Sunday, January 13, 2013

Stephen Hawking’s Scientific Atheism

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

Hawking’s positivism is philosophically deficient since it leads him to argue so shoddily against the opposing, theistic philosophy. Take his argument in his Discovery Curiosity TV episode, “Does God Exist?" This argument is philosophical, perhaps even religious, but Hawking’s philosophy is absurdly antiphilosophical, so he’s forced to pretend that his atheism is purely scientific. Here is Hawking’s stripped-down argument for God’s nonexistence: the universe was created in the Big Bang, which means that in its earliest stage the universe was infinitesimal and so the laws of quantum mechanics apply to its origin, and we know from those laws that quantum events can happen spontaneously without any cause; moreover, the Big Bang’s gravitational singularity was in effect a black hole and we know that in modern-day black holes time stops inside of them, which means there was no time before the Big Bang and thus no time for anyone to create the universe.

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…


  1. Interesting article, and timely. I recently read in some other place about Hawking's book, The Grand Design, and the bold anti-philosophical claim it contains. I get the feeling he's bored these days, and his rejection of philosophy is just an attempt to start some shit, just for laughs. Precisely because I have so much respect for his intellect, I refuse to believe the man doesn't see the obvious problems with his statements.

    1. That could be. Another possibility is that Hawking's co-author is to blame, and maybe Hawking didn't read carefully those sections of the book (although I don't know if the co-author was involved in the TV episode). However, with Lawrence Krauss' and Alex Rosenberg's anti-philosophy books, there's something of a trend here: just as New Atheism has done, Scientism is coming out of the closet. This is a case of physics kicking philosophy when it's down, though.

    2. I am more inclined to consider that Hawking's intellect is apt for certain analysis and inept for another kind.

    3. That's quite possible, although those who excel in math often think they can therefore excel in everything, because math is so hard to learn. So a mathematician or a physicist can dabble in philosophy and arrogantly presume that no special expertise is needed to deal well with philosophical problems.

  2. I think that the New Atheist rejection of philosophy is a rather conscious attempt at a two-pronged attack in the war against religion: in one stroke you limit the epistemological war fronts with religion, while robbing it of its logical underpinnings. It could also be regarded as the unconscious attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance caused by Scientism (which in itself is an active front with theology). The constant use of the words "Reason" and "Logic" as a camouflage for "Philosophy" might also be symptomatic of this.

    Anti-intellectualism could also be a factor; while not all New Atheists are guilty of this, a lot seem to have decided to expand the "Courtier's Reply" in any philosophical realm that is tangential to theology as an excuse for their lack of training in philosophical thought -and their lack of interest in learning. And the wholesale rejection of Philosophy as "irrelevant" is certainly easier to use as a slogan than -say- Loftus' "Outsider Test of Faith"; especially when espoused by authority figues.

    I must admit that all these logical fallacies in a 'movement' that likes to brag of its logical prowess are deliciously ironic; unfortunately I'm a part of it and care for its intellectual honesty, so it can be quite distressing at times.

    1. You've raised a lot of interesting points here, Evan. I don't know if I'd equate New Atheism with scientific atheism, although many of the popular ones are indeed scientists (Dawkins, Myers, Harris, Coyne, Stenger). But then there are Dennett, Hitchens, and Grayling. Even Harris has philosophical training, although he's pretty scientistic, and Dennett is unusually science-centered for a philosopher.

      I agree, though, that since New Atheism is largely a political rather than an intellectual movement, rhetorical strategies are important to it. Scientific atheists throw the baby of philosophy out with the bathwater of theology. Analytic philosophy is largely to blame for being so naturalistic, as a recent article points out (link below); that is, philosophy's gotten away from its traditional issues and so made itself less relevant.

      The Courtier's Reply is interesting, since the fallacies can go both ways. On the one hand, New Atheists do focus on fundamentalism rather than on moderate or sophisticated religion, since the former is the most egregious and dangerous form of religion (although not necessarily the most aesthetically offensive). And this can indeed hide the atheist's scientism, since she can assume, quite fallaciously, that because technoscience is culturally all-powerful or because scientists have so much empirical knowledge, science suffices in the war against religion.

