Feast of Stephens

When Stephen Hawking finished his book A Brief History of Time with the sentence: “If we could find the answer to (why the universe exists), it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God” I suspect that most of us treated it as a metaphorical flourish. It could scarcely be a literal proposition for, much as we admire the man, we are not yet ready to grant him a divine omniscience.

Now we find him reported as claiming that philosophy is dead. The great questions such as: “why are we here?” and, “where do we come from?”, he claims, can only hope to be answered by extending our scientific knowledge by impracticable orders of magnitude.

He would perhaps have done better to revisit philosophy. He might have discovered that looking for an answer to immaterial questions through the extension of material discoveries is to make an elementary category error. However one might define philosophy, its perennial task is to discover and test the difference between sense and nonsense.

There is a clue to his confusion in his book, The Grand Design: “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. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

Here his elementary error is that he assumes that the nothing to which he refers is some kind of void in which the laws of physics remain valid. Whereas by definition nothing is actually nothing. To maintain that an entity can arise from no-thing spontaneously requires the mind of a Lewis Carroll – a fantasist rather than a physicist.

He compounds the problem by claiming that science “predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.” In fact science does not predict; it makes and tests falsifiable hypotheses. The multiverse theory is indeed taken seriously by some physicists, but it is no more than a theory. And a rather desperate one at that.

Long-term readers of this column will guess that I would want to remind him of some of the other howlers sceptical scientists are prone to make. For instance, should he follow many cognitive scientists who declare that there is no such thing as free will, or should he pause and ask himself whether such a proposition has any meaning whatsoever. Yes, the claim sounds like an ordinary proposition – the words are understandable, the syntax is correct. But it has no discernable meaning. If free will does not exist then any statement which we make, can make, about it must have been determined and we can never judge whether it is true or false. Indeed, our judgment would have been determined too.

A first cousin to the claim of lack of free will is its necessary corollary: lack of morality. Hardened secularists are touchy about this. But we do not accuse them of being immoral: we merely point out that it is they who claim that we are not free to make moral choices, or to hold others to account for their behaviour.

The only sceptical school which has made some sort of sense about morals is the one whose protagonist was A J Ayer. Given his starting position, he was quite right to infer that moral judgment can be no more than an emotional response to behaviour. We either respond with a boo or with a hurrah. Thus it is often known as the “Boo Hurrah” school. Ayer had the integrity to change his mind on a number of his intellectual positions but, as far as I know, he went to the pearly gates without changing this one. Did St Peter greet him with an hurrah or a boo? I think the former; he was a good man.

In this context, a new study from Rice University (Texas) presents some interesting information. It shows that 20 per cent of atheist scientists, from top universities, claim to be “spiritual”. Typically they see both science and spirituality as “meaning-making without faith”. They distinguish this from religion which they characterise as organised, collective and lacking empirical evidence, while they see spirituality as individual and personally constructed. And they see a value in spirituality as leading to more caring behaviour.

I am glad that they recognise spirituality but I do wish that they would go a step further. As good scientists they should be asking the question: what criteria would satisfactorily explain the meaning of life or the value of loving one’s neighbour? Were they to do so I think they would discover that the answer must lie outside human experience. And that might draw them towards accepting the necessary conclusion that God exists. It would be tactless to point out that Aquinas followed just this path in the 13th century.

They might be more impressed that the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, said “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value… The two magisteria do not overlap”. He came from a Jewish background but regarded himself as an agnostic. In assuming that science can cover both magisteria, Stephen Hawking confuses the proper object of true science, and lowers its dignity thereby.


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Feast of Stephens

  1. Hear, hear. A student of Ayer’s once told me that his mentor agonised over the impossibility of reconciling his stated intellectual position with his moral practice. At least he had the humility to recognise the difficulty, and humility is perhaps the start of virtue.

  2. mike Horsnall says:

    I read Ayer a long time ago doing Philosophy at university. I found him reasonable if a little opaque.I think there is at least a line of reason in the discussion regarding emotional responses to behaviour. Quite a lot of modern neurology derives from this approach with Antonio Damasio for example writing on the subject that emotional response is in fact a kind of reflex behaviour. I don’t think it gets us anywhere though. I do think that it is a reasonable for a person to believe that morality is simply a form of learned behaviour and that many acts of altruism have their base in impulse- however there is no way these arguments can be anything more than just arguments. The intriguing thing though comes when we try to work out our own honest response. I can personally find little strong argument to counter the notion that much that passes for living faith is just learned habit-indeed were you to ask me why I attend church I would have to agree that partly I go simply because I go.

