S. Morrissey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College. He presents more information about Father Spitzer’s book, including free audio and video files about the new proofs, through his Web site, moreC.com.