thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Grand Design but no Grand Designer

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Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

They’re at it again. In his new book The Grand Design, due to be published 9 September, Stephen Hawking apparently claims:

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 touchpaper and set the universe going.

‘It is not necessary to invoke God’, not ‘God does not exist’. If I understand the point Hawking is making (I do not and never will understand the physics on which the point is based), what he is saying is that we do not need to posit the existence of God to explain why the universe happened.

Enter, pursuing a bear, the chorus of career theologians.

Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, accuses Hawking of making an ‘elementary fallacy’ of logic:

Writing in the Times, the Chief Rabbi apparently says:

There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being.

…But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science.

Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks

Certainly ‘The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being’ is a view. Not a unique view, but nor is it a view shared by every adherent of the Abrahamic God. Just on the basis of these brief quotes, I cannot quite see what Hawking has said which Sacks objects to. Hawking seems to be saying there is no need to posit a God as the creator of the universe. Sacks is saying ‘The Bible’ isn’t positing God as a potential creator of the universe.

So what is this ‘elementary fallacy’? If religion is about ‘interpretation’ not ‘explanation’, then there is a possible consequence. We can have different potential explanations which might conflict. We may not know which of x or y is the right explanation of z, but if we did know that x was the explanation of z, then we also know that y is not the explanation of z.

By contrast if p and q are different interpretations of r, then if we accept p we may reject q, but we don’t have to. We can entertain both interpretations at the same time. Sir Georg Solti’s interpretation of Tristan und Isolde does not invalidate Sir Reginald Goodall’s interpretation of the same opera, even though they may be very different.

Science ‘cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live’: we need to tread carefully with this kind of talk. I agree that science cannot ultimately tell us how we should live – although science can of course unravel some of the actual or potential consequences of different lifestyles: health, disease, stress, global warming and so on. But no, science cannot supply that ultimate moral imperative.

Can religion though? Only if you choose to. So what (or who) is supplying the ultimate moral imperative? What or who is telling you how you should live?

This is a big and complex question. But it is beyond glib just to say ‘science and religion are different’ and ‘science can’t tell you how to live your life’ and presumably imply that religion can meaningfully tell you how to live your life. Huge claim.

It is also worth bearing in mind that someone who really did think that God really did create the universe (as a disturbingly high proportion of Americans do) might really think that God really might have a real claim to telling that someone how to live his or her life.

Now we get to ‘[science] cannot tell us why we are here’…

I’ll leave that, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2010.


Written by Chris Lawrence

3 September 2010 at 10:04 pm

One Response

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  1. In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theory.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (fx raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

    Ron Krumpos

    5 September 2010 at 2:21 am

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