    None of the abovve should surprise or worry us much though since we walk by faith not ‘sight’ as it were, I believe even in the teeth of my own doubt.

    • st.joseph says:

      Mike I am inclined to disagree a little with your theory ‘the notion that much passes for living faith is just learned habit ,were you to be asked why you attend church’.
      Do you not believe it is the power of the Holy Spirit, that makes you feel you want to worhip God with other christians. Do you see Church as a building where we gather together on Sunday’s.
      Church to me is not only the building ,but where we meet together to celeberate the Lord’s Supper whether it be in a building or a field!Obviousley in a Church it it is more appropriate and much prefered.
      You are right to say we walk by faith, but as you say also you believe even in the teeth of your own doubt.
      I question sometimes my own doubt, and think ‘Is it all true’?. We ought not to be frightened to
      die, as this is what we look forward to, but when I doubt ,I think, unless it is how I feel now in faith , when I die. I dont want to leave this world. But stay here forever! Does that make sense?

  3. RMBlaber says:

    A number of points need to be made: first, when physicists talk about ‘making predictions’, they mean predicting the behaviour of specific physical systems in specific circumstances, given a particular hypothesis. Thus, if a hypothesis is true, or at least, not false (bearing in mind what Sir Karl Popper had to say about scientific method), the system concerned will behave in the way predicted. If not, not.

    Second, when Professor Hawking talks about ‘nothing’, he does not mean what you or I mean by ‘nothing’, and thus should not, in fact, be using the word. What he is referring to is what the physicists term ‘the quantum vacuum’, a curious beast, from whence pours, quite spontaneously, a continous stream of what are called ‘virtual particles and anti-particles’, in pairs, which then, just as spontaneously, disappear. This apparent violation of the Law of the Conservation of Mass-Energy is permitted by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which allows an amount of energy (and thus mass) to be ‘borrowed’ for a set period of time. The smaller the amount of energy, the longer the time that it can be ‘borrowed’ for, and the theory of ‘cosmic inflation’, developed by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde and others in the 1970s, stipulates that the total amount of energy in the Universe sums to zero (gravitational energy, for this purpose, counts as negative!), and can thus be ‘borrowed’ from the quantum vacuum forever. What the physicists are unable to explain, at the moment, is what happened to all the anti-matter that should have annihilated our universe in a huge explosion round about the time of its birth, but – mercifully – did not. They hope to be able to do this with experiments such as the one done recently where some anti-hydrogen (atoms consisting of an anti-proton orbited by a positron) was made and then held in a magnetic field for nearly 17 minutes. The longer that anti-matter can be sustained in being for before mutual annihilation with its surrounding matter, the better it can be studied, and from such study, the reason for the asymmetry between matter and its anti-matter counterpart may, it is hoped, be deduced.

    Thirdly, and finally, the quantum vacuum comes, in our universe, with our universe’s laws of physics and its physical constants (the value of Planck’s constant, Newton’s gravitational constant, and so on). Hawking and his colleagues argue that this does not preclude the possibility of other universes with other laws of physics, and other physical constants, and nor can it (nor does it prove they exist!). Thus, they argue, if we want to know why there is life in this universe, and intelligent life in particular, the explanation is simply that this universe is just one (out of a potentially infinite number) where the physical laws and constants were just right for life to become possible in it.

    As to where the quantum vacuum came from… ah, well. Did you expect them to explain everything?

