Hawking and the Afterlife

Stephen Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions has recently been published (John Murray). We are not surprised to hear his “profound realisation” that there was no afterlife or supreme being. It caught my eye because Fr Rolheiser (issue 12 October) was in the same neck of the wood. It would appear that Hawking arrives at his negative conclusion primarily because of the lack of empirical evidence rather than negative argument. In this he reflects” Hume’s Fork” (David Hume 1730s): “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics for instance; let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

This approach, which holds that truth can only be based on empirical evidence or solid logic, has had a long history in the philosophical world; its most recent heyday was much of the 20th century, and known as Logical Positivism. Unfortunately it waned once it was realised that, by its own principles, it could not itself be verified. The biter was bit. It is ironic that Hawking, one of our great minds, was somewhat behind the times. But it remains a challenge for us.

If I say that I believe that God exists what precisely do I mean by “believe”? I am not simply suggesting that on the whole I think that God exists; I am claiming certainty. What is the source of this certainty? If I hold the source to be God, your philosopher friend will fall about laughing since you cannot assume your conclusion as part of your argument. If I change my statement to “I perceive” he continues to laugh. “I know that God exists” suffers the same fate. “I hold that God exists” sounds better, but your friend will show you that in fact you have said nothing at all. It is some consolation that Hawking’s conclusion that God does not exist trips on exactly the same stumbling block. So what precisely do you mean, reader, when you say “I believe in God”?

We might then investigate the traditional proofs of the existence of God. The best known ones (coming from the ancient Greeks) boil down to: everything is caused so there must be a first cause which is not itself caused. That is called God. From this we can infer the divine characteristics. Atheists, I note, poo-poo this approach, but they never explain why. The “ontological proof” (from St Anselm of Canterbury) is based on our capacity to conceive of the perfect being. Since to exist is more perfect that not to exist, God must exist. I find this unconvincing. But, interestingly, Bertrand Russell wrote that it was harder to demolish than it seems at first sight. I have never met anyone who was converted to the existence of God by any of these proofs. I find it more effective to present Pascal’s Wager (17th century). You can, he said, believe or disbelieve in an afterlife. But, if you choose to disbelieve and are right you will never know because you won’t exist. And, if you are wrong, disaster awaits you. So belief is always the better bet.

We return to Fr Rolheiser. He reminds us of the great philosopher René Descartes (17th century). He was determined to find a foundational concept which could not be falsified. It turned out to be “I think, therefore I am.” Fr Rolheiser goes on to describe a modern author who imitated Descartes in the same quest. In this case it turned out to be the universality of suffering and the wrongness involved in its gratuitous promotion. I recognised immediately that, not many months ago, I had gone through the same journey. As a widower I have had plenty of time to think about the nature of love and what it means over a long marriage. So the one thing I knew to be true was the goodness of love. So what? It’s there all over Scripture. But there is a difference between the theory and the realisation of a foundational truth whose existence can have, by its nature, no empirical cause. When we speak of God as having infinite love we have to remember that love is what God is.

And it leads us back to realise that every act of love, whether chosen by the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker, the atheist or the saint, comes from Christ’s redemption; it is the only source. And now I must give the cats their tea. I’m late. Here I am, writing about love, and neglecting to love my daily companions.

Advertisements

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Hawking and the Afterlife

  1. John Thomas says:

    “there was no afterlife” – if there is only disexistence at the moment of death – nothing else – then, I would argue, there is/has been no point, purpose, or reason for anything (and certainly no point whatsoever in studying the universe, time, etc.). If this conclusion comes near the beginning of Hawking’s book … I for one would not go on reading it … er, “commit it to the flames”? But I am very taken with Pascal’s Wager – but the reason that materialists don’t go with this is that, I argue, materialism is ultimately very comforting – it does away with the possibility of “disaster awaits you”.

