In 2010, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking made a statement in his book The Grand Design (co-written by Leonard Mlodinow), which raised quite a few eyebrows:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Of course Richard Dawkins was among the first to welcome this statement, proving once again that his emotionally driven campaign against religion sometimes gets in the way of more rational judgments. Despite the overwhelming availability of objections, I’m still confronted with this issue from time to time, and with some misconceptions surrounding it. So I decided to summarize what I consider the main problems with Hawking’s statement, problems which someone like Dawkins doesn’t seem to consider.
Hawking’s statement implies that we don’t need anything else than a scientific explanation to present our world ‘as it is’. Moreover, it implies that a scientific explanation is the only valuable explanation, the only ‘true’ explanation so to speak.
1. The claim that reality is presented ‘as it is’ only in a scientific explanation can never be proven.
2. If we can never prove that science presents the world ‘as it is’, then the statement that ‘we don’t need God to explain the universe as it is’, cannot be proven either.
Hawking seems to forget that his variation of scientism concerning the origin of our universe is a philosophical position and not a scientific one. One can believe that science eventually reveals the complete and true nature of reality, but this metaphysical claim can never be proven. Moreover:
Scientism, in the strong sense, is the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless. – The Skeptic’s Dictionary.
Maybe an analogy can broaden the discussion.
Applied to the phenomenon of sex, the implicit principle of scientism used by Stephen Hawking might raise the following questions:
1. Does a scientific explanation of sex present you sex ‘as it is’?
2. If so, why don’t we experience the same thrill of sexual intercourse during biology class?
3. Can it be proven that the only ‘real’ and ‘true’ goal of sexual intercourse is the one that’s scientifically revealed by biology?
4. Actually, we know that some things cannot be proven scientifically (e.g. the statement that science eventually tells you all there is to know). Doesn’t this fact show that there’s more to know than science can reveal? Applied to the phenomenon of sex: isn’t there anything more to ‘know’ about sex than what a scientific description can teach us – or any other description for that matter? Isn’t reality ‘as it is’ far more than what we can say about it, scientifically or otherwise? A mystery which transcends us, anywhere, anytime?
No explanation, scientific or otherwise, can ever resolve the mysterious fact “that there is something rather than nothing”, or “that there is something which came to be in such and such a way”.
I can imagine not needing God to practice science… I don’t need God to explain or describe the world (and its origin) scientifically. It’s like I don’t need my brothers to work at school, or to go to bed, or to enjoy a song one of them recorded, or to tie my shoelaces, or to breathe… But if I wanted to love them – specifically them -, I’d need them. By the way, I do, you guys… And if I desired life for a child who died at a very young age, because I experience this as something unjust, I couldn’t count on myself or any other human being to fulfill this desire. I’d need something or someone beyond our human capacities. Well, all I’ve got is a bag of hope, with some other matters of the heart…
For more on the relationship between “faith” and “modern science” as distinguishable spheres, I recommend some articles by Joseph R. Laracy, mainly focusing on Georges Lemaître, a well-known astrophysicist and a Catholic priest who formulated the Big Bang hypothesis. Lemaître refused to mix “matters of science” with “matters of faith” and claimed he could not say anything about “God as creator (or not)” from a scientific point of view.
TO READ THE ARTICLES BY JOSEPH R. LARACY, CLICK THE FOLLOWING:
– Priestly Contributions to Modern Science: The Case of Monsignor Georges Lemaître (pdf)
– Christianity and Science: Confronting Challenges to Faith and Reason in the Histrory of Philosophy and Theology
I do find the argument unconvincing. If I am missing some subtlety in Hawking’s approach, well then so be it.
What a timely article, Eric. These are exactly the things I’ve been thinking about lately and I just posted an article on a similar vein. I’m not saying Hawking is a psychopath, but I will say that this one-sided perception of the universe, which dismisses feeling and emotions, is narcissism. And narcissism is the basis for psychopathy.
If the essence of the universe could ever be comprehended by a human being, it wouldn’t be comprehended by ignoring one half of our existence: the emotional experience of connecting with other human beings and with God.
