The great Stephen Hawking is a lousy philosopher. There’s just no way around it. But if you could tell him so to his face, he’d say, “Yeah? So what?” After all, in his book The Grand Design, he and his co-author say, infamously, that “philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” This is like saying that physics is dead because physicists haven’t kept up with modern developments in fly fishing. But the point is that Hawking has no respect for philosophy, and so he’s naturally disinclined to devote himself to the task of learning much philosophy, to philosophize well. This is the tragic undoing of positivism: the positivist loves science so much that she sees all problems in scientific terms. She’s like Kramer from Seinfeld who thinks that all you need in life is a shower; you can spend all hours there, eating and sleeping beneath the shower head so you never have to leave and suffer the annoying change of temperature. Likewise, the neo-positivists (as opposed to the founders of positivism) think all legitimate questions that potentially add to our knowledge are scientific.
Philosophers call this prejudice scientism and most scientists don’t care because they don’t think there’s any such prejudice. As Jerry Coyne likes to say, no one ever provides an example of a nonscientific way of increasing our knowledge; there’s no progress in nonscientific cognitive disciplines because they’re at best pseudoscientific. Of course, this presupposes that knowledge is entirely about lengthening our list of empirical facts. Scientists make discoveries because they go out into the world and observe the details and test hypotheses, whereas philosophers don’t. But having knowledge is not the same as having a list of facts. If it were, computers would know much more than humans. Instead, computers currently know nothing at all because they don’t grasp the meaning or the value of those facts. As I’ve said elsewhere, to have knowledge you need a coherent worldview, and this means you need a way to make your list of facts unite with your values, ideals, and intuitions. Sometimes, you’ll have to discard obsolete intuitions or update your values, if the facts speak loudly enough, whereas other times you’ll have to interpret the facts to protect your values, because the facts are ambiguous. Either way, science cannot by itself make your worldview coherent. This is because science doesn’t answer normative questions. Also needed are philosophy, religion (but not the obsolete theistic kind), culture, and the institutions that protect a democratic exchange of ideas. As I’ve argued elsewhere, atheists presuppose a religion in their effort to unite naturalism with their typical liberal values: this religion is secular humanism, Scientism, positivism, or pragmatism. But when a religion is only presupposed rather than openly acknowledged, the religion is bound to be clumsy and lackluster, and that’s the case with Hawking’s atheistic argument.
Hawking’s Arguments for Atheism
Now as it stands, this argument is useless since it would show only that there’s no cause of the universe that acted in time, whereas God is supposed to be eternal (outside of time). Suppose Hawking is right and the Big Bang singularity was effectively a black hole and that time was created by the Big Bang. Assuming all temporal causes are natural, this means only that the Big Bang lacked this kind of natural cause. But what do you know: the theistic proposition is that God is supernatural. Even Boethius said in the fifth and sixth centuries CE that God’s eternity entails that God doesn’t act in time (and so humans can have freewill even though God’s omniscient.) Of course God couldn’t create the universe in time, if time is part of the natural fabric of the universe and God somehow created the whole universe. This is why theists say you’ve got to have faith at some point because reason runs out of its ability to answer all of the questions we’re capable of asking. And of course religious metaphors make God out to be a natural person who has feelings and plans and whose actions thus would seem to take place in the temporal dimension. But this is when you’ve got to crack open a scripture or a philosophy of religion textbook, and learn the difference between exoteric and esoteric religious traditions.
