The famous theoretical physicist Hawking was recently interviewed by The Guardian, and revealed that he does, in fact, believe in and worship a god—the name of which is "Science":
What is the value in knowing "Why are we here?"
The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.
I'm not a physicist, and science was not my favorite subject in high school, but I do know that science (from the Latin, scientia, "having knowledge"), as defined by about any dictionary worth buying, is "an area of knowledge that is an object of study" and/or "knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method" (Merriam Webster). So how is it that the study of general laws, which are obtained and tested through the "scientific method"—a human construct and enterprise, correct?—governs the universe? And, no, I'm not being entirely flippant, because while I know that this surely must not be what Hawkings is saying, it is what he is saying. Put another way, he renders science as some sort of abstact, objective giver of truth, and thus seeks to do away with the possibility of God as understood by Christians (as he attempted to do last year). More from the interview:
You've said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?
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.
Was that an answer? Argument? Or simply the pronouncement of a prophet of the god, Science? Should we blithely accept that logic, reason, order, structure, study, and even science can exist—and be proclaimed trustworthy to boot—in a universe/cosmos that came into existence through random chance, has no extrinsic meaning or purpose, and "just is"? Hmmm. It sounds sketchy, at best.
Actually, it's completely unfair to speak ill here of science, because it's not science's fault (since science is an area of knowledge that utilizes a particular method of study, and is thus impersonal) that Hawking seems to be misusing or playing fast and loose with it. Hawking is, whether he knows it or not, following the lead taken by Comte, who claimed (again, in rather pontifical style), "Theology will necessarily vanish in the presence of physics". He is a disciple of scientism, which is a philosophical, pehaps even theological, system of belief. The Dutch philosopher William A. Luijpen, in Phenomenology and Atheism (Duquesne University Press, 1964), wrote of how the "closed realm of the physicist" often leads scientists to embrace atheism. And:
Having resolved to question the objects and phenomena of nature only from the standpoint of measurements, [the physicist] deliminates his field of presence in such a way that nothing that is not quantitative can ever arise in it. In other words, the realm in which the physicist is interested is fundamentally closed. This does not mean that his dialogue with the world is ever finished and complete, but it means that his realm is, as a matter of principle, delimited in such a way that, from the standpoint of the thematizing project of the physicist, nothing can ever come into view except the quantitative. If, nevertheless, the physicist introduces something else, he thereby abandons the questioning attitude that is characteristic of him. For instance, he can be impressed by the greatness of what he sees and call is beautiful, but he thus goes beyond his pursuit as a physicist. In physical science itself nothing is "great" or "beautiful." At the same time, however, it follows that on the basis of his physical science along he can never deny that something is great or beautiful. (pp. 62-3)
A bit later, Luijpen argues, "All this clearly indicates that the physicist, on the basis of his science, lacks competence to deny the existence of the Creator-God, which is affirmed by the believer. The fact that such a denial has been made by scientists in the past, and is made even today, reveals a frightful want of insight into the nature of knowledge." This statement is all the more interesting when read along with the following remarks from Hawking's interview:
So here we are. What should we do?
We should seek the greatest value of our action.
You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
How, then, does science/physics inform us about "the greatest value of our action"? This is like watching actors testifying before Congress about farm bills or economics: everyone is very serious and there is much ponderous head-nodding, but does anyone really think that William Flowinghair, star of The Jaded Nightquest, should really be treated as an expert on the challenges of making a living on 5,000 acres of turnips in Iowa? Which is not to say that Hawking's knowledge or wisdom is necessarily limited to physics, or that he doesn't have a right to say anything at all about his beliefs regarding the Meaning of Everything. No, it is simply to note that when a physicist—even a theoretical physicist—moves into the realm of philosophical or theological musings, folks should keep in mind that he might not be on solid ground or expressing cogent ideas precisely because physics and science, properly speaking, don't tell us anything about "values" and the meaning of life.
Luijpen's remarks as similar to those found in a modestly-titled book, Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius Press, 2004; 2nd edition), originally published in 1968 by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger. In the chapter titled, “Faith in God Today”, Ratzinger outlined an argument for God’s existence based on intelligibility that is directly relevant to Hawking's remarks in particular, but also in general to the ongoing clash (supposed or real) between faith and science.
Ratzinger begins by noting that the statement, “I believe in God”, is based on the presupposition that truth can actually be known, considered, and stated. “Christian faith in God means first the decision in favor of the primacy of the logos as against mere matter”, he wrote. “In other words, faith means deciding for the view that thought and meaning do not just form a chance by-product of being; that, on the contrary, all being is a product of thought and, indeed, in its innermost structure is itself thought” (pp. 151, 152). Finite being as we experience it is marked by intelligibility, by a formal structure that makes it capable of being understood by the seeking, thinking mind. This recognition of the intelligible, knowable nature of things points to the rational position of belief in creation. It also is the basis for scientific research and thought, for scientists rely—implicitly or otherwise—on the belief that the material realm is intelligible and open to logical study, systematic observation, and ordered experimentation.
