Hawking’s book triggers cookie-cutter inanity

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.

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  1. #1 by Ron Krumpos on September 5, 2010 - 3:57 pm

    In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (fx raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

  2. #2 by jim on September 5, 2010 - 7:11 pm

    “Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. ”

    Fortunately, we don’t always need precise quantitative results to determine that some people are, qualitatively, simply nuts.

  3. #3 by Ron Krumpos on September 5, 2010 - 7:24 pm

    Jim,

    You just started the list: ignorant, lazy, narrow minded, misinformed… It’s a very long list.

  4. #4 by hopper3011 on November 7, 2010 - 4:21 am

    Kevin;

    I read your review of the criticism of Hawking’s new book and wanted to make some points about your (IMO wrong) opinion of Rowan Williams, but thought I should read the book before I commented myself. Once I’d done so my initial response was so overwhelmingly negative that I had to go back and re-read it.

    You know me; I’m not a God-botherer, even if I’m not a strident atheist like yourself, but I have to say that it is an awfully poor book, and badly argued. If anyone was expecting another ‘Brief History of TIme’ they must be disappointed. The authors make several sweeping and demonstrably false claims in their introduction, and the science never really rises above the level of ‘trust me when I tell you, because I’m much cleverer than you’ – something that Hawking never descended to in BHT.

    I don’t know enough about the science to argue one way or another about M-theory, and the book didn’t really help me to understand it – which might have been a good target for the authors to aim at, if they weren’t so busy trying to make a sociological point. I know that Roger Penrose thinks that Hawking is backing the wrong (scientific) horse, but in the end, I don’t think that’s the point of this book. In my view, Hawking is aware that the phrase ‘know the mind of God’ has opened a debate about his personal beliefs similar to that over Einstein’s, and this book is intended to make his position clear so that his off-hand comments won’t be co-opted to support arguments he disagrees with as Einstein’s have.

    This is a perfectly legitimate aim for a book, and I’m not denying that Hawking’s position in the history of science makes it an important clarification, but WIlliams does have a point: as you readily agree, the aim of physics is not to answer ‘why’ questions, but that is exactly what ‘The Grand Design’ sets out to do. That it does so using several very obvious straw man arguments is very much to Hawking’s detriment.

    Anyway, enough from me, I just wanted to make the point that, just because Rowan Williams (who is actually a very clever bloke) believes in God, his statements are not automatically wrong.

  5. #5 by kemibe on November 12, 2010 - 11:23 pm

    Hopper–

    Interesting. Doesn’t sound like it’s really worth a read and as it is I’ve had my fill of “This is why I don’t believe” tomes anyway; I like anything by Hitchens even where I disagree with him and almost everything by the others (especially Dennett) but it’s become old for Really Smart People to agree that there’s no God. I am unmoved by these things and never needed them to convince me of anything.

    I think that it is common for British religious types to double legitimately as public intellectuals, and with this being unheard of in the U.S., whenever I see criticism of an atheistic work in the lay press I am used to assuming that the person quoted is basically a bullshit factory. The relationship between the church, science and the citizenry is obviously much different overall in the U.K. Thanks for the assessment of the book, in any event. I shall pass.

  6. #6 by hopper3011 on November 14, 2010 - 6:31 am

    I’m quite fond of Hitchens myself, even though I disagree with almost everything he says, as he can turn a very delightful phrase. I don’t know if you saw this interview – some interesting stuff: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/14/christopher-hitchens-cancer-interview. I would say that, for a humanist, his justifications of Iraq are somewhat specious and paradoxical, and I’m not sure that the author of the piece does his subject any favours with the introduction of Wittgenstein.
    If you are going to rely on the eradication of radical Islam to justify the collateral damage inflicted on the lives of millions of innocent Iraqis, then I think you need to be certain that the ends justify your means, and I don’t think Hitchens has come even remotely close to doing that.
    As I say, I’m not sure who draws Wittgenstein into the conversation (I assume that it is Anthony, only because I think Hitchens would have got the quote right!), but Wittgenstein does rather undercut Hitchens assertion that something asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence (something I think the majority of Christians would agree with – given the extensive discussions on the nature of “faith” that appear to preoccupy a lot of Christian teaching).
    Even in Russell’s translation (Bertrand Russell not being the biggest God-fan ever), Wittgenstein acknowledges that there is something we cannot know about (“whereof we cannot speak”), even though he suggests we can’t talk about it. The flip side of this argument is that, once we logically acknowledge the existence of an unknowable something else, if we do decide to talk about it, my opinion is as good as yours, and Rowan Williams opinion is as good as Richard Dawkins’s.
    The world would be a whole lot better if we didn’t have people running around trying to foist their unprovable opinions on other people (and Dawkins is just as guilty as Williams on that point), but trying to form a consensus does seem to be an important facet of human nature, so what are you going to do?

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