Professional Scientist and Amateur Philosopher Stephen Hawking Wanders as he Wonders in a New TV Series
Looks like were all going to be “treated” to a new series on the Discovery Channel wherein British Physicist Stephen Hawking will ponder theological and philosophical questions. A rather strange thing for a scientist to do actually.
I have no doubt that Stephen Hawking is a fine, even a brilliant scientist and theoretical physicist. But science has a limit, a limit rightly imposed on itself, which explores the physical world using empirical and evidential models that do not go beyond the physically observable world. Scientists, even theoretical physicists, do well who recognize their sphere, their field. And most scientists are quite willing and happy to acknowledge the self defined world of the physical sciences.
Stephen Hawking however, while clutching the mantle of his scientific robes, has recently strayed beyond what science can say. In my opinion he he causes harm to science and also proves himself a poor philosopher to boot. He is free to philosophize of course like any human being, but he ought not cloak it as science and we ought not give any special weight to his philosophical and theological statements, fields in which he clearly has no proper training. When it comes to these fields he is just “some dude” sipping a beer and opining on the deep questions.
But, sadly we DO have to pay attention to him because so many in our world bow their heads with religious reverence as he speaks, and give a weight to his words on these matters that the words do not deserve.
Mr Hawking was recently interviewed in USA Today about his new series. I would like to excerpt the article here and make some comments of my own. As usual the article is in bold, black, italics, my comments are in plain text red. The full article can be read here: USA Today: Science Snapshot
“I recently published a book that asked if God created the universe. It caused something of a stir,” Hawking, 69, begins on the episode. (The “stir”, in fact, was religious leaders denouncing his book’s conclusion that God was unnecessary to the universe.)
Well, of course we shouldn’t expect USA Today to be sympathetic to “religious leaders,” but “denounce” is an unnecessarily provocative description. Why is our position not described as a “principled opposition” rooted in concerns that Mr. Hawking may be making conclusions that science really cannot make, and that he strays from science into philosophy? Or why was our position not described as an “unconvinced?” For, frankly Mr Hawking’s argument is not airtight or invincible. There are many, who find his premises faulty and his conclusions questionable.
But USA Today would rather just depict us as “denouncers” who shout angry things and throw rocks from the sidelines.
As for me, I love science and am very excited about the amazing discoveries of the past 200 years. But I do not expect science, which studies the physical world using empirical observation, to be able to conclude one way or another about God who is pure spirit. To some extent I think science can draw conclusions that there is a design to the universe, but I do not expect it to make definitive claims, one way or the other, as to the who exactly this designer is.
Is this to “denounce,” or is it, as I propose, to take a principled stand that the physical sciences are a careful discipline which study the material world? And that they ought not be invoked to take philosophical and theological stands on the existence of God or angels, or the soul, or anything non-material.
On the show, he takes viewers on a walk through humanity’s history of appraising our place in the universe, from Vikings facing down eclipses to the laws of modern cosmology, which explain the origin and structure of universe. “I believe the discovery of these laws is mankind’s greatest achievement,” he says.
So it would seem that Mr Hawking, in his series, sees ancient and modern belief in God as just some sort of way to “find my place in the universe,” as a mere anthropological projection of cosmology? Somehow we are seen as similar to the superstitious of Vikings and other ancients who feared eclipses and other things things they did not understand.
I suspect I am also to suppose that just like we would laugh at, or pity someone getting spooked by an eclipse, we should also laugh at, or pity those who believe in God? It would seem that I am also supposed to presume that modern cosmology has it all figured out, unlike the pitiable ancients?
Mr Hawking has said elsewhere that he thinks belief in God is just a coping mechanism for believers. Well of course that is one way to believe in God. But it is not why I believe in God. Nor is it why most people I know believe in God.
I believe in God because I have experienced his power and presence in my life. I believe in God because I see evidence for his existence in the things he has made, things that manifest both a first cause and evidence an intelligent and purposeful design. I believe in God because he is changing my life, and in the laboratory of my own life, I have tested his wisdom and Word and found them to be true.
I am not consciously obsessed with dying, nor do I need to be comforted and reassured in the face of it. Frankly my faith challenges, more than comforts me. My faith holds up a cross before me, not a pillow. There is surely some consolation in there being a “meaning to my life,” but Mr. Hawking, indeed every human being, seeks meaning.