I’m very curious for your article and I will gladly read it. Would you think Hawking is a narcissist, any more than you or I :)? Anyway, I think his statement is not only about ignoring emotional valuations of the universe. It also seems to ignore the fact that rationality cannot be reduced to scientific rationality. Indeed, you’re right to point out that this particular statement is based on a one-sided perception of the universe.
Erik, thanks for visiting my site, but you didn’t read the article that pertains to your Hawking article. It’s here:
In part, it addresses why you and “Allallt” can’t agree. Our beliefs and our knowledge don’t necessarily have to align. Beliefs are based on what you “feel” to be true and knowledge is simply what you have evidence of. The human mind cannot “know” everything, it acknowledges that. So it uses a sense of “what feels true” to fill in the gaps. That is, for most people. Psychopaths are lopsided because they have no “sensations” of anything. The reason for this is because they have suppressed most of their sensations, gut feelings, startle response, etc… . They don’t want to feel, so they don’t. Without emotions, they can’t bond, they can’t “feel” the presence of God or communion with humanity.
For example, I read a true story about feeling versus knowing:
A man with a head injury was in the hospital when his mother came to visit. He was convinced that she was not his mother, but an imposter. The reason for this was because the injury occurred in part of the brain that processes emotions. It damaged the part where he would experience love for his mother. Without the sensation of love toward her, he became convinced that it wasn’t really her. Well, this was explained to him so that he understood very well EXACTLY why he didn’t feel love for her and EXACTLY why this made him believe she was an imposter. But you know what? He STILL thought she was an imposter. Nothing could make him believe otherwise.
If this man who had known his mother all his life and could see her standing before him, was more affected in his beliefs by what he FELT rather than what he KNEW, then how much more difficult will it be for you to persuade a person to your point of view, if you can’t even present any evidence? Your logic is just that, logic. Logic is not persuasive. Feelings are.
Psychopaths, though they cannot feel anything (actually BECAUSE they cannot feel anything), are hyperaware of just how much normal humans respond to emotions. These con men don’t use rational persuasive arguments to connive people, they appeal strictly to your emotions -even more effective if disguised as rational arguments, but they are emotional appeals all the same. Unless you know how a con man works, it is very unlikely that you will not be convinced of whatever they want you to believe. Of course, they study you first, so they know what you already believe and they launch their assault to land squarely on your values and beliefs.
You asked if I thought that Stephen Hawking was more narcissistic than you or I. I’ve never met him. My point is that narcissism is a state of being emotionally arrested although the intellect may have flourished. When a person leans heavily toward knowing rather than feeling – as is my tendency – then the emotional potential might be neglected but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he “never grew up”. He may be very evolved in both ways, but leaning toward the intellectual way of knowing. They are like two legs, both need to be exercised so we don’t limp.
Fascinating. Especially the story about the man with the head injury. I must admit I’ve shied away from using the words “emotion” and “feeling” to talk about God, only because emotions and feelings often are not considered “real” arguments. Maybe they’re indeed not “arguments”. Reality, experienced and lived, is what it is… Sometimes arguments even get in the way. I mean, in trying to testify of the hope and grace and love I’ve experienced in my faith, I sometimes find myself talking so much about it that it becomes some kind of intellectual, apologetic discourse. In the end, I always realize I “have to let go”. Trying to convince people that an encounter with Christ, for example, is worthwile can even get in the way of that encounter itself. It’s the pitfall for the teacher, the pitfall of my passion. How do you open closed doors? By being “open” yourself. But then there’s this strange mimetic tendency in trying to open what’s closed by becoming “stubborn”, i.e. “closed”, oneself. And that’s no way of handing over a gift. The greatest experience is the gift being received, so it really becomes a gift. But from what I’ve learned so far, that’s not entirely in our hands. Through it all, though, connections are made, relationships established, fragile as they are…
Maybe I’ll have to listen more, still more, to what I feel.
Thanks for reminding me of the “other leg”.
Firstly, you seem to have confused Hawking’s claim to have removed the necessity of God with Hawking claiming God does not exist. Obviously, this is a mistake. From a theological standpoint all the book ever does is falsifies the Cosmological Argument for God.