So even if Hawking’s argument is valid and factual, the most it demonstrates is that if God is a natural being, no such being is needed to scientifically, naturalistically explain the origin of the universe. No major religion identifies God as such, and thus Hawking’s argument is ineffective against all major forms of theism. So why did Hawking bother to formulate this argument? Because he presumes that science must take up the slack when philosophy fails, that since philosophy is getting us nowhere we’d better turn to science to answer philosophical questions, including the question of whether God exists. Of course, then you’ve got to translate the question into terms with which a scientist is familiar; for example, you’ve got to reduce God to a natural being since scientists study nature. Indeed, scientists presuppose the philosophical position of methodological naturalism, which means that they pragmatically assume that all phenomena are natural and capable of being explained by scientific methods. In this way, the science-centered atheist/positivist/ultrarationalist misses the point of religion, which is effectively the point of cosmicism: reason can be expected to take us only so far in our quest for knowledge, and emotions, intuitions, and faith must contribute in our pursuit of a coherent worldview. Scientists might be able to explain everything in nature, but not any supernatural origin of nature. When we ask questions of how things work in nature, we can turn to science to provide the answer. But when we ask the question of how all of nature came to be, we’re asking a nonscientific, philosophical question. That question may be meaningless or profound; either way, scientific methods alone will not satisfy us and instead we’ve got to turn to art, myth, intuition, life experience, altered states of consciousness, and philosophical standards of rationality which are looser than the scientific ones.
But Hawking’s argument in the “Does God Exist?” episode isn’t his best case for atheism. The fuller picture is given in his book, The Grand Design, in which Hawking and his co-author add many details, the two most relevant and interesting being the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics and what they call model-dependent realism. As I understand it (and I have only a layperson’s grasp of physics and cosmology), the multiverse is the mind-independent actualization of all quantum potentials. Microscopic bits of matter are fundamentally random and probabilistic, capable of behaving like waves rather than definite, concrete particles. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, those bits of matter aren’t fully real until they’re observed, in which case they lose their “superposition” and the observer who takes the measurement “collapses the wave function.” By contrast, the multiverse interpretation says that every superposition or possible state of a bit of matter is realized without the need of an observer to take the measurement, since the bit of matter spins off into a different universe. As Hawking and his coauthor summarize Feynman’s theory, if we observe a particle move from one position to another, the particle simultaneously takes all possible paths between those positions, and we observe only one of those paths because the others are observable in other universes.
So how does the multiverse eliminate God? In the Darwinian fashion. Just as God isn’t needed to explain biological designs, since those designs evolve largely by natural selection, God isn’t needed to explain the creation of any universe or its laws, since a universe evolves with its laws in the multiverse. A universe’s natural laws reflect only one general way of actualizing all quantum possibilities, but just as there’s no mind needed to observe the particles to make them real, contrary to the Copenhagen interpretation, there’s no God needed to choose which universe to create, because all possible universes exist! So our universe has one set of physical laws and a different universe has its own set which may vary slightly, and both universes are created as spontaneous quantum fluctuations, according to an interpretation of the laws of quantum mechanics.
You’ve probably realized, though, that the multiverse theory only pushes the theistic question back a step, since now the question becomes not whether God created our universe (God wouldn’t have, since our universe would have been created by a random quantum fluctuation in the field of possibilities that produces the multiverse), but whether God created that field of quantum possibilities, including the laws of quantum mechanics and M-theory that physicists use to explain the origin of universes within the multiverse. All Hawking does is increase the size of nature (or of rationally explainable existence), from our universe to the multiverse, and then argue that God isn’t needed to explain our part of that domain. Once again, this just misses the point! The idea of God is of something that at least transcends our rational comprehension. Why would such an idea be needed, you ask? Just to answer our irrational questions, like the question of how everything came to be (where a “thing” is that which is rationally explainable).
As far as I can tell, The Grand Design explains only how sets of physical laws of macroscopic universes arise by atheistic evolution, not how the underlying laws that explain how that evolution arise. Do the laws of cosmic evolution also evolve according to a deeper set of similar laws, and so on to infinity? No, just as the biological theory of natural selection presupposes the replicators in each of the species that undergoes evolution, the multiverse idea depends on quantum mechanics to explain how universes spontaneously pop into being within the field of quantum possibilities. So the theist will ask how that field of possibilities came to be. As chaotic as that field may be, there must be some order to the origin of universes, since otherwise the multiverse interpretation wouldn’t be scientific. Science explains only that which is intelligible, and the question of theism is always whether there’s a nonrational, transcendent cause of whatever intelligible order we rationally take to be fundamental, whether that’s the Big Bang or whatever dimension the multiverse subsists in.