  4. JohnBunting says:

    Hawking would have been nearer the mark, and more typical of the attitude of some other scientists, if he had said that ‘metaphysics is dead’. Dawkins, for one, in effect recognises no distinction between physics and metaphysics. For him, nothing exists that does not lie within the province of natural science: “There is nothing addressed by religion that is off-limits to science”. He has also described theology as “a spurious academic discipline: a ‘non-subject’, dealing with things that have no existence outside the minds of its practitioners”.
    “Because there is a law such as gravity”, says Hawking, “the universe can and will create itself from nothing”. This is self-contradictory tripe: if the universe results from a law, it obviously does not create itself from nothing.
    I remember a correspondent, in the ‘Spectator’, I think, who said “God is an unknowable black box that can be given any qualities required to produce the desired outcome”. He might have added that the ‘nothing’ invoked by Hawking et al. fulfils exactly the same function. Dawkins is content to take as his starting point for evolution “matter simple enough to have come into existence by chance, without needing anything so grand as deliberate creation”. His friend and colleague, Peter Atkins, says virtually the same thing. Give your ‘nothing’ a fancy name like ‘the quantum vacuum’, and hey presto, it turns out to have the qualities you need to produce a universe. If that’s their statement of faith, fair enough; but it certainly ain’t science.
    So what’s the difference between these ideas and that of God? Obviously, consciousness and intention. That’s the point of these ‘free lunch’ theories: they satisfy the need to rule out any idea of conscious creation. Consciousness can only arise as a product of evolution: the idea that it might have been there in the beginning is quite intolerable. But don’t get the idea, too common among these materialists, that belief in God is a ‘pseudo-explanation’, intended to let you off the hook of finding scientfic explanations for things, as far as possible. The real problems of natural science remain, whether you believe in God or not: a point that was amusingly misunderstood by one of our bloggers here when I made it a year or two ago.
    Chesterton put the position quite well: “All arguments begin with an assumption that you cannot prove. If you could prove it, you would simply be stating a different argument, starting from a different assumption”.
    “The world does not explain itself, and cannot do so merely by continuing to expand itself. It is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything”.

  5. claret says:

    What is needed in this ‘debate’ is some good old fashioned wisdom. Fortunately we just happen to have a ready source of it and by sheer co-incidence it is called the book of wisdom.
    Just a few small random samples will suffice to give a general view:

    ‘O God of my Fathers and Lord of mercy,
    who have made all things by your word
    and by your wisdom have formed man
    to have dominion over the creatures you have made
    and rule the world in holiness and righteousness…….

    I am a man who is weak and short lived
    with little understanding of judgements and laws
    for even if one is perfect among sons of men
    yet without wisdom that comes from you
    he will be regarded as nothing ( that word gain!)…….

    who knows your works
    and was present when you made the world
    and who understands what is pleasing in your sight
    and what is right according to your commandments…’

  6. st.joseph says:

    Claret I agree with that.
    I also like The Book of Job., No 38 where Job must bow to the Creator’s Wisdom.

  7. JohnBunting says:

    How about Job 12, 2: “No doubt but ye are the men, and wisdom shall die with you”: a reply one is tempted to give to some of the ‘new atheists’, for whom the bible is ‘a collection of tales told by ignorant bronze-age goatherds’.

  8. Superview says:

    What is attractive about Quentin’s approach to the Hawkins and Dawkins of this world (could someone apostrophicate that!) is his directness without rancour. John Bunting achieves the same though with a touch of the tabloid style, although it is doubtful if these days a quote from Chesterton would find its way into those pages. I wonder what Chesterton would have made of the multiverse theories? Are there no atheists out there who would even venture to say they are more absurd than the idea of God?
    A friend of mine remarked last week that one of his local church’s stalwarts confessed to finding the recent TV programmes on the origin of the universe disturbing, and I think this reflects an understandable tension between the amazing advances in the study of the natural world – what we see through Hubble for example – and a simplistic, bible-based understanding that goes no further than our solar system and even gets that wrong. It is a problem, which is why evangelicals stick to the literal interpretation. (I do think we could do better – when the priest raises his eyes upwards at the consecration is it intended to convey that heaven is up there – is it? Why do new churches use feathered angels? “But look at the birds – it’s a marvellous way to travel” a priest said to me in all seriousness. My apologies – so much religious art is a source of continual annoyance.)
    A wise priest told me many years ago that you need to have a relationship with someone to talk about God. Could that ever be possible with the Hawkins and Dawkins?

  9. JohnBunting says:

    Thankyou, Superview: “a touch of the tabloid style”. I like that.
    Regarding your friend’s friend’s disquiet about the recent TV programmes, I wonder if people sometimes feel that such science is implicitly atheistic, even if not explicitly presented as such. It is part of the methodology of natural science that it is ‘non-theistic’, in the sense of not referring to God; but it does not have to be ‘atheistic’, in the sense of denying God.
    I think the Old Testament writers, although having no idea of our present knowledge of the universe, did have a sense of awe and wonder about it, no less than our own. But their emphasis seems to be on their perceived meaning of things, rather than the physical details. We still use material imagery to represent immaterial realities. Heaven is ‘up there’ in the sense of being a more exalted and perfect state. Angels have wings because some unknown artist saw that as a way of showing their freedom from the limits of time and space to which we are subject.
    However, I am entirely happy to take your priest’s remark quite literally: “Look at the birds – it’s a marvellous way to travel”. Absolutely right: a sentiment which will be heartily endorsed by anyone who has ever flown a glider. If you haven’t felt the lift of a good strong thermal, you haven’t lived!