  2. milliganp says:

    Richard Feynman argues that ‘the stage is too big for the drama’, i.e. do we need a universe of this size and complexity for the story of the fall and salvation.
    One could reply to this with an argument based on Leibniz theodicy, or perhaps the universe is sufficiently complex that human reason will never fully comprehend it – like God, the universe can never be fully known.

  3. Alan says:

    Quentin – ” everything is caused so there must be a first cause which is not itself caused. That is called God. From this we can infer the divine characteristics. Atheists, I note, poo-poo this approach, but they never explain why.”

    The argument leaves me with questions rather than an answer I find believable or helpful. In its basic form I cannot work out why god is exempt from the first premise. I have seen it said that god is not a “thing” and so doesn’t qualify as a thing caused. This sounds like a solution offered for no other reason than to avoid the failure of the argument otherwise.

    Avoiding this problem another form of the first premise becomes “that which begins to exist” is caused. Now I cannot work out if the universe fits the first premise. It is casually considered to have a beginning, but Stephen Hawking (and quite a few other physicists I’ve heard discussing the subject) don’t talk about this in such a way. “Theories of time”, “boundaries”, they don’t mean much to me. But there’s still a problem even in simple terms. How does “time” itself have a beginning? As Hawkins himself put it “It might be like asking “What’s north of the north pole?”

    I’m sure I’ve not done them justice but I have seen these views, and others like, them expressed elsewhere. These don’t make the grade as explanations though?

  4. David Smith says:

    Philosophy, science – way over my head. All I know (all I think I know :o) is that everything I know originates in and is elaborated on and maintained by my brain. Unless there’s more to the physical me than science (as I vaguely understand it) has discovered, that’s it, that’s reality, beginning, middle, and end. Purely material. Every human brain has the same limitations. Thus, humans, in their physical dimension, can know very little. We can’t know what we can’t know. We can know only what we can know, and no more. Celebrity scientists aren’t exempt from this fundamental limitation, nor are popes and presidents. People can talk and write all they like – and they will, because they can’t help it, because that’s what they’re designed to do – but none of what they think or say can transcend the little animals they are. All that blather is just noise.

    Of course, there may well be much more out there that our little brains don’t know, can’t know. That, I suppose, is where faith comes in. And faith is a big and fuzzy and impossibly complex topic of its own.

  5. David Smith says:

    Alan writes:

    “The argument leaves me with questions rather than an answer I find believable or helpful. In its basic form I cannot work out why god is exempt from the first premise.”

    Yes, what caused God?

    • Alan says:

      David Smith,

      “Yes, what caused God?”

      It’s what I take away from the argument, yes. I don’t seem to have it in me to read it any other way. I know that doesn’t suit the conclusion many say it leads to but that doesn’t help me escape the problem.

      So I feel the argument needs tweaking at the very least. And other people feel the same way, including those who believe in God. But the variations of it, like the one example I mentioned previously, come with different unaddressed or unresolved challenges for me.

      • Nektarios says:

        Alan

        Stick with what God has revealed about Himself in Holy Scriptures.
        When God, for example in Genesis 1. Do read it again and again till you grasp the fact God is not a man but a life-giving Spirit.
        The whole Trinity was involved in the creation of the universe, of planet Earth and all the rest what was created.
        Now some say this is fuzzy. No, it isn’t. It is a statement inspired by the Holy Ghost concerning the creative action of God including humanity.
        Apart from what God has revealed about Himself and the Holy Trinity, our speculations and questioning do not come from faith, but unbelief. Those opinions of men, all very interesting, full of wit and some understanding of the earth, unless they are born again
        they do not have what is necessary to talk for God, or about God and speculations about Him equally, amount to a denial of Him.

  6. galerimo says:

    Speaking of Hawking you must remember that experts are like statistics; you can always choose the ones that suit you.

    For the sake of this argument I choose John Henry Newman (Faith and Reason). The passionless search for proof of actuality when it comes to God and the afterlife, in a judicial fashion, with total lack of bias and with sober minds, according to Newman “is an error as common as it is fatal…to think truth can be approached without homage”.