Believers should not be demeaned and our faith simplified by equating us with spooked Vikings staring at an eclipse. The Roman Catholic Faith is a smart and thoughtful faith extending back 2000 years to Christ, and 5000 years further into Jewish antiquity. We are not the yahoos some like to think we are. We have a strong, lasting and profound theological and philosophical tradition. And these have served as an important foundation for the development of the natural sciences.
In a short, exclusive interview with USA TODAY, Hawking e-mailed his answers to why he is taking on religion to start off the show, and discussed his life and legacy. Here are his answers to some of the questions:Q: First, we wonder if you could comment on why you are tackling the existence of God question? A: I think Science can explain the Universe without the need for God.
And I would answer that physical science cannot conclude one way or another on the existence of a purely spiritual Being. Science need have no opinion on whether God is “needed,” for it limits its scope to studying effects, and secondary causality. The primary cause of all things is a philosophical and theological pondering, for it exists before singularity, and thus lies beyond what science can currently measure. In other words, science is not equipped to answer the ultimate question of “why” things exist. It studies things that do exist, and can probe their secondary causes. But primary causality, the ultimate why of the existence of all things lies outside the system.
What Mr Hawking is doing here is not science at all, it is philosophy, and poor philosophy at that. For philosophy carefully distinguishes cause and effect. It also distinguishes primary causality from secondary causality. Even more, it distinguishes material, formal, efficient, and final causality. Mr Hawking would seem to gloss over all this, and thus portrays his amateur status as a philosopher. If you’re going to enter the world of philosophy you might at least brush up on terminology so as to have a reasonably thoughtful discussion with your interlocutors.Q. What problems you are working on now, and what do you see as the big questions in theoretical physics? A: I’m working on the question, why is there something rather than nothing, why are the laws of physics what they are.
Well, stick the laws of physics please, because science is not well equipped to answer the ultimate question of why. Ultimate meaning and “why all this” it just not a physically measurable thing. It is not a question physical science can really answer. How do you physically measure meaning? What are the scales you weigh it in? Does meaning have physical weight? That said, at least he is describing his work as theoretical physics. But remember, physics is going to have “physical” limits and must limit itself to the physical, material world.Q: What do you see as your legacy in science or for the people who have become enthusiastic about physics as a result of your work and writing? A: I think my most important discovery is the fundamental relation between gravity and thermodynamics (the study of how heat moves through matter) which gives a black hole a temperature and causes it to evaporate slowly.
Essentially on “Is There A Creator?,” Hawking notes that on the sub-atomic scale, particles are seen in experiments to appear from nowhere. And since the Big Bang started out smaller than an atom, similarly the universe likely “popped into existence without violating the known laws of Nature,” he says. Nothing created the universe, so in his view there was no need for a creator. That is his explanation for “why there is something rather than nothing.”
Well, the philosophical and logical errors here are more numerous than there is time to explore.
Even scientifically I wonder how we define “nowhere.” It may be a true fact that we do not know where the particles come from or how they appear, but we cannot logically leap to the absolute conclusion that they come form “nowhere.”
To say that they come from nowhere is an a priori assumption. It is unproved that the particles come from nowhere. And how would we prove that something came from nowhere? It may be that we simply don’t understand where they came from or how.
And, even if we could reasonably prove that something came from nowhere, does that ipso facto mean that it did not exist before it came from nowhere?
I suppose, as a theologian I could proffer that it existed spiritually before it materialized? But of course physical science cannot measure the spiritual and cannot accept my theory or measure it. So it would seem to science that the particle came from nowhere. But that does not mean that it did come from nowhere, only that science cannot explain where it came from or how; at least not now.
For example, a blind man might theorize that raindrops on his head come from nowhere, because he cannot see their cause. But that does not prove they come from nowhere, only that he does not know where they come from or how.
“The series is all about satisfying our curiosity about the world,” Hendricks says. Rather than tackling science like classroom topics, the shows will ask questions and see what research has to say about them, he says, an inversion of the standard science show formula. “That is why we are starting with Stephen Hawking,” Hendricks adds. “We want to be asking the deepest questions we can, such as ‘Did God Create the Universe?”
A question which science can’t answer.
Frankly, save your time from watching this Hawking show. If you do watch it, please remember that Mr Hawking is free to wonder and theorize. But that is all it is, a theory. And remember too that he is wandering as he wonders. He is wandering beyond the proper limits of his discipline. While he may be a fine physicist, but that does make him a good philosopher, any more than it makes him a good car mechanic. I would not want him to work on my car any more than I want to give weight to his amateurish philosophical ponderings. He is free to make them, but they are poorly set forth, based on poor philosophical foundations and logical flaws. Do not be fooled by his lab coat.