But perhaps Hawking’s model-dependent realism offers an answer to theistic irrationalism. The theist wants a narrative that satisfies not just reason but the nonrational parts of our mind, including our emotions, instincts, aesthetic taste, and so on. And even though Hawking says philosophy is dead, he philosophizes when he stipulates that rational models are best. According to Hawking’s Kantian philosophy, there’s no practical difference between speaking of “noumenal” reality that’s conceived of as independent of our conceptual schemes and “phenomenal” reality that’s thought of as dependent on them. This is because however we think of the outside world, we always impose our ways of thinking onto it, so the notion of mind-independent reality is empty. Thus, when choosing which model of reality is best, we needn’t waste time speaking of whether the model corresponds to noumenal reality; instead, we should evaluate models according to some pragmatic criteria. The Grand Design lists four such criteria: a good model is elegant (as simple or compressed as possible), not ad hoc (having few arbitrary elements), agrees with and explains all known observations, and is empirically falsifiable.
According to Hawking’s philosophy of science, then, a theistic model that posits God as the cause of the multiverse would be unacceptable, since that model would fail according to those scientific criteria. Theism would be ad hoc, since the ideas in God’s mind can be arbitrarily posited by us to explain all possible data, and so theism wouldn’t be falsifiable. But once again, what this really shows is that Hawking, the scientific atheist, misses the point of theism. Of course theism fails as a scientific theory: theism is the idea that science and reason generally are inadequate tools for constructing a complete worldview. Hawking implies that his atheism rests only on science, but then he trots out a transparently philosophical notion which rules out theism by fiat. Unfortunately for Hawking, once you start to play the philosophical game, you’ve got to play by its more relaxed rules. So if you think of metaphysics pragmatically, taking up the neo-Kantian form of realism, as Hawking and his co-author do, you’re going to need philosophical reasons why, say, the above four criteria of excellence in model-building are the only ones allowed. Those four may suffice for scientists and their models, but this just begs the question against theism and the question remains whether those four suffice for human beings.
Specifically, what if we add another aesthetic criterion, besides elegance, such as the criterion that a good model should make for an inspiring story in literary terms? Note that only the full-blown metaphysical realist is entitled to scoff at this point, since of course mind-independent reality can be as it is regardless of whether we think the history of that reality makes for a satisfying story. But Hawking loses the right to this dismissal of additional aesthetic considerations, since he stipulates that we should think of reality as being dependent on how we model it (the contrary contention being empty). So who says elegance/simplicity is the only relevant aesthetic value? What if a worldview should be not just rational but aesthetically pleasing in a more thoroughgoing way? In that case, quantum mechanics and the multiverse may be aesthetically deficient and thus incomplete as a worldview. One way of rectifying this would be to think of the multiverse as God’s decaying corpse: God becomes corrupted by his power and insane by his isolation, and so to kill himself he transforms his infinite being into something that can be completely destroyed; thus we have the multiverse of infinite possibilities, each of which is somewhere actualized so that it can be overcome by the next one until all are exhausted and the loathsomeness of the monotheistic deity is finally erased. This is just a myth or a philosophical speculation, not a scientific theory, but so what? How does Hawking’s science refute that myth? By presupposing scientific standards of rationality and model-building? That begs the question and misses the point.
