Jun 11, 2010

Stephen Hawking is Wrongburger

I'm sorry guys/gals, but I've gone and read atheist websites again - this time the main culprit was Pharyngula, while I was looking for a story I'd seen at some newspaper/media site. The story was on Stephen Hawking and the highlight for the cats we at this blog like to call the "New Atheist Heroes" was this quote:

"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."

Now, let's think about this, Steve (& PZ, Pharyngula author too. And your homeboys.) Let's think about it with reference to a specific religion, so you can't try a switcheroo if you get nervous and start talking about cargo cults or Wahhabi Islam. Why not, hmmm... Christianity?

You see, Christians could conceivably quite easily claim that this faith of theirs was based on two things (I'll number them just in case): 1) observation (and experience) of Christ's life, death & resurrection. 2) thinking about what this means in the light of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit's continued witness to the Church i.e. reason. So, these two things are, or at least were originally, observation and reason. Funny that. Did you see what I just did there? Yeah, I turned your amazing (-ly flawed) observation around, but also I pretty much completely avoided Christian apologetics. I could have given you a list of reasons that naturalism is not particularly likely but Christian theism is, given the evidence we have at hand; but I didn't need to as your claim is quite easily rebutted by the fact that (while you're not specific about it), you're critiquing religions which have an historical basis which you conveniently ignore.

And it gets better. Because when we come to science, it turns out its foundations maybe aren't so independent or self-sufficient. Science works, you're quite right. Let's ask that scary next question, folks; "why does science work?" Maybe you'll say it's cos it has a good base i.e. in observation & reason. But that's problematic or at least not quite enough to satisfy; for observation & reason do not ground themselves very well. Science, if it is to make any claims to truth or even probability, or to make predictions, must assume certain things about the world. There are various metaphysical assumptions needed for modern science (I've alluded to these in the past on this blog and am likely to continue doing so) e.g. that generally, it is the simplest hypothesis fitting the evidence which is most likely to be true (or have useful predictive ability). An assumption that is far from obvious if you think about it.

And is science devoid of more standard appeals to authority? Ah -no, not really. Science, as it involves the transmission of knowledge, clearly must include appeals to authority in some form or other, a bit like that dodgy old faker, Religion. Ummm, but the claims of Science can, it will be said, all be tested - however, well.. it seems the historical claims of science can't really be tested in this experimental sense. So maybe the central claims of Christianity are a bit like an historical science? Intriguing idea, but not quite right either, as Christianity has quite a lot to do with Jesus Christ - a person, who is active today. But this brings up another field or three; like "theology" and the metaphysics of persons. Topics that I will leave for another post, or multi-volume Magnum Opus perhaps.

I leave the last word to someone who held a chair at Cambridge alongside Dr Hawking for a while, that is, John Polkinghorne; not for a proof, but for relevant questions: from http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=405402

"A lot of my friends in the academic world are both wistful and wary about religion. Wistful because they see that science doesn't tell you all you need to know, but wary because they think religion is ultimately based on submission to authority and signing on the dotted line. They don't want to commit intellectual suicide - and neither do I."
Polkinghorne is the first to admit that there are no knock-down arguments for the truth of religion, although he sees his commitment not as blind faith but as "an existential commitment that goes beyond simple rational motivation, although it builds upon it".
And he argues that "theists explain more than atheists can". He appeals, for example, to "the rational beauty of the world" uncovered by physics: "A lot of physicists, including Einstein, have a sort of cosmic religiosity."
The problem is that such beauty is only revealed to a privileged group of people with the right sort of training and mental ability; the rest of us have to take it on trust. If such "beautiful equations" are indeed pointers to God's existence, Polkinghorne agrees, "it does seem strange to say that's just a bit of luck for the chaps who happen to be good at mathematics".

I (Meta-Eq author) can only say that specialising in a field like physics or in other areas that demonstrate the beauty and order of creation, comes with its own advantages.


  1. one could critique each statement made. think i'll just ask bluntly. do suppose that you are more intelligent that stephen hawking ? an honest question. you don't say so, but i wonder if you would when asked.

  2. nah, I'm pretty useless at maths and such things, which I take to be a sign of high intelligence and which Prof Hawking is clearly quite competent in.

    That said, he's wrong to say that science will 'win' - wrong in multifarious complex ways, which this post begins to pick up on. Christianity actually makes sense of the world and helps to make sense of science - a project which doesn't operate well in a vacuum; including a vacuum devoid of values.