      On the other hand, the theist doesn't realize that although sophisticated theology is in some ways more impressive than literalistic theism (the mouth-breathing form of theology), in other ways that theology already spells the death of God because it's so compromised with naturalism. For example, many sophisticated liberal Christians don't even believe that Jesus existed as an historical person (e.g. Tom Harpur). The whole thing becomes metaphorical, which takes us to mysticism, which in turn is tantamount to atheistic cosmicism.

  3. I have to say I picture philosophy as thinking about some kind of morality and the problems within that.

    Outside of that it seems out of place?

    It's not so much pre supposing science, it's a question of whether you want to be potentially wrong somehow.

    Science is a method which involves protocols by which ones hypothesis can be disproved. In such a way it's kind of inhuman, in how counter it is to the number of biases that constitute us, as we generally seek only to prove our ideas and rately to attempt to disprove them. Or atleast so certain studies have shown. Perhaps if the studies were run again, a different result would occur. That's another odd property of science, or atleast science as I learnt it - it never proves anything. The practice is that if one were to run an experiment a thousand times getting result A, one is open to the idea that on the thousand and first time it might give result B. You never really know. Which is much like having faith, except unlike traditional faith, one can consider ones object of faith to perhaps suddenly change behaviour.

    Is there a problem with science? Or is it that it is (ostensibly) a competing religion? One which everyone carries a bible of in their hip pocket (you did remember to recharge your bible last night, didn't you? Otherwise you might miss a call). A seeming relgion that's destroying the ambiguity residing in culture that the rest of the myriad philosophical directions need in order to go their direction and still say "But how can you know thid direction isn't..."

    1. I agree with you about the strengths of science. Indeed, it's science that shows us we're effectively living in the undead god. But science isn't the same as scientism and it's scientism that's the issue here. Scientific atheists presuppose not just science but a science-centered philosophy/religion, and it's that philosophy which can destroy itself.

    2. Hmmm, oh, okay. Well, I think I'd say it depends on how much an individual recognises it's falling into the same spot inside them as a religion would. If they recognise that, I'm not sure its particularly worse than other religions?

  4. Just discovered your blog. Have to admit my mind is somewhat blown (LOL) as there is quite a bit of density here that I may gloss over because I have not delved deeply into your past posts. Plus, I am goofing off a bit in between doing spreadsheets at work, so... :)

    I had a comment/question/criticism about this particular set of text:

    "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."

    This assumes, or at least the theist assumes, that "causality" is real at a fundamental level. Why is this question even valid? Maybe the "field of possibilities" is because it is, and there is no casue or reason and certainly no "mind" responsible. Our primate minds may demand a reason or an explanation, but does that mean, at this level of fundamental reality, that this demand must be met by reality?

    1. Hmm... That is, of course, a fine counter-argument to the teleological argument for the existence of God, but how does one go about actually proving it scientifically? It's one thing to counter an argument saying "Well, maybe the universe just is... just as you claim your God just is". Here you just take the same liberties as the theist and say "two can play this game". It's another thing entirely to say "I am 100% certain that the field of possibilities just is and there's no man hiding behind its curtain".

      Science can only take you as far as observation/data and your capacity for creative construction of hypotheses. As long as there is a shred of a suspicion that you might be missing something in either side, you create enough of a gap for God to slip through.

      Science might finally formulate this ultimate theory at some point (I'm fairly certain of that as well, though I doubt I will even live to see an actual abiogenesis theory) but in the mean time it'll have to stick with "I don't know, I'm working on it" and that doesn't cut it in human psychology. "I don't know" always loses to "Well, here's how it goes".

      This is what Hawking is doing I believe... blurting a bunch of elaborate hypotheses (the multiverse isn't even a theory at this point) and intellect-tickling possibilities to distract our attention from the fact that he simply doesn't know. He's working on it, of course, and I for one am grateful for that. But at the same time he doesn't want to hear "While you do that, we'll just do out thing over here". It's certainly a popularity contest with religion (if not in fact with philosophy in general).

    2. Brian M,

      Thanks for reading! Isn't that what the internet is for, to goof off with while at work?

