Stephen Hawking recently stated that we do not need God to explain where everything comes from. Theoretical physics can provide the answer. My question to Hawking is: How does he explain the laws that were functioning with the Big Bang? Where do these laws come from? Physical laws are predictable, orderly events on which we can rely. Science is about testing knowledge against stated criteria or laws. So why is reality knowable (having laws to uncover, to use to our benefit)?

I too have not read Hawking's book, but from reviews I've read Hawking's argument is based on a theory of multiple universes he develops as an application of brane cosmology, which is an application of membrame theory (or M-theory), which itself is a theoretical development from string theory. In extremely general terms, this theoretical perspective seeks to explain the physical constants and physical laws in our universe by appeal to the diversity of physical and constants throughout the set of universes within the "multiverse," which is conceived of something like a set of separate space-times each governed by a different physical laws and constants. Hopefully panelists with expertise in these esoteric areas can chime in with more details, but with respect to the "God question" the reviews I have read represent Hawking as arguing that the "structure" of the multiverse provides a satisfactory explanation of the existence of a space-time that contains the physical laws and constants of our...

To follow up on my earlier response: In the February 10, 2011 edition of the New York Review of Books , Steven Weinberg has an excellent review of Hawking and Mlodinow's book. The review, which is also published online at URL , addresses some aspects of your question -- and also contains some good information about the theories that Hawking and Mlodinow are attempting to popularize.

Does it make sense to define atheism as "a lack of belief in a God" rather than as "a belief in the nonexistence of God?"

I don't see anyphilosophical reason to conflate the conventional distinction betweenatheism and agnosticism, although I think that there exist somepolitical and social pressures to do that in contemporary Americansociety: some individuals who affirm atheism in private are morecomfortable inaccurately describing their attitude in public asagnosticism and some theists critics wrongly label both categories offailure to believe in God as atheism. There probably are interestinghistorical and sociological stories to tell about those pressures, but I don'tthink there is a compelling philosophical story about why redefiningatheism in the manner you describe is rationally required or that suggest that this would be a useful revision to make to our language. Mark's reply raises some interesting issues about human rationality. If atheists were required to have considered multiple arguments and assessed lots of evidence, then it would seem odd to describe many human beings as atheists and not just squirrels -...

Throughout my life I have been, at one time or another, a believer in God, an agnostic and an atheist. I am amazed at the strength of other people's faith, especially at the faith of people who have taken up a new religion and fervently hold on to and defend their new beliefs for the rest of their lives. My question is how are people so convinced that their chosen religion is right over all the others. It seems impossible that a person can believe in a religion simply because he or she wants to - there must be some logic behind their reasoning - but I cannot understand it. Can you explain or is this one for psychologists?

In his magnificent recent book, A Secular Age , the Canadian social philosopher Charles Taylor addresses exactly why it is that many North American and Western Europeans find themselves able to view religious belief as a choice that one can make on rational or other grounds. Taylor's sophisticated philosophically-nuanced historical account of this and related questions show that philosophers can address issues like these with considerable success; psychologists undoubtedly also have a lot to say, but Taylor demontrates that the question you raise engages numerous fascinating philosophical issues in social philosophy, political philosophy, and metaphysical issues related to identity.

Hello, my name is Todd and I wanted to ask you a question: Do you feel/think that "Occam's Razor" is relevant and appropriately applicable when deciding whether or not to believe in a divine being, i.e. god (in the traditional western conception)? For example, I feel that the simplest explanation is that there is no god, rather than to make positive claims about something that exists. Thanks, Todd

I agree with Oliver that Occam's razor is not an "especiallypriviliged" principle in this or other contexts, but I also agree withPeter that it nonetheless is perfectly appopriate to use this principlewhen thinking about whether God exists. Whether or not you willultimately find Occam's razor useful depends, first, on your ownintellectual aims and, second, your other thoughts about God. On theone hand, I agree with my colleagues that there is no prospect thatOccam's razor can provide you with a "knock down argument" againsttheism: if such arguments exists, identifying and assessing them willrequire must more than an application of that single principle. So, ifthat is your intellectual aim I think you won't find much comfort inOccam. On the other hand, if you are interested in sustainedphilosophical reflection on whether or not God exists whether or notOccam's razor is useful to you will depend on exactly how yourreflections go -- like any other component of one's "philosophicaltoolkit," this...

Is it logical to believe that a proof of God's existence or some other sort of "intelligent protector" is the fact that our society exists, in spite of the ever increasing possibility that it very well should have been destroyed due to galactic tragedies such as supernovas exploding near us or gamma rays? Over the billions of years in which we have been evolving, probability says that we should have been destroyed many times.

I agree that it can be unsettling to learn about the profound vulnerability of life. I don't think, however, that life's existence on earth constitutes evidence for God's existence: the universe is large, and for all we know life has failed to begin or has been extinguished many times at many places and we exist at one of those rare spots where life has managed to hang on (so far). Since there is a plausible atheistic explanation of the facts you describe, those mere facts by themselves do not prove that God exists.

If I believe that God does not exist, but at the same time think that the idea of God is meaningful, am I an atheist? If not, then what position - philosophically - do I take?

To add to Alex's answer, you might find the idea of "God" not just intelligible, but "meaningful" in the sense of useful or otherwise desirable: for example, you might consider theism socially useful or personally desirable, or might conclude that the world is better off with many people participating in religious communities, etc. In this case, you would still be an atheist but would not be hostile towards theism or religiosity -- indeed, you might even regret that you do not believe that God exists. Possibilities like thisare worth considering, because many assume that atheism involvescontempt towards or hostility towards believers and thus discussions ofatheism and portrayals of it in the mass media are frequently distorted.

Can "God" be used as a name for whatever created the universe, while not actually meaning the "God" that exists in religion? Just a quick example, if the Big Bang was caused by a massive black hole that eventually absorbed all existing matter before imploding, could we call that process "god"? Or is "god" a defined word?

With a term like 'God' there is no single meaning that you must use, soyour own intellectual and perhaps religious interests should guide you on this.Depending on your exact interests, you may or may not find yourself ininteresting conversation with others! For example, using the word in the way you describe won't allow you tocontribute much to conversations about how many religions have conceived of thedivine, so if you are interested in doing that this probably isn't a promisingway to proceed. If you want to contribute to conversations about the origin of the universe,there's probably no harm in using the term 'God' you do in your example,although this may appear idiosyncratic to other cosmologists and so may not bethe best word choice. Finally, if you are interested in spirituality more generally, perhaps youcan flesh out the idea of the divine in the manner you suggest and reach someinteresting conclusions. This sort of exploration may turn out to be a usefulalternative to, on the one hand...

Even though it has been strongly argued that divine foreknowledge doesn't negate free will, allow me to ask the question another way. How could God know our decisions if they are truly free? To know the outcome of something is to imply contingency (and determinism). To put it another way, if a third party can know the nature of an individual then that individual cannot be the author of his nature.

The compatibility or incompatibility of divine omniscience and mortal freedom interests me a lot, although the concept of the "author of one's own nature" strikes me as relatively unclear and probably not that useful for investigating this. Sean sketches out one answer that may be satisfactory to those who believe that free will is compatible with all of one's choices being determined by preceding events. I'm not sympathetic toward this sort of "compatibilism," and I've never been persuaded by any argument that free will could exist a world where there could be an omniscient God. So, my short answer to your question is that I think that omniscience does negate free will. (My own position is an unpopular one, and as Sean suggests a lot depends on exactly how you define the key terms used in the original question and in the answer that I just gave....)