Ratzinger quotes Albert Einstein, who said that in the laws of nature “an intelligence so superior is revealed that in comparison all the significance of human thinking and human arrangements is a completely worthless reflection” (p. 153). But he also notes that Einstein was dismissive of belief in a personal God, which the great theoretical physicist dismissed as “anthropomorphic”. This reveals, Ratzinger notes, the difficulty many have in believing that the “God of the philosophers” is also the “God of faith”, one and the same. But Ratzinger insists that Einstein’s view is too limited, too mathematically-focused, and misses the fact that in the world “we also find equally present in the world unparalleled and unexplained wonders of beauty, or, to be more accurate, there are events that appear to the apprehending mind of man in the form of beauty, so that he is bound to say that the mathematician responsible for these events has displayed an unparalleled degree of creative imagination” p. 155). The strange thing is that while physicists such as Hawking apparently think belief in God (and the afterlife) is somehow limiting (and based in some way on fear and superstition), they are the ones who limit themselves by embracing scientism rather than acknowledging the limitations of science proper.
Ratzinger argues that universal objective intelligibility leads to the conclusion of the existence of a great Intelligence, which has thought the world into being. He notes that there are a couple of false beliefs that can arise when it comes to a scientific study of "matter": 1) "Everything we encounter is in the last analysis stuff, matter; this is the only thing that always remains as demonstrable reality and, consequently, represents the real being of all that exists—the materialist solution", and 2) "all being is ultimately being-thought and can be traced back to mind as the original reality; this is the 'idealistic' solution." (p. 156). Rejecting both as unsatisfactory and limited, he goes on to say that "Christian belief in God means that things are the being-thought of a creative consciousness, of a creative freedom, and that the creative consciousness that bears up all things has released what has been thought into the the freedom of its, independent existence. ... the model from which creation must be understood is not the craftsman but the creative mind, creative thinking" (p. 157).
This point is clearly one that Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has dwelt upon over the decades, for in his 2011 Easter Vigil Homily, he again made similar observations, stating:
The central message of the creation account can be defined more precisely still. In the opening words of his Gospel, Saint John sums up the essential meaning of that account in this single statement: “In the beginning was the Word”. In effect, the creation account that we listened to earlier is characterized by the regularly recurring phrase: “And God said ...” The world is a product of the Word, of the Logos, as Saint John expresses it, using a key term from the Greek language. “Logos” means “reason”, “sense”, “word”. It is not reason pure and simple, but creative Reason, that speaks and communicates itself. It is Reason that both is and creates sense. The creation account tells us, then, that the world is a product of creative Reason. Hence it tells us that, far from there being an absence of reason and freedom at the origin of all things, the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom. Here we are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis. As believers we answer, with the creation account and with Saint John, that in the beginning is reason. (April 23, 2011)
Hawking talks about the universe being "governed", but denies there is a governor/law-giver. He speaks of "values", but rejects the idea of an objective source of values. He describes his mind as a "computer", but apparently doesn't think that his personal brain or the universe comes from Reason that is personal, or a Being who is reasonable. Hawking even speaks of what is "beautiful" in science, saying, "Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations." But upon what basis does he recognize phenomena and connections between different observations? Why, in the end, even bother?
In my essay, "Traveling with Walker Percy", I wrote of how Percy, once an avowed disciple of scientism, embraced Catholicism:
Percy often noted the paradoxical fact that man can form a perfect scientific theory explaining the material world –- but cannot adequately account for himself in that theory. Man is the round peg never quite fitting into the square hole of scientism. "Our view of the world, which we get consciously or unconsciously from modern science, is radically incoherent," Percy wrote in his essay "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind." Again, science must either recognize its own limits or create confusion: "A corollary of this proposition is that modern science is itself radically incoherent, not when it seeks to understand things and subhuman organisms and the cosmos itself, but when it seeks to understand man, not man’s physiology or neurology or his bloodstream, but man qua man, man when he is peculiarly human. In short, the sciences of man are incoherent." ("The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault In The Modern Mind," p. 271). In a self-interview, "Questions They Never Asked Me," he put the matter more bluntly:
"This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and infinite delight; i.e., God." ("Questions They Never Asked Me," p. 417)
In a nutshell, Hawking can explain much about the physical world. But he cannot explain himself. He cannot account for the mystery of man. He would do well, in all of his genius, to consider these words from Pope Ratzinger:
God made the world so that there could be a space where he might communicate his love, and from which the response of love might come back to him. From God’s perspective, the heart of the man who responds to him is greater and more important than the whole immense material cosmos, for all that the latter allows us to glimpse something of God’s grandeur.
Related on Ignatius Insight:
• Excerpts from Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
• The Mythological Conflict Between Christianity and Science | An interview with physicist Dr. Stephen Barr | Mark Brumley
• The Universe is Meaning-full | An interview with Dr. Benjamin Wiker, co-author of A Meaningful World | Carl E. Olson
• Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco & Benjamin Wiker | Carl E. Olson
• The Mystery of Human Origins | Mark Brumley
• Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.