To reword it once more – in the hope that it becomes clear – the book argues that the creation of a universe does not necessitate a God.
What this therefore means is that Hawking does not make the metaphysical claim that a God does not exist, just the physical claim that the universe’s creation does not need to invoke a metaphysical claim.
(Incidentally, I have read the book and it says very little about God at all, simply that He has been a hypothesis that normally fails. But even this doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, just that God has no practically explanatory power.)
Your criticism of “scientism” makes sense on only the most superficial understanding of science and its assumptions. Science must make certain assumptions in order to function i.e. that the universe exists and that it is intelligible.
This assumption is constantly vindicated by finding patterns in reality, but we can’t overlook the possibility that all of science is a useful fiction representing a contrived illusion of a stable reality.
The same can be said of “empiricism” (which you don’t mention, but is the better philosophical description), it is vindicated by its repeated discoveries of repeatable patterns and “truths” (or useful fictions).
Lastly, I think your sex analogy is a little misleading: knowledge is different from ontology is different from experience. But perhaps I missed something.
Thanks for your reaction. I’d like to address some of the issues you mention:
You say that Hawking makes
“just the physical claim that the universe’s creation does not need to invoke a metaphysical claim…”
My question remains: can you prove that a physical claim concerning the origin of our universe explains everything there is to know about that origin? If you can, I will agree with Hawking’s statement. The idea that he “falsifies the Cosmological Argument for God” is based on wrong assumptions concerning the philosophical nature of that argument and of the relationship between modern science and philosophy.
Of course I agree with Hawking that God or the idea of God is not needed to practice modern science. God is not needed to explain the universe scientifically. But the claim that “science makes God unnecessary” overall on the issue of “the origin of the universe”, should not be presented as a scientific one. Hawking – or any other great mind for that matter – can never prove that a scientific explanation of any kind is the “full” explanation.
Debates like these always remind me of what Georges Lemaître pointed out about the limits of science. As you may know, Lemaître was a Catholic priest and a great scientist who became known for the “Big Bang” hypothesis. The following fragments are from an article by Joseph R. Laracy for Homiletic & Pastoral Review/Ignatius Press (see CatholicCulture.org):
Lemaître always differentiated between religious and scientific ‘levels of cognition’ or ‘orders of reasoning.’ This can clearly be seen in his opposition to mixing physical and theological ‘levels’ in the Big Bang hypothesis:
“We may speak of this event as of a beginning. I do not say a creation. Physically it is a beginning in the sense that if something happened before, it has no observable influence on the behavior of our universe, as any feature of matter before this beginning has been completely lost by the extreme contraction at the theoretical zero. Any preexistence of the universe has a metaphysical character. Physically, everything happens as if the theoretical zero was really a beginning. The question if it was really a beginning or rather a creation, something started from nothing, is a philosophical question which cannot be settled by physical or astronomical considerations.”
In Lemaître’s thinking, “God cannot be reduced to the role of a scientific hypothesis.” Despite this, Lemaître goes on to say, “It does not mean that cosmology has no meaning for philosophy. Philosophy and theology, when kept in isolation from scientific thought, either change into an outdated self-enclosed system, or become a dangerous ideology.”
Monsignor Lemaître preferred the natural beginning of the universe compared to the ‘external push’ that Pascal and Laplace used to incorporate God into creation. Specifically, he preferred the Savior mentioned in Isaiah because “even though he is hidden, you can still know him.”
I did understand Hawking’s statement as it is. I know he didn’t claim that “God doesn’t exist”. My criticism was aimed at the nature of his claim and the way it is presented. Thanks anyway for your elaboration on “scientism” and “empiricism” (which is not quite the same) and for pointing out (once again) the metaphysical nature of the assumptions every scientific effort depends on.
You seem to understand my sex analogy very well: scientific knowledge is indeed different from ontological considerations and is different from (personal) experience. To use science to make ontological statements (for instance, about the ultimate nature of our universe), is to misrepresent the possibilities of its endeavours.
I apologise for my very long reply, but there are only subtle nuances to discuss here, so far that I can see.
