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.