Friday, September 03, 2010

Stephen Hawking On God [Anthony McCarthy]

Someone has asked me what, as a religious person, my reaction to Stephen Hawking’s reported recent declarations on God is. I haven’t read his book so I can only react to what’s been reported.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," Hawking writes.

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

The public life of Stephen Hawking sometimes reminds me of Olympic figure skating in the United States, something which is, periodically, the topic of the day or even week, only to then go into eclipse. In the mean time everyone, even people who have no knowledge of the sport, is supposed to have a strongly held opinion on it. Even if they have no idea why. With Stephen Hawking, it was alien invasion, the time before this.

Hawking's logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved.

"To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational," he said. "The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like."

The answer, he suggests, is that most of it will be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals - the sort of life that has dominated Earth for most of its history.

The logical response to which is, who knows? There isn’t any way of knowing the first thing about that topic until at least the first example of extra-terrestrial life is verified and studied sufficiently. And, given the distances and the time it would take to travel them, that would be only the first example which we shouldn’t be expecting to get under our analytical tools any time soon. And even that won’t give you any information that can tell you about the next, proximate, example. As of this morning, the likelihood that people will ever have enough information about the prevalence of extraterrestrial life to even come to a crude excuse for an estimate of its probability, would seem to be very remote. You can’t figure a probability of there being any other life in the universe without at least one other example being known. We don’t have that today and so anything that even the very clever Mr. Hawking says on that topic is complete speculation

In view of his statements on the topic, Hawking even venturing so far as to declare an informal probability of it constitutes a lapse of logic on his part. Hawking’s speculation that “other life” could be very unlike ours and exist in environments ententirely different than our biosphere, undermines the argument from the discovery of other planets like ours, at least in terms of probability being applied to it. For all we know our form of life could be unique in the universe. There could be, literally, not a single other terrestrial kind of life anywhere. It is possible that the life on Earth is the first to arise and develop or that it is the only instance in which life will ever arise and develop, that is if Hawking’s cosmology is correct and the universe isn’t in some kind of stable state. So what finding Earth style planets would mean to the question isn’t knowable. Perhaps its due to his habits developed in physics, dealing with objects and systems far, far more simple than organisms and the environments in which they arise, evolve and live, but the simplification in Hawking’s analysis is stunningly inadequate even as scientific or mathematical speculation.

There being, literally, no data on that topic that is known to be relevant to the problem, it is not science, it is not mathematical probability, it isn’t logic. There being no information known to be relevant to the issue, it’s not even an informed guess, it’s a wild shot in the dark, one probably based firmly in Hawking’s personal experiences and preferences and fears.

Personally, I’m in the school that believes life that could survive intelligence and go out into the wider universe would have to be pacifistic or they’d have destroyed themselves before then. I also believe they would have to have a non-acquisitive way of life or their taste in even petty luxury would have destroyed their environment. They would have to be unselfish in a way that, perhaps, only our most sainted figures approach. Perhaps our wanderlust is the product of our irrational need to acquire things we don’t need and the pleasure we get from subjugating and, in many cases, destroying other life. Maybe a form of life with another chemistry or another development wouldn’t find any reason to travel past where they live onward into eons of time while species such as our own uniformly destroy ourselves before we get very far. Being biased, I think the matter of our survival is ever so much more important and interesting than the question of the origin of the universe. Which is unscientific of me, I suppose, though there are scientists who do concern themselves with that unglamorous and, temporarily, inconvenient issue.


Looking on one of the cookie cutter new atheist blogs in preparation of this post, I saw pretty much what I expected to see, Stephen Hawking’s baseless speculation on the subject of whether or not God was “necessary” to the start of the universe cited as a reliable authority on the subject. Which is pretty funny in view of this quotation from an interview with Diane Sawyer.

"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."

Why is anyone paying attention to what Stephen Hawkings or most other scientists say about religion except on the basis of their presumed authority? And it’s the flimsiest kind of authority on the topic, based in a reputation gained in an entirely different field of study. As far as I have been able to see, Stephen Hawking has never published a scholarly paper on the subject in a reviewed journal so it’s not even passed that level of testing. Perhaps if he had tried his ideas in that academic realm he might have avoided limiting himself to one, very crude assumption about religious thinking, believing that all of it is as unaware of the vicissitudes of the study of religious questions as he obviously is. Here is just one example of that.

Anyone who has read even a little of the rigorous, formal literature around various religions, would know that the contemporary critics of religion almost never have the slightest knowledge of what serious people have said on the topic. Which is another of the dangers of people who believe their opinions carry the weight of authoritative knowledge and even more so those who take them as authorities when they only confirm their biases.