      Your point gets at a number of themes of my blog, such as Kantian philosophy, cosmicism, and transhumanism. Kant said that we apply the concept of causality only to what we can observe, so it makes no sense to speak of a transcendent cause. And yet we do tend to overextend our concepts in that way. This is why I called the theist's question about the ultimate cause irrational. It's not a scientific question, and thus a merely scientific refutation of theism *always* misses the point. The point is that we do have an irrational side because we're mere mammals. We put our irrational faith in something and the question is what the object of atheistic faith should be.

      So you're right that reality needn't live up to our expectations. This is the heart of Lovecraft's cosmicist philosophy. But the question is how we can live with that cosmicism, or with the idea that the natural universe just is and there's no deeper explanation. Most people live with it by distracting themselves and not thinking about it or informing themselves about it in the first place. But Evan T's induction seems strong: scientists themselves keep digging and usually find a deeper explanation. This process might be endless because maybe we're just spinning our wheels.

      At any rate, most people are not ultrarationalists, like Data from Star Trek or Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory TV comedy. We don't base our beliefs merely on the logic and the evidence, being content with agnosticism when we're in the dark. Instead, we do project fantasies onto the shadows out of fear and our social instinct. Flagrant irrationality pops up somewhere even in the life of the most apparently rational, scientific atheist. The question I like to ask the wannabe rationalist, who chastises the theist for asking a silly question, is whether that so-called rationalist would care to speak candidly about the details of his sex life. Isn't sex at least as silly as theism? And yet scientists and New Atheists are plenty sexual--as well as being merely mammalian in hundreds of other ways. So I tend to see hypocrisy in this sort of rebuke to theistic irrationality.

      But this also raises the question of transhumanism. I've got a guest blog post coming out soon in R. Scott Bakker's blog which goes into transhumanism.

    3. Evan T,

      You may be right about Hawking. If someone like Hawking can suffer from egoism, though, that shows us how powerful our delusions of grandeur can be. Besides the popularity contest with religion, there would also have to be the schadenfreude involved in a physicist's attempt to kick philosophy when it's down.

    4. Anyone can suffer from egoism, and everyone does, even the people who think they're beyond it (and even me, who feels superior to others who don't "get this" while typing it... and most especially for saying "even me").

      But it seems to me that at least some of what you covered presupposes that humans possess some fundamentally supernatural component. If we are in fact nothing more than the natural physical and chemical processes that make up our bodies displaying complex emergent behavior (and that includes your referenced irrational parts of our mind), then we can never hope to answer questions of the SUPERnatural (even so far as to whether it exists), because we can never escape that prison of the physics governing everything we do. Questions of the supernatural would instantly become meaningless.

    5. I agree it's plausible that only a supernatural being could *understand* the supernatural. But as I say in a number of places, such as "From Theism to Cosmicism," no one understands what any transcendent source of nature would be. The point is that we're largely irrational mammals who aren't content with that ignorance, because as Kant implied, we're cursed by reason to keep asking deeper and deeper questions. Instead of *understanding* answers to our ultimate questions, we may be stuck with merely telling stories (myths) in response to them.

      This is where the aesthetic aspect of a coherent worldview comes in. Scientists have their aesthetic criteria for scientific theories, so maybe there are more such criteria for a broader worldview. And maybe something built on existential cosmicism would be aesthetically superior to theistic myths such as the Christian ones.

  5. Evan: I would certainly agree that these "ultimate" questions may indeed be "unanswerable" as they would, to me, require us to somehow transcend "the universe", I believe (vaguely).

    So...the God of the gaps is always there. the problem, of course, is that we are not really arguing against a God of the Gaps but a verys specific, much more defined Semitic Sky God :)

    1. I followed Aboniblog here, too Brian. And I have the same queasiness, if that's the right word, with the argument presented in the original above. In short, it asserts that suspicion of error is enough to validate the god hypothesis, but then retreats immediately afterward to a form of "don't be suspicious of my suspicions."

    2. I don't follow your summary of the article. For starters, the argument doesn't conclude by validating the God hypothesis. The conclusion is just that scientific atheism is insufficient atheism, and the reasoning is that Hawking's case for atheism, for example, goes after a strawman of theism to make science relevant to an argument that there's nothing beyond nature.