Scientism, Political Correctness, and Atheistic Religion
Now, when I check my handy PC meter, which measures the field of political correctness that holds people spellbound to certain social conventions, I find that the PC field surrounding Stephen Hawking is off the charts. There’s a double whammy here, you see, since first, you’ve got the fact that Stephen Hawking is in a wheelchair and is severely physically handicapped (or physically challenged or whatever the current faddish term is). And if you’d consult your cultural handbook, you could remind yourself that all physically handicapped people are saints. Thus, criticism of anything such a person does or says is politically incorrect and anathema. Second, there’s the fact that Hawking is a physicist and indeed a great physicist, and again your cultural handbook declares that scientists have all the power and they can do no wrong; their authority extends to all matters and we should take their every utterance as gospel truth. Unfortunately, our cultural handbook is out of date and should be amended to read that scientific authority is highly impressive when applied to areas of the scientist’s expertise. There are no strictly rational experts when it comes to assessing artistic, emotional, or philosophical matters, since these areas of inquiry aren’t purely rational. Still, some judgments in these areas are better than others, but reason alone doesn’t make those calls.
Thus, just because a physicist has mastered a highly difficult subject matter, doesn’t mean she has special authority in a nonscientific area of inquiry. Hawking would say I’m begging the question and he’d maintain that science alone can tell us whether God exists. But the previous section has just shown that I’m not begging the question, since I’ve shown that Hawking’s argument is weak as a piece of philosophical reasoning. I assume Hawking’s actual scientific work is impressive rather than refutable in a jiffy, which leads me to conclude that Hawking’s atheistic argument isn’t scientific. Were Hawking tackling merely a scientific problem, in considering whether God made the universe, presumably his treatment of the issue wouldn’t be so weak. No, Hawking ‘s atheistic argument is unimpressive only because the problem is philosophical and religious rather than scientific, whereas Hawking is trying to solve that problem using only scientific methods. Likewise, if you try to write a physics textbook using nothing but fly fishing gear, the fruit of your labour will be worse than useless.
At the source of this folly is Scientism. And one of my main points in these Rants Within the Undead God is that atheists need a proper atheistic religion, not a silly one that’s afraid of its shadow like positivism, Scientism, or pragmatism. Just as a homosexual person who pretends to be straight or a kind person who pretends to be mean can become a laughingstock, because that person’s performance will likely be poor, so too philosophy or religion that’s dressed to look just like science (or pure reason) will be a grotesque piece of work. Scientific (as opposed to philosophical) atheism is thus oxymoronic and self-disqualifying. The conflict between atheism and theism is philosophical, religious, and cultural, and although science is relevant to the debate, science isn’t central to it or sufficient to ending it. Scientific atheists overreach just as badly as do religious fundamentalists who pretend that their memorization of primitive texts gives them special authority to tell us how the universe works. Scientists and religious people both can overreach in the opposite directions, each stepping into the other’s territory and embarrassing herself by bringing reason in to appreciate the nonrational or by using just intuition to explain a natural mechanism.
Ultimately, the culprit is hubris, the lack of self-knowledge and of the humility that follows from that knowledge. The more you know about yourself the humbler you get since you learn that your rational ego depends on delusions and vices such as gullibility and greed, and when you give up those delusions you tend to drop out of society and become an omega, an outsider who lacks the ambition or the confidence to participate fully in social games. What scientific atheists don’t seem to appreciate is that they too have the theist’s animalistic impulse to worship, to trust, and to wallow in irrationality. (As I never tire of saying, just ask them about the details of their sex lives and watch them squirm. Note that a Vulcan, Data, or Sheldon Cooper could never be put into such an embarrassing, hypocritical position.) The main difference is that theists admit to that impulse and try to glorify it by name (embarrassing themselves in countless other ways), whereas a scientific atheist like Hawking pretends to be hyperrational, to eliminate emotion or full-blown aesthetics from the picture and to follow merely science wherever it leads. Unfortunately for Hawking, the science of the Big Bang or of the multiverse alone doesn’t take you to atheism. You’ve got to add bad philosophical (partly aesthetic, intuitive, or faith-based) reasoning to arrive at that conclusion from that starting point. So if you want atheism that will give you the opportunity to laugh at others rather than force you to be the laughingstock, get into philosophy and esoteric religion. Mind you, philosophical atheism leads at least initially to a very dark worldview according to which everything under the sun is ridiculous, including everything you and I personally say or do, but that’s another story…