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More on Hawking and the (latest) death of god

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Note to reader: While the opening paragraph is identical to a previous post on this subject, the rest of the content is new.

I’m not a physicist, so won’t be able to say much about many of the claims Stephen Hawking reportedly makes in his new book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the excellent The Drunkard’s Walk). But based on reviews and responses to the book by other physicists, Hawking’s controversial claim – that God is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe – is premised on insights gleaned from a patchwork of string-theories known as “M-theory”.

Relegating God to the sidelines in this fashion has brought Hawking many headlines, and will no doubt help book sales. It’s also brought a swift flurry of responses from religious groups and leaders, who reject the notion of God’s redundancy. A summary of many of these responses consists of an admission that while Hawking may have provided insight into the “how” questions relating to the origin of the universe, he hasn’t helped us answer the “why” questions. Therefore, they say, God still has a role in helping us understand our lives on this dustbowl called Earth.

“Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing”, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. And perhaps it cannot, and will never be able to. But the alleged failure of physics to provide an answer to that question does not amount to evidence in favour of a competing hypothesis (here, the God hypothesis), especially when that competing hypothesis is completely unfalsifiable.

The problem is that the extent to which God was ever necessary to explain the origins of the universe is itself highly debatable – especially if by “God” we mean some particular version of God. In other words, we can distinguish between two very different claims: one, that the universe was created by something we don’t (perhaps, or yet) understand; and two, that the universe was created by a specific, identifiable kind of being whose characteristics can be known to us.

The circular nature of the second sort of claim should be clear: the Archbishop, and others who respond in this fashion, come into the debate with a certain conception of God. This conception involves various subsidiary propositions, for example that “God is good”, or that God wants me to live a certain sort of life. And when Hawking’s arguments fails to convince them that we cannot rule out some mysterious force as having caused the universe to come into existence, they conclude that the force in question must therefore come bundled with those exact same subsidiary propositions.

And there is of course no reason to believe this. A mystery remains a mystery, for that is what the unknowable is. As Wittgenstein pointed out, “a nothing would serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said”, which is to say that if we have no evidence for a particular interpretation of this mysterious force, we should realise that it essentially serves as a placeholder for the unknown, and that any characteristics we ascribe to it are merely human constructs.

This does not mean that these constructed or imputed characteristics cannot be meaningful, or result in a net gain to human welfare or happiness. My point here is not to argue that it’s necessarily wrong to believe in some sort of divine origin to the universe. I happen to believe that it is, but the focus here is instead on a different question: If we are to believe in such a divine origin, can we do anything with that belief? Can it help us illuminate any further questions about how to live, or could we instead answer those questions via alternative, and perhaps more useful, means?

The mathematician Eric Priest believes that the God hypothesis is essential, in that “many of the questions that are most crucial to us as human beings are not addressed adequately at all by science, such as the nature of beauty and love and how to live one’s life – often philosophy or history or theology are better suited to help answer them.” I imagine that this sentiment would be shared by many, in that these questions strike as being mysterious enough to perhaps merit an equally mysterious answer.

But our memories are perhaps too short in these instances. We forget that much of what used to be mysterious has become less so over time, as we discover more about the mechanisms underlying reality. If we go back far enough, the reasons for rain or the failure of crops were incredibly mysterious, but can now be explained. In our lifetimes, various diseases that used to be mysterious now have explanations, and we even have detailed insight into mind-bogglingly complicated things like the structure of the human genome.

The point is that there is a clear trend or progression towards being able to understand just about anything, assuming that we allocate sufficient time and money to the issue at hand. We trust and value this process of discovery, because it has extended our lifespans, and made those lives more pleasant on the whole. So any claim that something can by definition never be explained by science is on the back foot, seeing as there is no good reason to imagine this trend towards discovery encountering problems of such an intractable nature.

Many questions cannot yet be answered by science, and perhaps some will never be. Questions of aesthetics and morality are often cited as examples of this. But those who raise these questions as demonstrating a need for the God hypothesis are perhaps not being entirely fair to what we already can know, without positing something mysterious or unknowable as explanation.

In aesthetics, one could easily imagine what an eventual scientific explanation might look like. It could start with an evolutionary preference for (for example) symmetry, which develops into far more complex preference-sets as cultural progress marches on. Moral questions might also have plenty of currently available scientific answers, as Sam Harris argues in his forthcoming book, “The Moral Landscape”. It’s simply not reasonable to rule efforts like this out as follies in advance, by doggedly insisting that no answer but yours will do.

To return to the (literal) beginning: It is of course true, as Priest says, that “Hawking may be able in future to say how the universe started, but as a physicist he cannot answer the question ‘why?’”. Perhaps not, but neither can Eric Priest or Rowan Williams. The fact that they – or you – might believe a certain narrative regarding the origin of the universe does not make that narrative any more likely to be true. It also provides us with no reason to choose it over competing narratives.

It’s also entirely unclear whether the question of “why” even needs an answer. From a personal perspective, I know why I’m here: to live as happily as possible, which involves satisfying my subjective preferences as much as possible (and those subjective preferences can of course include concern for the preferences of others). The idea of a large metaphysical “why” never occurs to those of us who don’t think that life ever had any metaphysical significance to begin with. It’s a question that requires no answer, because it’s never asked.

We who don’t ask this question might well turn out to be making a serious error of judgement, because it closes us off from asking all sorts of related questions, and therefore leaves us without the sort of moral (and other) guidance enjoyed by people like Priest and Williams (and Osama bin Laden). Curiously, though, we seem to be getting along reasonably well, and enjoy feeling constant excitement as new discoveries help us to understand more about the world we live in, and who we are. I wish they would join us, as the work would just become easier with the help of these compassionate and thoughtful sorts of people.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.