  10. RMBlaber says:

    The ‘tabloid style’ may appeal to John Bunting, but it is not likely to command much respect amongst Christianity ‘cultured despisers’ (to use FDE Schleiermacher’s term). The multiverse was not originally a theory in cosmology, but in quantum mechanics (QM), where it was invoked to solve the problem of Schroedinger’s Cat (as you will recall, the poor feline is alive and dead at the same time!). The ‘many-worlds’ interpretation of QM gets round this by saying she is alive in one universe, but dead in another. The alternative Copenhagen interpretation has the Cat in her alive/dead state until an observation takes place, when the ‘state vector’ collapses and she is found to be either alive or dead.

    I agree with Superview that the metaphor of Heaven being ‘up there’ belongs with an outmoded ‘layer-cake’ mythological world-view. One might as well talk about the World Ash Tree and the Midgard Serpent. JAT Robinson made the point in ‘Honest to God’ back in the 1960s, and Rudolf Bultmann made it before him. However, to quote Eric Mascall, ‘Since I threw my myths away/My kerygma’s weaker’. How far can one go in demythologising a la Bultmann before one ends up de-kerygmatising, a la Fritz Buri and Schubert Ogden? Christian art and iconography do not require a literal reading, but a symbolic one, just as much of Christian literature does, and indeed much of Sacred Scripture does.

    As far as ‘evangelicals sticking to the literal interpretation’ of the Bible are concerned – an acquaintance of mine, who is an intelligent and reasonably well-educated man, retired now, but whose career was in computing and IT, a charismatic evangelical Anglican, confessed that he thought it ‘possible’ that human beings had been on this planet for no more than 6,000 years. Clearly, the only reason he could think that was because of Archbishop James Ussher’s estimate of the date of Creation. I pointed out that 4000 BC corresponded to the emergence of Chalcolithic cultures in Sumer, Egypt, China and Japan, and explained to him that human beings were the product of a long evolutionary history that began in the Miocene Epoch with Ardipithecus ramidus, 4.4 million years ago, then the Pliocene Epoch, between 3.9-2.9 million years ago, with Autralopithecus afarensis. Whether this will make any difference to his thinking I rather doubt, since my experience of evangelicals tells me that for them the Bible and its literal interpretation is a shibboleth they will hang on to like a drowning man at sea to a rotten plank.

    Fanaticism is always, in fact, motivated, in the first instance, by fear. The fanatical Islamist begins, like the fundamentalist evangelical, from a literalist belief in his holy scripture, in his case, the Qu’ran, the literal word of Allah, dictated to Muhammad by Gabriel. What neither kind of fundamentalist dare do is lose faith, because to lose faith is to lose identity and be in danger of hellfire. Anything which challenges faith, therefore, has to be destroyed.

    The institutional Catholic Church used to be afflicted with the same kind of neurosis, and to behave in much the same way. Thus it railed against ‘indifferentism’ and ‘modernism’, tried to extirpate ‘heresy’ and heretics, burned witches. Some Catholics still have that kind of mentality, poor souls.

    Now, it seems, some atheists have caught the fundamentalist disease – except they have no hellfire to burn in (or, at any rate, believe they have no hellfire to burn in). Richard Dawkins doesn’t just not believe in God – he wants to wipe out religion, considering it to be a ‘cultural virus’. The children’s author (!) Philip Pullman is of the same mind. (Not, of course, that they have any plans to blow churches up, as far as I know.) One rather wonders what they are afraid of, and why. What is Stephen Hawking afraid of, if he is not afraid of death?

  11. John Candido says:

    Stephen Hawking in his book, ‘The Grand Design’ said,

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

    I agree with Quentin in that you cannot obtain something from nothing. You can only get nothing from nothing. If you got something from nothing, then ‘nothing’ was something to begin with, despite what Stephen Hawking asserts. However, I can only approach this issue as a non-scientist so I am somewhat cautious about my assertions. I don’t see them as immutable and defer to greater and more knowledgeable minds such as Hawking et al, as well as the many trained Theologians and Philosophers that are out there.

