Hawking Disappoints

by Brian 12. June 2010 17:12

Diane Sawyer interviewed one of the renowned contemporary physicists of our day during the ABC Nightly news this week. Due to ALS, Stephen Hawking PhD had to answer Diane through his cheek-controlled speech synthesizer. What an opportunity! I’m sure millions of viewers were poised to hear what the master-scientist had to say about life, the universe, and everything. When asked about the biggest mystery he would like solved, Hawking replied: “I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something greater than nothing.” A perfect start to a perfect interview! – So I thought. Hawking started with with one of the greatest metaphysical questions. As Leibniz said, “nothing exists and nothing happens without a reason why it is so, and not otherwise.” Since the universe began to exist, it does seem fitting to ask “why” it came into being rather than to merely assume its existence as brute fact. So how might Hawking enlighten us here?

Unfortunately he didn’t as the interview proceeded off the edge of a cliff into utter irrelevance and deceptiveness. Hawking continued:

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

When considering the metaphysical challenge “why is there something rather than nothing” Hawking says we are to assume two approaches: religion or science. Wait a minute; I thought metaphysics was one of the main branches of philosophy – not science or religion. Science may help see the problem from the bottom-up and religion may help to see it from the top-down; but ultimately this is a philosophical question. Here is what I think Hawking should have said, Christianity somewhat aside:

“Science will never on its own be able to answer ‘why’ something exists rather than nothing. But if a Creator exists, He would be in an authoritative position to answer the question of ‘why.’ We should seek to find this Authority, and if He can be found, then seek to know Him.”

Hawking is a physicist – not a theologian or philosopher. Asking him about the great metaphysical questions of reality, or his views on science versus religion, is like asking Kobe Bryant to play in the World Cup. He would probably do a better job than your average Joe, but frankly, is not qualified. However John Polkinghorne, former professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge; Anglican priest; former president of Queen’s College; and winner of the Templeton Prize in 2002, is qualified – at least by comparison. What does Polkinghorne say about the so-called conflict between science and religion?

We must take account of what science has to tell us about the pattern and history of the physical world in which we live. Of course, science itself can no more dictate to religion what it is to believe than religion can prescribe for science what the outcome of its inquiry is to be. The two disciplines are concerned with the exploration of different aspects of human experience: in the one case, our impersonal encounter with a physical world that we transcend; in the other, our personal encounter with the One who transcends us. They use different methods: in the one case, the experimental procedure of putting matters to the test; in the other, the commitment of trust which must underlie all personal encounter, whether between ourselves or with the reality of God. They ask different questions: in the one case, how things happen, by what process?; in the other, why things happen, to what purpose? Though these are two different questions, yet, the ways we answer them must bear some consonant relationship to each other.

Polkinghorne has written much on the consonant relationship between science and religion. He describes one objective World unmoved by our interpretation. Science is able to peer into the World as well as religion.  As a critical realist, Polkinghorne takes issue with the idea:  What is – is reduced to the question of how we know what is.” Yet Hawking seems to fall right into this fallacious trap. He appears to think as Edward Weiler that if you know ‘how’ something works, then you necessarily can answer the questions of ‘why.’ But as I said, Hawking is simply unqualified and can offer us little more than his opinion.

The world would have been far better served if Diane had interviewed John Polkinghorne instead of Stephen Hawking. If asked whether or not science will win over religion, he might have responded as he has in similar interviews with one of his favorite quotations from a great Thomist thinker of the last century, Bernard Lonergan. He once said this: 'God is the all sufficient explanation, the eternal rapture glimpsed in every Archimedean cry of eureka'. And conclude: “The search for understanding, which is so natural to a scientist, is, in the end, the search for God. That is how religion will continue to flourish in this Age of Science.”


Weiler’s Weaseling

by Brian 4. June 2010 16:40

I just listened to Edward Weiler on NPR (The Diane Rehm Show.) He’s an astrophysicist at NASA and chief scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Diane asked him if he believed in God. Presumably all of the awesome HST imagery should move one in the direction of belief in a Creator. After his “this is a personal matter” disclaimer he told how he gave up his faith as a Catholic over the years in favor of science. It reminded me of the scene in Contact when the character played by Jodi Foster was hit with the same question. Then he said something I thought was interesting. To paraphrase:




I am an agnostic. The facts are in concerning evolution and it is more than just a theory. Similarly, we now know the universe evolved. We understand how it works. And, as a scientist I believe in what I can observe and test.

He later followed up with an admission of our scientific ignorance about what happened before (i) the Bang when he said that realm belonged to the philosopher and theologian. Good answer; given his initial statements were so full of unsound assumptive argumentation. After his response I almost pulled off the road. Was I hearing this right? Was Diane going to let these statements go without follow-up? Of course, it’s NPR! So I thought it would be therapeutic to list his assumptive arguments on my blog.

1.       Evolution is more than a theory and has achieved some kind of standard of factuality other scientific theories have not achieved

2.       If evolution is true and we understand how life works, the existence of God should be doubted

3.       If the universe evolved and we understand how it works, the existence of God should be doubted

4.       Only beliefs based on that which can be observed and tested are warranted

5.       Agnosticism is the right position to take based on these positions

I think these assumptions are a fair assessment of what Weiler was trying to slip in as his response to the question: Does God Exist? Unless he was spouting irrelevant non sequiturs he was implying in each response a justification of the agnostic position. But do the first four propositions I listed support the conclusion? And are these propositions even true?

