Some of you may have heard that Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous and accomplished physicists alive, has written another book (co-written, actually) and that in this book, The Grand Design, he explains that in terms of the origin of the universe–currently harmonized in the view of scientists with the Big Bang theory–no designer god is needed because the laws of physics are sufficient to account for what exists.
Two points should be clear out of the gate here. One–Hawking is brilliant beyond measure, but that should add no weight to any argument about the existence of textual, sectarian gods like the gangster-style ones racking up various felonies in the Christian Bible and the Koran. I don’t need his or Carl Sagan’s or Richard Dawkins’ or Daniel Dennet’s opinion to draw conclusions about this “debate.” Those who do are appealingto authority in just the same way born-agains who crow about accomplished biologists Francis Collins and Ken Miller being believers do. Two–Hawking is, as far as I can tell without having read the book, is not so much arguing against the existence of gods per se as he is emphasizing that to invoke them is non-conservative and hence bad science. If I say that miracles aren’t necessary to explain startling recoveries from diseases that are normally terminal, I’m not saying that miracles don’t occur, even if it’s known that I don’t believe in miracles (despite the exhortations of Al Michaels in Lake Placed 30 years ago). Hawking is an atheist, but it’s not central to his or anyone’s argument about the Big Bang.
But clerics the world over–the great majority of whom, I would bet, have also not read The Grand Design and never will–have fulfilled their implicit obligation and produced a bunch of dutiful nonsense in response to Hawkings’ nominal challenge. Bear in mind as you read the following quotes that few if any of them depend on Hawkings’ overt or presumed statements, and imagine them said in the breaoder context of trying to defend the idea of a god-dependent universe de novo.
…the head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, told the Times that “physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.”
A couple of points selected from among many that could be made to dispense of this noncontributory hand-waving: Physics doesn’t attempt to answer such questions, and if religion were up to the task, there might not be hundreds if not thousands of gods worshipped by humans today and in times of yore.
He added: “Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the Universe. It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence.”
Williams, I suspect, has read the Bible, at least the first few pages of it, where the writers go to some length to do just what Williams says belief is not intended to do: describe–in the absence of any way of knowing with any confidence or even gathering the faintest evidence–exactly how the world came to be and how it moved into the state in which the ancients found it. As far as his second sentence, it merits only a “no shit, Sherlock”–no one’s arguing that believers don’t believe. If skinheads came out with a statement claiming that their credo is not that Aryans are perfect but that Jews and ethnic minorities are inherently inferior creatures, this would not likely help them gain much outside traction. (Yes, that’s a nasty example, but the logic is intact.)
Williams’ comments were supported by leaders from across the religious spectrum in Britain. Writing in the Times, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said: “Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation … The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the Universe came into being.”
The first two sentences are classic equivocation–“science serves this purpose and religion that one,” with the implication that both contribute equal value. This is horseshit, of course; pit a self-correcting system in which vetting and peer review and modification and accommodation and objectivity are vital to the process against rigid dogma that to the fullest extent possible ignores emerging facts contradicting that dogma, and what you have is not much of a contest.
The Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, added: “I would totally endorse what the Chief Rabbi said so eloquently about the relationship between religion and science.”
Great. “What he said!” (or in Internet forum shorthand, “1!!!”) is now a valid and constructive argument.
Ibrahim Mogra, an imam and committee chairman at the Muslim Council of Britain, was also quoted by the Times as saying: “If we look at the Universe and all that has been created, it indicates that somebody has been here to bring it into existence. That somebody is the almighty conqueror.”
Okay, by what standard is there such an indication? Because otherwise the sky would be purple and humans would have penises dangling from their foreheads? This imam cements his slam-dunk irrelevance with the bit about god being, above all, a conqueror. Just what everyone needs in his or her psyche–the idea that our loving creator is really just a warlord or an nakedly greedy imperialist. (At least this guy has read the Bible, though.)
Hawking was also accused of “missing the point” by colleagues at the University of Cambridge in England.
As always, these kinds of responses result in the violent flash-frying of irony meters the world over.
“The ‘god’ that Stephen Hawking is trying to debunk is not the creator God of the Abrahamic faiths who really is the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing,” said Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion.
More unabashed garbage. Leave aside Alexander’s red herring; he’s saying that Hawking is going after the wrong guy, and then describes exactly that guy. It’s an even dumber variation on a “no true Scotsman” argument: “Hawking says that no gods are needed to explain creation, but he left out the one god who does!”
“Hawking’s god is a god-of-the-gaps used to plug present gaps in our scientific knowledge.
“Science provides us with a wonderful narrative as to how [existence] may happen, but theology addresses the meaning of the narrative,” he added.
I’ve addressed both of these clumsy attempts at exegesis above. Hawking didn’t come up with the idea that gods are uses the world over, by virtually every religion, the explain the operation of the world around us and its underpinnings; he’s merely working with available substrate. To sum up this post in one senetence: If religious leaders don’t want their cherished mythology “attacked,” then come up with something less porous.