If science can describe a sound and valid explanation of anything that is entirely natural then God – by virtue of being supernatural – is not a necessary component of the process. That is all Hawking is saying (it might not be all he is thinking, but it is all he’s presenting).
It doesn’t even say God was not a part of the process, just that it’s not necessarily true. In fact, from a scientific point of view all he is saying is that the old hypothesis that the Catholic Church presented him with – that God is the necessary creator of the universe – is worthy of challenging.
I challenge you to give me the claim Hawking and Mlodinow make is not supported.
The question of whether or not we know everything there is to know about an issue is not one that is easy to answer. Indeed, I can’t answer it. But I can concede that science does not think it has learned everything that there is to learn, else it would have stopped.
However, your question is of-the-gaps. If you ask whether Stephen Hawking has come to understand enough about the universe to know God is unnecessary, then the answer is yes. Does this actually exclude God from the process? No, it simply says there is an entirely natural option. If not all options include a God, then God is not necessary.
If you are going to continue to believe that God is a part of the process until He is actively proven not to be part of the process then this is the basis of ‘of-the-gaps’ reasoning. (Also, you should read Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing. I haven’t read it yet, but apparently it is exactly that claim – that it must have been a natural event, and by definition without God – that Krauss deals with.)
All arguments like the Cosmological argument (syllogisms) have to be both valid (this is the purely philosophical and logic character that depends on the argument’s structure) and sound (soundness refers back to what is true, where science can have an input). So science can falsify a philosophical argument. And the idea that the universe necessarily depends on a supernatural first-mover is exactly the idea that Hawking and Mlodinow (and Krauss) falsify. But, again, as I can never over-state this, it is only the word “necessarily” that they have falsified.
Does this mean there is no God? No. Does this mean God is not necessary anywhere? No.
I am an atheist, so I remain unconvinced that God is necessary in anything. But Hawking doesn’t touch on God’s role in evolution, for example, or morality, or the existence of a greater multiverse (where a force such as gravity may not even exist). And Krauss opens up a new realm of quantum field potential that God could exist in, a pre-Big Bang existence (although, against, to insist it is rational to believe God is there is of-the-gaps again).
It is just that moment, that process, that took a hyper dense state and expanded it into the universe now that Hawking says God didn’t need to be a part of.
The same way I know God didn’t write this reply (because I did), and that I know God didn’t build my house, Hawking is trying to show us how we can know God didn’t create the universe either.
“However, your question is of-the-gaps.”
Actually, it’s not. Even if science would eventually – in some far away future – be able to explain everything that’s within its reach, it would still not have answered all questions. Like, for instance – I’m repeating myself here – the question whether the scientific explanation of everything there is, “explains everything”. Or the question why there is a universe which can be scientifically explained. These questions are, by principle, not answerable by science.
“Hawking is trying to show us how we can know God didn’t create the universe either…”
And we can know this because God is not necessary to explain the origin of the natural universe scientifically? I’m sorry, but that’s not very convincing.
The Catholic claim “that God is the necessary creator of the universe” is not a scientific claim; it’s a claim from within the realm of faith. The question then, is what you mean by “creator” and “universe” – is it the universe as it is observable by science? The answer is: no. It’s like you can’t prove that there is or is not something like “sin” or “salvation”. You can’t prove or know there is or is not a creator.
George Coyne, astronomer and priest, about the misconception that thinking about “God as a creator” is like thinking about a “God of the gaps”:
“Most of the scientists I know who are atheists are deeply respectful of human faith. The ones that aren’t don’t understand it. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who wrote A Brief History of Time (Bantam), are both eminent scientists. But they don’t understand what religious faith is. I’ve had conversations with both, and I’ve said that to them. They respect me because they realize that I’m an objective, working scientist just as they are.
Stephen Hawking’s concept of God is that God is something we need to explain parts of the universe we don’t understand. I tell him, “Stephen, I’m sorry, but God is a God of love. He’s not a being I haul in to explain things when I can’t explain them myself.”
For the full interview, click here.
Coyne’s quote at the end is basically my point.
Let’s not overlook that Dawkins and Hawking both address the definition of a God that some people have genuine faith in.
By saying that God isn’t necessary in the creation of the universe, which is all Hawking did say, Hawking does nothing to address the issue of a God of love or any other God.
