I’m a little confused by all the fuss over Stephen Hawking’s recent claim that there’s no place for God in theories of how the universe originated. First of all, I don’t get why people are treating this like some surprising new claim. They seem to be acting as if God had been the default assumption in physics until Hawking suddenly showed this to be unnecessary. This is obviously nonsense. The ramblings of Dr Lee Rayfield and his kin aside, God hasn’t played anything but a metaphorical role in physics, or science in general, for a very long while.
There are two questions being conflated here. The first is: “How did the universe come about?” In principle, God might help answer this question, but—as Stephen Hawking has pointed out—we don’t need him. Physical laws like gravity seems to do the job of explanation pretty well. Though, as I say above, this isn’t really news.
The second question is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” God never was, and can never be, a good answer to this. All God does is introduce a new entity. Instead of explaining the existence of other things, we now have to explain God. This has been obvious for a very very long time and should not be news to anyone. And answers along the lines of, “God’s outside time” or “God’s eternal” are irrelevant. The same could be said of the universe or any other entity we wanted to invoke, and the question would remain of why there is anything at all, be it God, the universe, or physical laws.
And that brings me to my last point: gravity won’t wash as an explanation either. Physical laws that we already know to exist are better explanations than God for why the universe exists, because they don’t involve introducing anything new. However, they still seem to be in need of explanation themselves. Stephen Hawking is not, in other words, answering the question of why there is something rather than nothing, at least not if “something” is (reasonably) assumed to include such things as physical laws. He is no doubt right that the spontaneous creation of the universe can be explained with reference to such laws as gravity, but this will not explain why there are such laws.
The thing is that there simply cannot be any answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, because anything invoked by the explanation must be a something that is part of the explanandum (that which is to be explained). Why is there something rather than nothing? There just is. Science and religion both fail before this question—not because it can’t be tested, or because the answer is beyond us; they fail because there is no answer to know.