    Our Greek P&A philosophies were richly mined in the middle ages and eventually formed the seeds of Enlightenment. This tectonic shift to the subject gave us the scientific approach and methods such as the logical positivism you mention.

    Unfortunately the course of that tumultuous river of thinking left a great deal of our ability to engage with Revelation high and dry.

    Greeks don’t do life the way Hebrews do it.

    Hellenist thinking of the early Church and later developments in scientific methods may have led to amazing technologies but, in some ways too, it had a chocking affect on faith.

    We can only believe if we want to. Primarily it is an act of will more than intellect. We believe because we love because faith can only be in a person.

    We can “hold” to all that yields to our reasoned analysis. But our belief, our act of faith is, in Jesus as the tortured and crucified victim who loves us to the point of death.

    We come to this personal loving response (faith) via the witnesses to that death, historical and divine.

    It is the faith you have in your cat that urges you to rush off because it is tea time for the wonderful creature. You lovingly respond. Your affection for your pet invests him/her with all sorts of roles, meanings and significance in a simple and basic way; it is also an act of homage to the creature. Clear similarities here with an holistic understanding of belief as love of God.

    Stephen Hawking’s love for his cats too will no doubt give him access to that love of the creator that forms the same loving response of faith.

    His “profound realisation” should also be read with his argument that neither is it possible to prove that God does not exist.

  7. Horace says:

    I was educated in a Jesuit school (Stonyhurst in Lancashire) and we were simply told that it was not logically possible to prove the existence of God. This, of course, made no diffrence to our belief in God!

  8. Nektarios says:

    Can a man through sitting down and taking thought to find out God? This is a rhetorical question that Scripture sets before us. So, all the clever but idle speculations about God and His existence will not arrive at the answer.

    The natural man cannot perceive spiritual things for they are spiritually discerned. So all the clever natural man does is invent either a god or no god, or worse, set themselves up as gods.

    The religious man if they are unregenerated by God, cannot perceive a single spiritual reality.

    The true -born Christian on the other hand, is by God made alive to Him, to Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit.

    In a world where opinion rules it would seem, where everybody has a view of God and that view must be respected, leads to a god of their imagination, the earthy, and in effect no God at all. Many believe they are Christians by name at this point, but it is only on God,s on terms.
    The revelation of God in a man is not on our terms, but God, and His operating in ones life.

    God reveals Himself through faith, which is a gift of God. We can only understand that when the reality of Christ and the application by the Holy Spirit of Christ,s work in our Salvation is received
    and however weak, it puts such a one in touch with the living God.

    Thought has a place because God created it. Thought simply thinks. So God has provided us with Holy Scripture, in one’s own language to think about and to act upon, to lead and guide us.
    It is there for every man who has come to the realisation that despite all the successes one can have we are all failures spiritually and of ourselves can do nothing. Use what God has provided for us, it would be ungrateful on our part not to do so?
    So, birds of a feather flock together, I would encourage more Believers to flock together around God’s word. One will only do that when one has a spiritual hunger. Are we hungry?

  9. Coconuts says:

    The argument leaves me with questions rather than an answer I find believable or helpful. In its basic form I cannot work out why god is exempt from the first premise. I have seen it said that god is not a “thing” and so doesn’t qualify as a thing caused. This sounds like a solution offered for no other reason than to avoid the failure of the argument otherwise.

    Avoiding this problem another form of the first premise becomes “that which begins to exist” is caused.

    The older version of the argument is that any change has a cause. Then, God doesn’t change so God does not require a cause. It’s not clear that any serious theistic philosopher ever defended the argument that ‘everything has a cause’.

    Now I cannot work out if the universe fits the first premise. It is casually considered to have a beginning, but Stephen Hawking (and quite a few other physicists I’ve heard discussing the subject) don’t talk about this in such a way. “Theories of time”, “boundaries”, they don’t mean much to me. But there’s still a problem even in simple terms. How does “time” itself have a beginning? As Hawkins himself put it “It might be like asking “What’s north of the north pole?”