As for your questions on the limitations of science, fine. But consider this: anything an individual can know with good reason can be known by science. Anything else is guess work.
If God is an idea about an entity that is supposed to be supernatural (this implies the idea of God as “creator”), science cannot say anything about it – since science is concerned with the natural or physical world. Why should a misunderstanding about the nature of theological claims imply a misunderstanding about the nature of scientific claims?
The theological idea of “revelation” exactly presupposes the idea that we can’t know anything about a supernatural realm, unless this realm makes itself known – one way or another – in our “natural” world. I realize the idea of revelation is highly problematic, also from a philosophical point of view.
I’m not sure about your statement that “anything an individual can know with good reason can be known by science”. Is it reasonable to choose “good” instead of “evil”? I guess this can be rationally argued. Can it be known by science what is “good” and what is “evil”? Of course one can scientifically explain why something is called good or evil, and one can scientifically “prove” that something is good or evil depending on certain criteria. But the criteria themselves are to be accepted, without science being able to prove that they should be accepted – or without science being able to “know” that criteria to decide between good or evil (whatever they might be) should be accepted. Science is an important means to gain knowledge – the way its results should be applied is a philosophical question (e.g. should we build more atomic bombs or more nuclear power plants?).
You say: “By saying that God isn’t necessary in the creation of the universe, which is all Hawking did say, Hawking does nothing to address the issue of a God of love or any other God.”
Exactly where I don’t agree. All Hawking can say is that, from a scientific point of view, God isn’t necessary in the creation of the universe. Claims about a supernatural realm can never be scientific. They can be rational, though (like: if you believe in a God of love, what does it mean then that “there’s a divine love which creates”?), but never falsifiable. And of course, from a purely scientific point of view, such claims are not necessary. But then again, it’s up to each individual to decide whether he believes only scientific claims are meaningful – this is problematic, since such a belief is either meaningless or false… And we’re right back where we started.
When it comes to good and evil the criteria are not to be accepted, they are to be defined.
If we take morality, for example, (as Sam Harris does) and we define “moral good” as the things that improve well being, and “moral bad” as the things that deepen human suffering (and “moral evil” as the things that greatly deepen human suffering), then we can know scientifically whether a thing is morally good, bad or evil through fMRI and CT scanners (at least in principle).
If you don’t accept those definitions, you still have to provide some definitions for good and evil.
If you say moral goods are what you ought to do, then you still haven’t provided any criteria. If you say it’s what you ought to do according to God then we have a document we can compare actions to and still have an objective answer (and it would be a science in the same way that sociology is a science).
So, although I note that you are cynical that anything that can be known with good reason can be known by science, and I note you may have an objection in principle, I don’t think there is a real example to the contrary.
The physical world, for example, is obviously known to us. And it can obviously be known to science. If you know of some strange animal that lives in a pond near you – and you know of it for good reason, like having seen it – then in principle it can be known to science as well.
However, things like God are not known to people for good reason. He doesn’t write messages in the sky, or give people knowledge beyond their means, or heal amputees. God is not obliged to do any of these things, admittedly. But if God did do some of these things then some people would be able to know God for a good reason, and science would also be able to know it.
What I am saying, in a short hand way, is that when things manifest in reality science has the potential to learn about them.
One of the places many people were increasingly hopeful of seeing God having manifest in reality was in the origins of the universe; science didn’t find Him.
How do you know God? I suspect the answer is “faith” and faith is not a good reason.
God can be purged from certain areas of the physical world by simply knowing the natural explanation: think about God’s role in the seasons, harvests, sun rising and setting. We understand now that these things are mechanistic. It’s not that science makes a claim about God, it’s that the God hypothesis gets buffed out of the way. All that happened in The Grand Design is that Hawking outright said it. The hypothesis that God was necessary was indeed wrong.
I do not believe, by the way, that science is the only route to knowledge. I believe philosophy and logic are great tools for knowledge.
But most logical arguments will depend on some level of empirical truth, and I’m yet to see even a philosophical argument devoid of scientific knowledge – arguments like the Ontological Argument for God – that is actually both sound and valid (consider this a challenge if you wish).
