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.”


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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)

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