    Maybe the question is partly metaphysics and definitions of what a begining is; if time is dependent on change and doesn’t exist independently of changing entities (as in Platonic views of time) the first moment in time will be the first change. Going on to say that there is no first moment or first point in time (as Hawking seems to) looks like assuming there can be no being existing in an unchanging state.

    I’m sure I’ve not done them justice but I have seen these views, and others like, them expressed elsewhere. These don’t make the grade as explanations though?

    I think part of the problem is that explanations do exist, but they start to get philosophical quite quickly and will point to strange conclusions that ‘commonsense’ atheists won’t like so much. Especially after the New Atheist movement and development of the idea that failing to be convinced by Humean counter arguments to cosmological arguments was delusional or mental illness.

    • Alan says:

      Coconuts,

      Thank you for the reply. I hadn’t heard the argument expressed quite like this before –

      “The older version of the argument is that any change has a cause.”

      Is this different from the version that refers to things that begin? It seems similar. A change from one state to another requiring a cause. With the “latter” state not having existed “before”? Difficult for me to see how that applies to the universe. What was the state from which it changed? Non-existence I would assume. This is what I hear some theists insist must be the only alternative to supernatural creation – “Atheists claim something came from nothing”. But I don’t hear directly from atheists and I don’t hear it from physicists or cosmologists either. They don’t suggest something coming from nothing. Not absolute nothing at least.

      “Going on to say that there is no first moment or first point in time (as Hawking seems to) looks like assuming there can be no being existing in an unchanging state.”

      “no first moment or first point in time”? Is that from something else Hawking said or from his comment on it perhaps being like the north pole? I took him to mean that time might have a “first” moment, in the sense of some unique point, but not necessarily a prior moment from which it came. A suggestion rather than an assumption. His is not the only such thoughts I’ve seen on the subject though. Some propose no first moment. Not as any particular objection to unchanging beings but just as thoughts on what time might be. It isn’t something that’s well understood after all.

      “I think part of the problem is that explanations do exist, but they start to get philosophical quite quickly and will point to strange conclusions … ”

      I think the idea of non-existence “before” or “outside of” the universe, from which it must come if not otherwise created by God, is a strange conclusion. I can’t see where it comes from philosophically and I don’t see anyone at all offering evidence or hypothesis of it otherwise.

      • Coconuts says:

        Is this different from the version that refers to things that begin? It seems similar. A change from one state to another requiring a cause. With the “latter” state not having existed “before”? Difficult for me to see how that applies to the universe. What was the state from which it changed? Non-existence I would assume. This is what I hear some theists insist must be the only alternative to supernatural creation – “Atheists claim something came from nothing”. But I don’t hear directly from atheists and I don’t hear it from physicists or cosmologists either. They don’t suggest something coming from nothing. Not absolute nothing at least.

        Well, arguments of this kind were proposed in the context of belief in an eternal universe (e.g by Aristotle), and whether or not the universe is finite or infinite isn’t a part of them. They often work with very simple instances of causality/change rather than things like the beginning of the universe. In this respect they differ from the Kalam argument popularised by, say, Willam Lane Craig, even though that one does come originally from within the Aristotelian tradition in the Middle East.

        Hume’s views of causation, for example, do allow for things to come from nothing, or for there to be effects with no cause and no explanation so atheists could use this kind of ‘brute fact explanation’ to argue that the existence of the universe has no cause or explanation. But I imagine counter proposals to the Kalam one probably propose some kind of infinite regress of causes.

        “no first moment or first point in time”? Is that from something else Hawking said or from his comment on it perhaps being like the north pole? I took him to mean that time might have a “first” moment, in the sense of some unique point, but not necessarily a prior moment from which it came. A suggestion rather than an assumption. His is not the only such thoughts I’ve seen on the subject though. Some propose no first moment. Not as any particular objection to unchanging beings but just as thoughts on what time might be.