Okay, we’re expanding the discussion here.
1. This statement of yours is misleading: “When it comes to good and evil the criteria are not to be accepted, they are to be defined.”
Definitions are accepted, or they are not. It boils down to the same thing.
2. About a second statement of yours: “… we define “moral good” as the things that improve well being…”
What are the criteria that improve “well being”? What is “well being”? Can I “know” this? Can we, ultimately, do anything else than merely accept certain criteria that define “well being”? Can it be proven that we should accept certain criteria, instead of other? The answer is: no.
“How do you know God? I suspect the answer is “faith” and faith is not a good reason.”
Can you prove that “faith” is not a good reason?
But let me expand here. In John’s epistles (admittedly human phenomena) God is called – is defined as – “love”. “God is love”. Now, can “love” be known “for a good reason”? Can it be known, described or explained “scientifically”? The answer is: yes. Can it be known in its distinguishable features (as friendship, passionate love, love for one’s neigbour, etc.)? The answer is: yes. Can it be described as to what it does, what its consequences are, what happens when you take love for one’s neighbour as a guiding principle for your existence etc.? The answer is: yes. Can it be proven that love is divine? The answer is: no. That’s a claim you accept or that you don’t accept “in faith”, like – in a similar way – you accept certain criteria to define “well being” (to judge whether something is morally good or not). To accept “scientifically observable” criteria to make moral judgments is, in the end, also a matter of faith – it cannot be proven that you should accept those criteria and no other.
3. A third statement of yours: “One of the places many people were increasingly hopeful of seeing God having manifest in reality was in the origins of the universe; science didn’t find Him.”
We’re talking passed each other here. Certain claims about God as a creator made sense within the framework of a medieval or classical cosmology. This cosmology is clearly outdated, and cannot be called scientific, judging from the criteria which define our understanding of modern science. How can you answer questions about God as a creator that made sense within the framework of an outdated, “metaphysical” cosmology by applying the criteria of a modern, “scientific” cosmology? A medieval cosmology doesn’t make sense any more, hence also certain claims about God as a creator from within that framework. To think of God as a creator today – considering the framework of a modern cosmology – clearly is not a scientific endeavour, whereas it was considered a “scientific” endeavour during the Middle Ages (because of the metaphysical nature of what was considered science). Your statement that “science didn’t find God” is self-evident, because modern science is concerned mainly with making falsifiable claims about the physical world. Science was something else in the Middle Ages. Modern science can, for example, observe and explain the reality of “love”, it cannot observe a supposedly “divine nature” of love.
To conclude by way of analogy: the sense of a statement like “I’ve got butterflies in my stomach” cannot be known if you expect that the word “butterfly” in this context means something like in the sentence “caterpillars turn into butterflies”. Your brief reference to mythology lacks the same kind of attention to historical and literary context as your implied mixture of two different types of cosmology. “Meaning is use”, as Wittgenstein would have it. That’s why mythology speaks of “truth”, other than the scientific truth, but true nevertheless.
For more on this: https://erikbuys.wordpress.com/2011/08/25/religulous-atheism/
Or try this and click here, expanding basically on the unsustainability of “scientism”.
For the moral point, I actually gave two sets of criteria, I see the theistic one was no good to you. Why should we accept the wellbeing definitions I gave?
“Meaning is use”; that is the definition people approximate to when asked. Whether or not we should care about morality defined this way is the actual question I think you’re trying to tend towards, and the answer is down to philosophy undoubtedly. But the actual goodness or badness of an action, on this definition, is objectively (and scientifically) knowable. But I’m not sure the moral arguments are strictly necessary here.
Can we know love inside out physically and poetically? Yes (I agree). But claims like “love is divine” and “God is love” are meaningless (no, really. What do they mean?) We know what love is personally, chemically and socially. Where does God come from in all of this?
Faith is not a good reason because faith is to be without reason. If you had reason it wouldn’t be faith, it would be a reasoned belief.