    3. It validates doubt about doubt as sufficient for the gaps. I like your work, but this lazy. And Hawking is right. There is nothing beyond nature, since he defines nature precisely as everything which might be known but which is not transcendent. Hawking rejects transcendence, and this seems to be your beef.

    4. Well, rejecting the transcendent by semantic fiat isn't interesting. The conflict in this article isn't between theism and atheism. It does no good at all to say theism is false because there's nothing beyond nature. That just begs the question.

      My question here is whether *science* alone can *show* there's nothing beyond nature, nothing transcendent. That's the question I'm interested in. Hawking says philosophy is dead and then he's forced to philosophize in his case against theism, because science clearly isn't sufficient.

      In this article I'm not arguing for theism and against atheism. Instead, I'm arguing specifically against scientific as opposed to philosophical atheism. I just thought I'd try to clarify that.

  6. What exactly do you mean when you say "Isn't sex at least as silly as theism?"

    Are you poking at the privacy of people's sex life?

    1. Well, I explain what I mean in several writings here, beginning with "Embarrassment by Sexual Ecstasy" (link below). I'm not interested in personally attacking anyone in particular, but I can't ignore the philosophical, existential meaning of sex. In a nutshell, my point about sex's silliness is just that the underlying reason why sex is kept not merely private, but also secret, is that we're embarrassed and horrified by what our sex lives reveal about human nature.

      For more on this, see:

    2. Oh, and one more link:

  7. Thanks, I shall read those essays.

    Since I found your site I have lots of reading to do. :)

  8. I don't think you and Hawking disagree as much as it seems. If God exists outside the physical universe it seems reasonable that no information available from within the universe can prove or disprove God's existance or say anything about God's nature. On the other hand, if God exists outside the physical universe, one must assume that God can't interact with the objects inside the physical universe. If God and the beings inside the physical universe can't interact with each other, then for beings inside the physical universe God is effectively non-existant. This extra-universal God can't hear our prayers, forgive our sins or anything of the kind. Belief in this God is functionally equivalent to atheism. On the other hand, a God whom one supposes to act in the world, such as for example the God of Christianity of of Islam, is clearly within reach of the scientists tools. The claims religious texts make about historical events are in principle falsifiable. The preponderance of the evidence seems to me to suggest that the claims made by organized religions (Jesus died and rose from the dead, Aztec ritual sacrifices caused the rains to fall, the dictatorship of the proletariat etc) are false. Ultimately we believe what works for us and trying to find out the truth behind our most cherished beliefs is just bad manners.

    1. Hawking and I are both atheists, but where we disagree is on whether the question of theism is rationally decidable. Your argument may seem perfectly rational, but in fact it rests on a false dichotomy. The definition of "God" is of a being that's both transcendent and immanent. If God were beyond the physical universe, he couldn't interact with the universe in any natural way, but that's irrelevant, because God is supposed to be supernatural. So if reason tells us only about nature, why should reason apply to such a being? Is a supernatural being impossible? In what sense? Logically impossible (unthinkable by us)? That would be fine, since God's supposed to transcend our mental capacities. Naturally impossible? That would be fine, since God's not supposed to be merely a natural entity.

      The problem with Hawking's scientistic arguments is that they're cheap. They redefine God as something that reason and science more specifically can falsify. They merely change the topic. This is like seeing everything as a nail because your only tool is a hammer. Now, I agree that theism is irrational, but I don't think that's the end of the story, whereas New Atheists often say that once they prove that theism is irrational, their job is done. This assumes we're perfectly rational beings, like Data from Star Trek, whereas science itself shows we're largely irrational (biased and fallacy-mongering) animals. You might think Hawking's an example of a very rational guy, and of course his physics is supremely rational, but his scientistic case against theism is just cheap trick.

      The question for Hawking is the same one that plagues the Vulcan from Star Trek: are they rational enough to acknowledge how fundamentally irrational they are and how limited human reason is? Scientists do acknowledge this when they're doing science, because science is a set of methods for getting around our innate irrationality. Unfortunately, the question of theism is philosophical, so we're forced to fall back on our innate powers of reasoning. Whether God exists isn't decided purely by science; our answer to that question will inevitably be, in part, a work of art. That's what myths are for.