        I think it is still a question, if there is some kind of unchanging being (composed of, say, some kind of uniform matter), and the first change in that being is the first moment in time, can we speak of what is ‘prior’ to time?

        Also, if time is more Platonic than Aristotelian there is a bigger question about the idea of a first point in time.

        I think the idea of non-existence “before” or “outside of” the universe, from which it must come if not otherwise created by God, is a strange conclusion. I can’t see where it comes from philosophically and I don’t see anyone at all offering evidence or hypothesis of it otherwise.

        The idea that the universe must have come from nothing if it didn’t come from God may be put forward because of dim memories of various families of arguments like those from Aristotle, Aquinas, or Leibniz, where these are really the two possibilities.

        From where this would come from philosophically, maybe try Hume to start with. The idea that there are at least some brute facts is very widely accepted. Finding empirical evidence for brute facts or integrating them into hypotheses I guess isn’t possible given the nature of the thing.

  10. Nektarios says:

    Coconuts
    I liked your posting.

    On the nature of Time – How does time have a beginning?
    Time is movement, Time is a measurement of movement. I think you can work out the implications.
    An interesting point is eternity and the ending of Time?

  11. David Smith says:

    Trust, belief, and faith. There seems to me to be something like what I think of as a belief gene in humans. In many of us, it’s much stronger than in others, and it manifests itself differently in different people, but we can’t live without it. Our brains require it. If I didn’t believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the water that flows from the kitchen tap is safe to drink, or that glass scratches and breaks, or that the trees that rise in the woods behind my house tonight will still be there tomorrow, I’d soon fall apart mentally and emotionally. We need certainty, predictability. I call this a “belief” gene, but it’s really more like a trust gene, something that compels acceptance of things that are self-evident.

    And it seems to me that in a great many people, this acceptance, this trust, which is present of necessity in almost every human mind, merges comfortably and seamlessly from the purely physical – sunrise, the fragility of glass – into a region populated by almost-intangibles, like the goodness or trustworthiness of certain people and the beauty or ugliness of certain objects and sounds, and from there into the wholly intangible, like the truth of certain abstract ideas and the existence of planes of reality beyond anything which the human mind can understand or even conceive of.

    I’m not at all sure, in my own mind, that these three things – trust in the predictabilities of the natural world, belief in the truth of certain charactistics of certain people, and belief in the existence of abstract truths and supernatural dimensions – are closely related. But, just as a starting point for thinking about all this, I suggest that they are.

  12. ignatius says:

    I read a Hawkings quote the other day:
    ‘Time does not exist outside of the universe’
    So time, perhaps like gravity and mass, is a function of existing relationships of matter and force.
    I am curious to know if there is a difference between ‘time’ and ‘duration’. I suspect there is.

  13. Nektarios says:

    Ignatius
    Everything in the known universe works in a relationship, without that relationship nothing works.
    Time and duration of Time is a perception of the passing of Time.
    The duration of Time – that movement of the universe has been set and only known to God.
    He has set a moment where the universe in its movements and all therein contained will end.
    One can argue how? But it is a useless endeavour, God plan is to wrap all things up of the creation as we know it, ushering in eternity. That is that which cannot be measured – no Time. Its duration will have ended.

  14. Nektarios says:

    If I may add one brief comment on the existence of God it would be this: Can anyone of us deny the existence of evil?
    Many there have been that would deny the existence of God, but the existence of evil I think anyone could or can deny the existence of evil, then we cannot equally deny the existence of perfect Good – God.

    • David Smith says:

      “If I may add one brief comment on the existence of God it would be this: Can anyone of us deny the existence of evil?”

      Oh, sure. Modern science talks it away. There are neither good nor bad individuals. It’s all neurons, synapses, genes. And as science improves/advances/progresses, standard techniques will be developed and employed for curing or, if need be, neutering the misbehaving. Thus, the end of evil.

      • Nektarios says:

        David Smith

        Your conclusion above could not be further from the truth. It could be slavery. It would also mean an ending of human nature as we know it, turning it into some robotic hybrid. Time those evil scientists stopped trying to play God.