Evolution as a scientific theory lacks falsifiability and direct verifiability – two hallmarks of a good scientific theory. How can we directly observe natural changes in bauplan in a lab when they require vast time periods? Tweaking the genes of a fruit fly is not the same as observing natural changes in real time. A 44,000-generation E. coli experiment showing minor change (ii) does little to prove large changes in bauplan in mammals. So we have to rely on the after-effects as the primary means of verifying evolution. Every time a gap or problem in the theory is raised, the Darwinian appeals to future scientific discovery taking falsifiability off the table. If it is a theory not full of gaps and holes, why would Darwinians accuse detractors of appealing to the “God of the gaps?” So how a prominent scientist can claim “the facts are all in” is premature if not ridiculous. Regardless, even if modern neo-Darwinian theory were entirely true and extrapolated to accommodate the nontheist, that is:

·         Common descent is true

·         Modification through material mechanisms plus natural selection completely explains a ratcheting-up of complexity and diversity of life

·         Material mechanisms explain abiogenesis – the transition from non-living to living matter

·         Etc, etc, since this is an eclectic theory

There is still room for a Creator as design may be entirely front-loaded and there are plenty of scientists and theologians who fall into this camp. So what about the universe itself? He admitted the universe began to exist. And since: Things that begin to exist have a cause, the universe had a cause. The HST should lead a rational person to recognize this cause, which transcended space and time, had immense creative power to result in 70 sextillion star systems with complex and beautiful organization all the way down to the molecular level. And saying because we “know how” the universe works therefore we understand “why” – or that God’s existence should be doubted – well that hardly needs a response other than it amazes me how a prominent scientist could imply it.

Finally, the evidentialist mantra should have been challenged on NPR. You would think Diane would at least raise a postmodern objection – but then again, postmodernism is highly overrated. For a detailed explanation on how belief is justified apart from scientific verification, see this article. In conclusion, Weiler’s agnosticism was not supported by the statements he made on the radio. In fact he didn’t even sound like an agnostic. Honest agnosticism is the result of ignorance or balanced belief leaving one at a 0.5 probability (e.g. belief in the existence of God being balanced equally in the affirmative and negative.) Since all of his statements were meant to support the negative position, Weiler was implying atheism, not honest agnosticism.

i “Before” – Since time began at the bang Weiler must be talking about ontological priority to the singularity

ii “The Edge of Evolution”, Copyright 2007, Dr. Michael J. Behe, pg 142.


by Brian 15. May 2010 21:01

Religion; I cannot think of a more misused word in our culture today. It is disappointing how often one hears statements like: “all religion is dangerous” or “all religious people are foolish,” etc. Does anyone even know what the word means anymore? I found a decent definition the very first place I looked online; especially the first entry:

Religion is: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

I would reword “esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies” as atheists are quite dogmatic and devoted to their metaphysical views on the cause, nature and purpose of the universe without appeal to superhuman agency. Philosophical naturalism (the logical position for an atheist) leads rationally to specific moral positions that can and have governed the conduct of human affairs. And every time I see a Darwin-fish emblem or an internet infidel T-shirt I have to wonder about their devotional and ritual observances. Yet when you hear your average irreligious American use the term they typically twist the word to mean something like:

Religion is: the institutional Christian church and Islamic radicalism, its members and their less than desirable actions today and throughout history.

These people ignore the central and most relevant aspect of the word and focus on secondary and less relevant meaning filtered through their biases. When you hear someone say “religion is dangerous” ask them to clarify what they mean by the word “religion.”  Or, just cut to the chase and ask if they are an atheist! If willing to answer; they will usually fall into one of three camps:

1.       “Yes, I am an atheist.” – Now I actually appreciate this answer because they are willing to step up to plate and with bold faith proclaim a universal negative (as if they have turned over ever stone in their multiverse.) So I can at least appreciate their misplaced conviction. On the other hand, if they are part of the “new atheism,” then see #3 as they are really closet-atheists masquerading as agnostics.


2.       Or..."No, I am a Christian [or Jew, or Muslim] but I think religion is dangerous when depraved man perverts it.” – This is not unreasonable. I agree; the institutional church is and has been the best and worst witness to the Gospel. Every time a TV-evangelist has an affair or flashes his gaudy jewelry; or every time a child is abused by a parishioner, unknown numbers of those seeking the Truth are steered away from it – Matthew 18:6 is an appropriate response from Jesus to these so-called leaders. But the key element of what “religion” means remains open: what do we believe about the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe?


3.       Finally..."I’m an agnostic” or “I believe we should be good to one another and tolerant” or “There is some higher power out there and we are all just working our way towards it,” etc. This sort of lukewarm, indecisive and incoherent position ought to be unfashionable; unfortunately it’s all too common. Some of these fall into the "I don't know and I don't care" self-absorbed crowd. Others fall into the "I took a comparative religion class in college" and now I have special understanding crowd. And there may be a few seekers out there who honestly do not know, but I have yet to meet one. Regardless, these are the people you have to drill down with and get them to clarify their position.

In conclusion, the next time you hear someone make a half-cocked generalization about religion, ask them to define the term. Help them to articulate something substantive. You will usually find a wholly different presupposition at the core. Ultimately Christianity is a system of truth, not a set of practices where we go through the motion every Sunday. Christianity is not the sum of behavior and actions of its adherents – especially those who are not acting according to its truth claims. Christianity, as a religion, does make certain claims about the cause, nature and purpose of the universe including: God physically raised Jesus from the dead putting a divine imprimatur on his proclamations about the way things are. From a Christian perspective, the truth of this proposition is paramount; today's twisted version of "religion" by comparison is irrelevant.

About the author

I am a Christian, husband, father of two daughters, a partner and lead architect of EasyTerritory, armchair apologist and philosopher, writer of hand-crafted electronic music, avid kiteboarder and a kid around anything that flies (rockets, planes, copters, boomerangs)

On Facebook
On GoodReads