At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Stephen Hawking: A “Beautiful” Mind, if not a Philosophical One

posted by Jack Kerwick

There can be no question that Stephen Hawking is a brilliant scientist.

But he is a lousy philosopher, and an even worse theologian.

If ever it was in question, Hawking’s speech at Caltech last week established beyond doubt that the world-renowned physicist suffers from Amateur Philosopher Syndrome (APS).

Scientists, particularly popular scientists, like Hawking, are especially prone to APS. All such scientists see the world, not so much scientifically, as scientistically.  That is, they assume that there is but one legitimate tongue in which to speak of reality: the language of science.  All others are dismissed.

Three aspects of Hawking’s lecture reveal his to be a classic textbook case of APS.

First, while referring to this as a “glorious time” in which we have succeeded in coming “this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe,” Hawking referred to human beings as but “mere collections of fundamental particles of nature” (emphasis added)[.]

Second, as The Daily Mail reported on Thursday, Hawking mocked “the religious position” on the origins of the universe by likening it to “the myth of an African tribe whose God vomited the Sun, Moon, and stars.”

Finally, Hawking assured his audience that, thanks to “general relativity” and “quantum theory,” we can now account for the origins of the universe without any appeals to God at all: our universe, like one foamy bubble among countless others, might just be one of an infinite number of other universes.

To the first point, the question must be posed: From whence springs the assumption that we are “mere” combinations of physical particles?  There are at least two problems with a scientist using the word “mere.”

The first is that “mere” is an evaluative, not a descriptive, a philosophical, not a scientific, term.  As Hawking uses it, is likely intended as a metaphysical—not a physical—word. It suggests insignificance.  But, scientifically speaking, it is as inappropriate to speak of the significance or insignificance of the world as it is to speak of its beauty and ugliness, or its sweetness and bitterness.  These are not attributes of the universe; they are attributes of our minds that we project onto the world.

The second problem is that “mere” is exhaustive.  To say that X is “merely” this or that is to say that it is only this or that.  Science—real science, not philosophical or ideological dogma masquerading as science—can’t speak to ultimate questions.  That’s the job of philosophy and theology.  Science can determine that we are bundles of material particles, but it most definitely cannot determine whether we are merely this.

What stuns most of all is just how illiterate in the philosophical and theological traditions of Western civilization Hawking appears.  For millennia, Jews and (later) Christians have found the idea of God “vomiting” the universe to be just as primitive, just as crass, as it strikes Hawking as being.  The reason for this is not hard to grasp: if God puked up the universe, then He didn’t create it.  Rather, the world would then flow out of God, or from some pre-existing stuff.

Jews are unique in world history in being the first to affirm the existence of one supreme God who created the world out of nothing.

This is crucial, for it is this belief that the world is distinct from, yet created in the image of, an all-good and all-wise being from which the scientific enterprise was born.  As long as the world is thought of as a distinct creation of God, it is assumed to be both rational and good, i.e. a proper object of study.

In short, neither science nor the scientist Stephen Hawking ever would have arisen had it not been for this conception of divine creation that Hawking ridicules without having grasped.

There is one last point that bears mentioning.

The notion of a sea of “universes” that Hawking invokes is both logically troublesome and theologically irrelevant.   The word “universe” is a synonym for “everything.”  So, claiming that there is an infinite number of “universes” makes about as much sense as claiming that there is an infinite number of “everythings.”

But even if there is some sense to be had from the idea of multiple universes, and even if these universes have always existed, this doesn’t for a moment circumvent the fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing?  This is what we want to know when we ask about the beginning of the universe.

And, contrary to Hawking, explaining the existence of a universe by referring back, and only back, to the universe itself is like accounting for one’s own existence by looking no further than oneself.

The verdict: Hawking hasn’t come close to showing that we can dispense with the God hypothesis in explaining the presence of the universe.

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