      • ignatius says:

        David,
        Alas there will be no techniques for the neutering of misbehaviour..Thats been tried and found wanting. Neither will the next Auschwitz be cured by synaptic surgery…’Modern Science’ probably knows all to well its own limitations as tool for the use or abuse of power.

    • Quentin says:

      Nektarios, please give us your definition of evil. I don’t mean examples but the actual nature of evil.

      • Nektarios says:

        Quentin
        There is a limit to language here but will try to answer your question as best I can.
        First, Evil is as far as we are concerned a manifestation in our nature that eventually affects every aspect, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

        So a definition of evil would be the absence of Good, which every human being recognises as the Good and has a witness within each one of us as we are made in the image of God.

    • David Smith says:

      Netkarios writes (to me):

      Your conclusion above could not be further from the truth. It could be slavery. It would also mean an ending of human nature as we know it, turning it into some robotic hybrid. Time those evil scientists stopped trying to play God.

      I agree completely. I was not praising science, only commenting on the direction in which it is surely moving. “Science” is really a misnomer. It’s root, “sciere”, means, I think, “to know”. Surely, we can know far more than the little that scientists are capable of teaching us. Unfortunately, our society, our culture have fallen almost entirely under the dictatorship of science. Dark days ahead.

  15. Alasdair says:

    An unfortunate characteristic of a large proportion of scientists is that they are simply not erudite. Just witness their abysmal performance on popular prime-time low-brow quiz shows. I suspect that the more “brilliant” they are as scientists, the more embarassingly clueless they are about matters outside their specialism.
    Hawkings statements about the existence of God is akin to pointing a low magnification telescope into a cloudy sky and declaring yourself an atheist. Clearly he was not able to grasp the concept of “what caused the cause” because that is a matter philosophy about which he was a self-confessed dummy.
    Stephen Jay Gould came up with the concept of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” wherein matters of physical science and matters of God are entirely separate and do not inform each other. Gould was a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. As such, I suspect that Hawking, a “brilliant physicist” never heard of him.

    • Alan says:

      Alasdair – “Clearly he was not able to grasp the concept of “what caused the cause” because that is a matter philosophy about which he was a self-confessed dummy.”

      Is the concept of an “uncaused cause” that much more easily understood by people who aren’t so focused on the natural sciences? I’ve not yet invested time in Hume (or Genesis) as has been recommended. Beyond the basics of high school, I only studied the sciences and I never went on to a career in any related field. I’ve had no more than a passing interest in philosophy or history or theology. A creative profession hasn’t given me the insight I’m looking for in this respect either. Am I at a big disadvantage when it comes to grasping the concept of (as it seems to me) “an existence without explanation as an explanation for existence”?

      Besides some specific views I could read about and hope to appreciate, I’ve not gotten the impression that the experts in philosophy are very settled on this matter. Is that the wrong impression do you think?

      • Quentin says:

        Alan, I think you would enjoy Freewill from Bragg’s In Our Time. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00z5y9z While not directly discussing the uncaused cause, it will show you where philosophy stands on such questions.

      • Alan says:

        Thank you Quentin. It was interesting listening and I hadn’t heard it before. I’ve come across most of the ideas before, although I struggle to retain them for long after I’ve heard them (I can tell you roughly what compatibilism is now but will probably have forgotten by tomorrow!)

        My impression from the discussion is that philosophers lean more towards determinism, with free will being an illusion. It doesn’t seem to be a settled thing and it isn’t without some difficult implications, but that looks to be the case either way. I don’t get a sense of any great confidence. They would “bet” on determinism! Science, at this stage, has added a few new interesting facts and possibilities, but nothing that greatly tips the balance.

        Was that the right impression do you think?

        I would imagine that the idea of adjusting the “faulty” thermostats conflicts with how you view morality. Does the idea look clearly flawed or is it merely an unwelcome possibility?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s