That a physicist, studying aspects of the physical universe doesn’t find anything except the physical universe is hardly a shocker. The very methods necessary for any reputable publication of science rigorously exclude questions not relevant to address the physical nature of the subject matter. Any part of any presumed supernatural is necessarily excluded from that consideration. You might as well say that due process under the law isn’t logically necessary to the findings. That one predisposed to find confirmation of their atheism in that most un-supernatural realm should believe they have found it is only slightly less surprising. What tops it off is to hear him cited as an authority on the topic of religion in the same blog posts and articles where he condemns religion as the realm of authority based thinking which he claims his own profession doesn’t practice. Clearly he impeaches himself on that point, his sciency fan club only confirms that negation of that proud claim.

In the last few years, in what free time I get, I’ve been reading about epistemology a bit, specifically the epistemology of science. One of the more interesting and, when you think about it, obvious things pointed out in my reading is that all of the apparatus of science, mathematics and logic are formed by us in order to gain a sense of coherency of the world and the universe. Not a single law of science is anything other than the product of human thought. Not a single one of them has been developed except within a realm which excludes everything but what we can discover of the physical universe. I believe that exclusion is based in our experience and the extension of our logic, which, itself, is a means to address our experience of the physical universe. Whether or not it is the result of favorable adaptations in our evolution is a far, far more speculative, and I hold, unanswerable question, but we’ve pointed out the problems with that wildly popular attempt to extend science past the requirements of evidence many times here.

But, as seen in Hawkins’ declaration, the laws of science are habitually held to be an actual, unmitigated, feature of the universe, existing independently of us when there isn’t any way to confirm that. Perhaps if we ever encounter “other life” we will find they have other ways to make sense of it. Our laws are held “to work”, and they generally do within their limits. Integral to the invention and practice of sciences was the strict limitation of what was under consideration at any point in the process and the claims made for it in real world applications *

Part of the predictable response to Hawking’s pronouncements has been people raising questions about our lives and experience of the universe which are, decidedly, not physical in nature. One of those was the question of a purpose to the universe, which is a question that science can’t deal with. The entirely predictable response to that was to declare the question to be nonsense. Well, it isn’t nonsense, it’s as understandable a question as any. That science can’t come up with an answer to it doesn’t change that. It is as much a part of human culture as science is to ask questions like that, to speculate about them, to come up with different answers to it and for our understanding of that purpose to change over time. Mimicking the discontinued philosophical fad of logical positivism to dismiss questions you don’t like doesn’t seem to stop the questions. For which I am very thankful.

It seems to be an emotional need of the new atheists to believe they have disposed of the question of purpose but most people seem to be unimpressed with that artificial substitute for reason. And that’s only one of the questions that we, mere mortals, have about the universe which we find ourselves in. I am more convinced as I see us destroying ourselves, to a large degree with the products of science and technology, that unless we include questions of purpose, justice, rights, morality and other entirely non-scientific features of human thought and culture, that science is inadequate in itself to ensure our continued existence.

We are bound by our own mental equipment, our cultural and educationally established habits of thought and other features of our lives as thinking animals. In no other realm of human activity is this as true as in academic publication and in no part of that does the subject matter run up against the limits of those conditions than in physics. The laws of physics are human explanations to ourselves of what we perceive of the universe. That is a basic feature of those laws. Even the concept of a “law” of science is conditioned in that way. As long as those laws are limited to the address of the physical universe for which they are developed, yes, they often do seem to work, though often within a given context. Therefore, it’s especially surprising to see as subtle a thinker as Stephen Hawking mistakenly believing that they can be extended past that use and into areas which science has not gone and can never go. Even assuming that his theory of the universe stands -- which isn’t anything like a settled question if other equally eminent physicists are to be taken seriously -- they don’t get to what happened before the creation of the universe. Indeed, that question is so opaque that to talk of it as “before” goes beyond what is covered under those same laws.

A passage in the Book of Isaiah that often comes to mind when thinking about this topic, is when God is said to have said, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,". Whatever else people have held about God, no matter how much of our limited minds and thoughts and even our crimes and injustices we have attributed to God, even the most anthropomorphic religion holds that God is not a human being. To think that God would be required to follow our laws of science or, indeed, any possible actual mechanisms of a universe created by God, is rather touchingly naive in a way that even the “ignorant goat herders” who are believed by the incredulous to have written the Bible were able to surpass.

In a brief encounter about this on another blog, I pointed out that Stephen Hawking has no more expertise on the question of God than the woman who runs the grain store down the road from me. One of the people who responded to that mockingly refereed to her, someone he didn’t know other than in that passing reference, as an “ignorant church lady”. Well, I know her and she’s far from ignorant and, as far as I remember, hasn’t gone to church since her husband’s funeral. Even if she had, she’d still know as much about the question as any other human being. Somehow, in that response, I think I gained a greater understanding of Stephen Hawking’s declaration and its position in our culture than in all of the other thinking I did about it for this post.

* As is seen all around us, in the destruction of our environment, the pollution of our bodies with synthetic and natural toxins provided by commerce and in hundreds of other ways, this lapse in the scientific oversight of the application of the products of science is anything but an idealistic and rigorous process of considering important issues.