Hawking: science doesn’t need god

Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the physics underlying 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). First because I’m not a physicist, and second because I haven’t read the book yet. But one of the claims Hawking apparently makes is that god is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe. The extent to which god was ever necessary to explain the origins of the universe is of course itself highly debatable – especially if, by “god” we mean some particular version of god.

In other words, it’s all good and well to say that the universe was created by something we don’t (perhaps, yet) understand, but it’s a massive leap to go from that proposition to far more specific ones, such as “god is good”, “god wants me to wear plaid”, or “god wants you to give me money“. In short, we’ve got very little idea of how the universe came about, and the physics that “explains” it is highly speculative. Other physicists and philosophers of physics – even those who don’t believe in god themselves – have also been quick to point out that they don’t think Hawking is right or consistent on the physics.

But as one might expect, religious leaders and sympathisers have been quick to try to persuade us that regardless of the physics, god ain’t done yet. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, told The Times that “Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing”, and Eric Priest is in The Guardian telling us that physics can’t answer the question of why we are here, even though he seems prepared to do some goalpost-shifting and allow for science to answer the question of how we are here.

Priest’s first gambit is to say: “It is certainly possible that God sets up and maintains or underpins the laws of physics and allows them to work, so that being able to explain the big bang in terms of physics is not inconsistent with there being a role for God”. Yes, it is – but this is a fairly straightforward appeal to ignorance. What’s possible is not necessarily probable, and we would need independent reasons for believing in any possible alternative answer – the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. And here, one of the pieces of “evidence” historically cited to support belief is that god alone can explain the “how” we are here – so if Priest is prepared to allow physics that honour, then he should accept that a significant amount of his justification for god has been lost.

Furthermore, it’s not legitimate to move from “a role for God” straight to “exactly the role as defined in my religious text, or my belief system”, as I point out above. God’s role, if she had one, could have been that of a neutral observer, or a tea-lady, or as apprentice god to the design-team of gods who created this particular world. They may have let the apprentice god get a little too involved, on the evidence presented by earthquakes, floods and the like.

Priest goes on to say:

Furthermore, 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.

Not yet addressed by science, no, and perhaps not ever (though this is doubtful). One could easily imagine the nature of beauty to have a scientific explanation, one perhaps beginning with an evolutionary preference for (for example) symmetry, which develops into far more complex preference-sets as cultural progress marches on. How to live one’s life might also have plenty of currently available scientific answers, as Sam Harris is busy trying to argue. But again, even if there aren’t currently available scientific answers, that does not licence you to make answers up, or to rely on answers that only made sense to people living centuries ago, who had access to virtually no science at all. It still gives us no principled reason at all to prefer the answers provided by the Christian version of god, for example, over the answers provided by Hindu gods, or even those of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (ramen).

Priest concedes that “Hawking may be able in future to say how the universe started, but as a physicist he cannot answer the question ‘why?'”. Again, perhaps not, but you can’t either, Mr. Priest. The fact that you believe a certain story does not make that story true, or give us reason to choose it over competing stories. Secondly, it is 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 big metaphysical “why” makes the argument circular – we’ve never needed the answer to that particular question, except if we think that life has any metaphysical significance. But it doesn’t, and that question might therefore not be as meaningful. If we are going to ask the question, though, the honest and defensible answer is simply: I don’t know, and neither do you. It’s also worth pointing out that there is absolutely no reason to stop the “why” with the answer “god” – unless we swallow the god answer (which we have no reason to), we can ask as many follow-up “why’s” as your typical 4-year old child.

The so-called “God of the Gaps” is not part of modern religious faith. In this view, you invoked God to explain the inexplicable – at one time this would have been the weather or common diseases, and for Hawking apparently until recently the origin of the universe. Thus, when an alternative explanation arises, there is no longer any need for God.

The God followed by many people of a religious faith is not a God of the Gaps at all – rather a God who helps answer other nonscientific questions about why the universe and its amazing life exists and how to lead a good life. Also, they welcome the advances in understanding that modern science brings, since they reveal more of the incredible beauty, diversity and wonder of the nature of the universe.

You cannot prove whether God exists or not. But you can ask whether the existence or nonexistence of God is more consistent with your experience. It is up to each of us to reach our own conclusion, but for many of us it is and can make a profound and enriching difference to our lives.

I can’t help but to read those first two paragraphs as explicitly contradicting each other. First, Priest says that god’s job is no longer that of explaining the inexplicable, and then he says that god helps us to explain things that are nonscientific, ie. that can’t be explained by science. But here, Priest is confused about what an explanation is. An explanation does not consist in “goddidit”. Instead, an explanation rests on hypotheses and theories that can be tested and empirically verified, like for example our explanation of why it rains. As I’ve pointed out a few times now, goddidit is indistinguishable from “ceiling cat did it”, in terms of it’s explanatory force or usefulness.

Priest’s closing sentences are a lovely distillation of a head-in-the-sand approach. Appealing to the sympathies and ignorance of people who have no better answer, he exhorts us to simply check our emotional pulse, or our lived experience. Presumably, this is meant to work as follows: “Hey, wow. That sunset is beautiful. But there’s all sorts of wierd shit in the world that doesn’t have a scientific explanation. I could read up on the current scientific theories on these things, or I could dust off my centuries-old religious text and not do any thinking at all. So, goddidit.”

Of course it’s up to all of us to reach our own conclusions. But some conclusions are wrong – and ones which involve no argument, and reliance on ancient superstition and mythology, are more likely to be wrong than others. And perhaps for you, Mr Priest, this “can make a profound and enriching difference” to your life. Just as it’s made a profound difference to the lives of sexually-abused kids, people denied birth control, and people killed as a result of the religious beliefs of their parents, etc. Grow up already.

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.