Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Stephen Hawking and the Limits of Genius

There's no doubt that Stephen Hawking is a brilliant physicist. We express SWNIDish doubt that he knows what he's talking about when he moves outside his area of expertise.

Science and Religion Today notes Hawkings's recent remarks to senior mediababe Diane Sawyer on ABC World News (motto: watched in seniors communities throughout America's heartland):

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

Ah, lots of nuance in that characterization! We'll note that (a) religion is too broad a category to characterize simply, as it comprises mutually exclusive faith systems; (b) various "religions" have varying degrees of reliance on authority; (c) the religion to which we adhere--and the only one we think worth defending--has a rather multifaceted basis and a complex relationship to bald "authority"; (d) the scientific community has its own embarrassing reliance on authority, reflected in our willingness to listen to a physicist's ideas about religion; (e) both the Christian (there, we said it out loud) and scientific communities self correct through the use of observation and reason over time.

But there's more! Hawking continues:

What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God. They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.

We urge that if from this remark certain words are changed or omitted, the conclusion, "seems most impossible," becomes "seems most intriguing/coherent/awe-inducing." The changes are:

  • "made": change to "understood" or "conceptualized"; there's no reason to assert that all "religion" (again, too broad a category) is entirely of human creation, even if one wants to do the same for glorious "science," and with similar discounting of the validity of conclusions.
  • "human-like": change to "personal," so as to eliminate all the problematic aspects of humanity and open the possibility that human personhood is a reflection of the divine and not vice versa (in passing we ask Dr. Hawking whether he is fully content that his self-awareness as a person is sufficiently explained as the consequence of natural selection).
  • "accidental": change to "distinctly self-aware," stressing the observable outcome and not assuming the nature of origin, which is the very thing being debated.
So in the end, a big universe with a tiny speck populated with several billions of self-aware and self-destructive human beings on a diverse but complementary quest for truth, love, justice and beauty is amazingly and remarkably explained on the hypothesis of their purposeful creation by a being with a will who is the embodiment of the object of their quest.


Bryan D said...

Vattimo last night at the Gifford lectures actually rebuts Hawking quite nicely: "Are scientists truly revolutionary? Generally they are conservatives. They are too dependent on an accepted body of interpretations to revolt."

ie, Scientists are the authoritarians of modernism in Vattimo's argument. Of course, it's not shockingly original to say so, but relevant nonetheless.

JB in CA said...

Couldn't agree more with SWNID. Unfortunately, too many Christian scientists reflexively side with science against religion at even a hint of conflict between the two. Perhaps if more of them actually spent some of their time reading up on—or at least listening to—well thought-out philosophical reflections on those issues, spokespersons for science (such as Hawking) wouldn't be able to get away with uttering such nonsense.

JB in CA said...

I should be clearer as to what I mean.

All too often, scientists, even Christian scientists, assume that if there is a conflict between a scientific claim and a religious claim, then it is the religious claim that must be revised because, well, it's not science. That reaction is indefensible for at least two reasons: (1) the history of science is the history of the revision of scientific claims, and (2) Christian scientists (as Christians) should be a little more willing to defend the doctrines of the faith, especially (as scientists) in their chosen areas of expertise.

Given 1, it's reasonable to conclude that there are current scientific claims that are false. Assuming, then, that Christianity is true, there will be at least some scientific claims that conflict with it. Of course, we no doubt hold some incorrect beliefs about Christianity too, and science can help us to correct those, but the knee-jerk assumption that religious doctrine must always give way to scientific doctrine is unacceptable.

Christian faith goes beyond praise songs and benevolence. If those who are best equipped to defend the faith, when necessary, against the most powerful social institution of our time fail to do so, then the church may well find itself increasingly marginalized by the major intellectual force shaping our culture.

CDW said...

@JB in CA - Could we have an example of a scientific claim, and not just a philosophical claim by a scientist, that is in conflict with an important Christian belief?

In my experience Christians claim conflict in two major areas: natural history and bioethics. The appearance of conflict in the former area arises from a poor reading of the creation narrative. Real conflicts arise in the latter area when scientists make moral claims that devalue human life, claims that go far beyond the scientific task of constructing falsifiable narratives to explain recurring observed phenomena.

I don't disagree with your recommendations, I just don't see much conflict.

JB in CA said...

Okay, fair enough. How about this?

I know (both personally and otherwise) of a number of Christian biologists who take the neo-Darwinian line on the mechanism of evolutionary development. They agree with the mainstream scientific community that the only factors involved in the evolutionary development of biological species are random mutation, natural selection, and hereditary transmission. Nothing else (except, perhaps, for an initial miracle to get it all started and a few scattered miracles thereafter) is involved. In that respect, they agree with Richard Dawkins (minus the miracles, of course). But, unlike Dawkins, they appear oblivious to the fact that neo-Darwinism is inconsistent with divine creation (either direct or indirect) of the biological order.

Indeed, that inconsistency is no doubt one of the main reasons why Dawkins is so adamant about restricting evolutionary theory to those three factors. Unless some other mechanism is added to the mix, there is no room for divine guidance in the development of new species, including Homo sapiens. True randomness, which is one of the backbones of the theory, is antithetical to any kind of directionality. (Stephen Jay Gould was particularly clear on this point.) It effectively eliminates the possibility of divine guidance from the evolutionary story. No set of initial conditions could make the emergence of the various species (including Homo sapiens) even probable.

But rather than challenging such a theory, the Christian biologists I'm referring to often go out of their way to embrace it and, at the same time, distance themselves from well meaning Christians who (perhaps wrongly) side with the Intelligent Design movement to oppose what they see (correctly) as a scientific theory that conflicts with a basic teaching of Christianity.

The sad irony, here, is that there is a growing body of scientific evidence that challenges the neo-Darwinian paradigm and would, if confirmed, introduce the notion of directionality into modern evolutionary theory, bringing it in line with a fundamental component of the Christian doctrine of creation. (The results of research into convergence and self-organization immediately come to mind, though there are others.) Inexplicably, however, the Christian scientists I'm speaking of all seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude toward that research, while siding (in the meantime) with the neo-Darwinian mainstream against their fellow Christians who object to it.

I understand their hesitance to accept the new research, but that hesitance, coupled with their support of neo-Darwinism and (sometimes caustic) dismissal of their fellow Christians' support of Intelligent Design, leads me to conclude that their "knee-jerk assumption," at least in this area, is that "religious doctrine must always give way to scientific doctrine." Of course, not all Christian scientists are taking this approach (Simon Conway Morris is a notable exception), but if only the ones I'm speaking of are guilty of doing so, that's already far too many.

One last note. This is not intended to be a defense of Intelligent Design (capital "I" and capital "D"). Insofar as ID is a theory, I think it's wrong. But I've actually read the arguments of some of its major proponents before I arrived at that conclusion. By contrast, I know for sure that at least some of the Christian scientists I've been referring to have not, yet they persist in denouncing it and its Christian supporters. That fact alone speaks volumes to me.