Give me a reason to be
Now I want to respond to his ‘[science] cannot tell us why we are here’ – with the presumed implication: ‘…but religion can’.
We need to be careful around the question ‘why?’, because it can be asking at least two different things. They are connected, and they overlap in places. But they are distinct. Religionists love the connection and adore the overlap, but sometimes stumble over the distinction.
‘Why?’ can ask for a reason or a cause. Sometimes a reason can be a cause, but not all causes are reasons. And even if it is true that everything has – or must have – a cause (a big if), that doesn’t mean that everything has – or must have – a reason.
So the question ‘why are we here?’ could be asking purely for the cause, or causes, of our being here. That cause could be to do with fortuitous collisions and aggregations of atoms and molecules, and then with the causes of that to be found in subatomic particles, quantum gravity and other marvels.
But the question ‘why are we here?’ could also be asking for the reason we are here. A reason could be, for example, that our being here was the fulfilment of an intention. But that doesn’t have to be the reason. More importantly, there may not have been a reason, even though there might have been a cause.
So when Jonathan Sacks says that science ‘cannot tell us why we are here’, we can respond in two ways. If he is saying that science ‘cannot tell us the cause of our being here’, then that is false. Science might not yet have got to the right answer, but it certainly addresses causes, and it is our best tool and methodology for doing just that.
But if he means that science ‘cannot tell us the intention behind our being here’, then he may be onto something. But not necessarily very much. For that statement to mean anything significant, we have to assume there is (or was) an intention behind our being here. Perhaps there isn’t (or wasn’t), and interestingly science can have something to say about the rationality of assuming there may – or must – have been an intention.
If the sum total of our knowledge about the causal origin of the universe points to an enormous question mark, then it could be legitimate to consider that because the origin seems so bizarre and mysterious, perhaps its causal explanation does call for speculation about a possible intention. This is where causes and reasons can connect: we are hypothesising that the cause of the universe might be related to the reason – ie intention – behind its being here. (I say ‘could be legitimate’ because it does seem a tad anthropomorphic to think that just because we have intentions, the universe must itself be the result of one.)
What I understand Stephen Hawking to be saying is that current physics does look as if we might be getting closer to erasing some of that enormous question mark. If so, that would mean we are getting further away from the need to understand a possible reason in order to understand a possible cause.
Which doesn’t look like an ‘elementary fallacy’ of logic to me.
Belief in God is not about plugging a gap in explaining how one thing relates to another within the universe.
…It is the belief that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence. Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing.
Again, what kind of ‘why’ is this?
But first, please allow me a little rant. Why is it (and here I’m after either a reason or a cause!) that theologians think they can lecture us on the rationality of something which they just happen to believe? They make an assumption (or assert a belief), eg ‘that there is an intelligent, living agent on whose activity everything ultimately depends for its existence’, and then assume that – just because they have made that assumption or asserted that belief – a proposition like ‘Physics on its own will not settle the question of why there is something rather than nothing’ then follows?
Rant over. Back to what kind of ‘why’. The ‘causal’ (ie non-intentional) ‘why’ in ‘why there is something rather than nothing’ may also contain a bit of ‘how’. So the question could be one of these three:
(i) What is the reason (ie intention) behind there being something rather than nothing?
(iia) What is the cause of there being something rather than nothing?
(iib) How is it possible that there could be something rather than nothing?
As I understand it, cosmologists like Hawking address (iia) and (iib), and the mysterious cusp between them. And of course other things.
And again, as I understand it, Hawking is saying that the current state of physics looks as if it is close to sketching possible responses to (iia) and (iib) – or at least the versions of (iia) and (iib) which make sense at the kind of altitude modern physics flies at. And that because of that, question (i) is looking less and less like the kind of question we have to consider in order to find answers to (iia) and (iib), and more and more like the kind of question which itself requires justification before anyone needs to take it seriously.
Knee-jerk reactions from theologians are therefore looking less and less like constructive contributions to debate and more and more like the protection of vested interests.
Well, that’s it then.
© Chris Lawrence 2010.