    I also disagree with Hawking when he asserted…‘the nothing to which he refers is some kind of void in which the laws of physics remain valid. Whereas by definition nothing is actually nothing.’ He does make an assumption about the laws of physics applying to nothingness and it leaves me wondering how does he know?
    Experimentation is out of the question as we are dealing with theoretical physics. He is probably using the observations of Astronomers and other Cosmologists, of which he is one.

    I imagine that his work as a Theoretical Physicist would entail suspending one’s experience and usual frame of reference. It is always uncomfortable to do this especially as I have no training in science or in his speciality. The public had to do the same when Einstein presented his theory of relativity, of which I know nothing about, to the scientific and non-scientific worlds.

    No matter how abstruse a theory is, we have to ask why this scientist believes this theory over any other. On what evidence does their confidence lie? Where is his/her evidence that their supported theory will stand the test of time far better than any theory in the same scientific subject?

    I still praise scientists, doctors, engineers, and mathematicians daily for their stellar work of research on all of our behalf. I also thank God daily that I was born during the age of enlightenment and the rule of law and not during a former age. Life is plainly difficult enough without having to deal with communal suspicion and its associated sophistry.

    Now having read RMBlaber’s posts and I have made myself faintly aware of the ‘the quantum vacuum’ and the theory of multiple universes. The theory of multiple universes still raises more questions than answers, which RMBlaber acknowledges. This is usually what scientists experience; one mystery is solved while simultaneously, twenty relevant questions appear alongside it. And there seems to be no limit to the number of questions that scientists ask as each successive problem is solved.

    If in theory everything emanates from it, one has got to ask what is behind the quantum vacuum. What caused what is behind the quantum vacuum to come into being? When we have discovered what caused the creation of what was behind the quantum vacuum, we would then need to ask what was behind it, and so on, and so on.

    Can the universe have an infinite number of antecedents? Can this be proved or disproved? Is it logical or illogical for a Cosmologist to maintain that our cosmos was brought into existence by a primordial chain of infinite antecedents? Did we have a spontaneous starting point or can we stretch causality backwards to infinity? Both instances would be mysteries to us all as we would struggle to come to a final understanding or answer for either circumstance.

    If it is illogical to uphold a spontaneous starting point, we will never be able to get to the end of an infinite primordial chain of antecedents. If this is so, then I would suggest that life would be pretty meaningless. If it is illogical to uphold an infinite chain of causality, what could our spontaneous starting point be? This starting point by definition would have no previous factor that caused it to come into existence. It is of course a mystery to us. What would this possibly be? Is this God? I would say so, but I have no scientific proof to offer anybody.

    My understanding of Stephen Hawking’s theological position unless I am mistaken, is either one of a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. Take your pick. He has made statements that support all three at various times. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Hawking and go to ‘Religious Views’.

    Stephen Hawking is a very gifted and brilliant man. He has achieved many things in his career and has won many academic and civilian achievements and prizes. Among them are his Fellowship of the Royal Society, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, amongst many other honours and awards. What I find very intriguing is that Stephen Hawking is a Life Member of the Pontifical Academy of Science. See: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_academies/acdscien/own/documents/hawkingnew. I would have thought that membership to the pontifical academy of science would require at least an agnostic position or a belief in a God of some sort. Can anybody enlighten me? And can anybody tell me why he hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize for physics?

  12. John Candido says:

    My apologies to all as the above Vatican link on Stephen Hawking does not contain (html) at the end of it and therefore it does not work. Please use this one below instead for your convenience. Thank you.


  13. JohnBunting says:

    I see the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has the well-known portrait of Galileo at the head of its web-page. Nice touch, that.
    It seems to me right and proper that membership of the Academy should be based entirely on the individual’s scientific achievement, and of course their willingness to accept membership. If their opinions on religion were taken into account, would that not risk the suspicion that they were selected or rejected at least partly for that reason?
    “Can the universe have an infinite number of antecedents?” (The ‘turtles all the way down’ theory). If it can, would we be any wiser at the ‘n’th antecedent than we were at the first? Don’t we just have to accept something at the root of it all as a given fact, with no prior cause? The bible’s “I AM”, referring to God, and Jesus’ “Before Abraham was, I AM”, expresses this idea of the uncaused and eternal realty of God.

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