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.