As for faith, I have faith in the universe existing. And that’s it for science. I think science can describe reality. And I think science can inform us on how to achieve certain things (like increasing the well being of people) but whether or not I value these things is my personal philosophy; I could equally value Christian theodicy over morality as I’ve defined it and decide killing homosexuals was a better thing. I would simply be valuing theodicy over morality. But both theodicy and morality could be scientifically described.
Okay, so old claims about God made sense. Now the old claims don’t make sense and new claims have been invented. God has adapted and mutilated until He has become hidden away from scientific scrutiny.
So here’s my main point: if God manifests in reality He is knowable to science. If He does not, how do you know anything of Him (especially big claims, like He exists)?
1. “I actually gave two sets of criteria, I see the theistic one was no good to you.”
Your idea of the theistic criteria is not my idea. Theistic moral criteria also aim at improving well being, although “well being” would be defined in another way. “We have a document”, certainly, but from which moral criteria cannot be derived directly.
2. “Okay, so old claims about God made sense. Now the old claims don’t make sense and new claims have been invented.”
Actually, the old claims still make sense, provided you are willing to take into consideration the particular context they were stated in. That was my point at the end by way of analogy.
3. “But the actual goodness or badness of an action, on this definition, is objectively (and scientifically) knowable.”
I get the impression you’re avoiding my point. “On this definition”: exactly. Can I know this definition of what’s moral is the “right” definition? It seems I can merely believe it. Do we need morality? Only from certain, philosophical and rational points of view. Morality is not unreasonable in this sense.
Nevertheless: I can scientifically describe what is considered “moral”. I can’t prove or know, though, that this reality is “moral”. I can only believe it.
“God is love”. Can I know this definition of God is the “right” definition? It seems I can merely believe it. Do we need God? Only from certain, philosophical and rational points of view. Belief in God is not unreasonable in this sense.
Nevertheless: I can scientifically describe what is considered “God”. I can’t prove or know, though, that this reality is “divine”. I can only believe it.
4. “So here’s my main point: if God manifests in reality He is knowable to science. If He does not, how do you know anything of Him (especially big claims, like He exists)?”
You don’t know that a certain reality is divine, like you don’t know that a certain reality is moral. You believe this. Once you believe that “God is love”, for example, and that God makes “Himself or Herself or whatever” known in the dynamic of love, you believe that loving your neighbour (biblically it’s indeed about agapè distinguished from, but not opposed to, other forms of love) is a participation in a dynamic which transcends the purely human domain. The possibility to love is “always there”, without any decision on our behalf. Of course we are able to ignore this possibility. From the point of view of the main Christian traditions, to love means “to let go”, it doesn’t mean “to have total control over”… etc. It’s also a reality that cannot be “enforced” by a system of punishments and rewards (“hell and heaven” in this sense – heaven as the ultimate goal then, not as an unexpected and unsolicited consequence of our actions). It’s “grace”. In short, there’s a “rationality of agapè”. Moreover, agapè is scientifically describable.
However, to believe that God is love (which means you’re talking about an essentially relational being – the idea of the ‘trinity’ tries to express this) also means that God cannot be reduced to what’s scientifically observable of love. To use an analogy (once more): no description of a person – scientific or otherwise – can give you the “essence” of a person; the person “as he is” or “the complete” person. Of course we have the tendency to “label”…
Anyway, it cannot be proven or known whether or not God exists – this is not a scientific claim -, but once you believe that God manifests “Himself” in love, certain things can be said, also scientifically, while one should keep in mind that no description is ever sufficient to “grasp” the fullness of this once again mysterious “given”.
Decisions you make affect the wellbeing of a person. Wellbeing is physically measurable. The action that has an effect on people’s wellbeing can be described as morally good or bad*. There are two points to be made about this:
1) You don’t have to think morality is worthwhile. You can favour hedonism or capitalism over morality. Science cannot inform your philosophy. But it can inform morality itself.
2) This definition of morality has a physical basis from which morality is emergent.
Point 1 is our point of agreement; there is evidently still a place for philosophy, and an important one.
Point 2 is that in morality–the analogy we’ve been using–there is a physical basis.
You have no physical basis for a God. Just some strange definition – “God is love” – and talk of a relationship.
No, you don’t grasp the essence of a person by knowing every physical thing that there is to know. But the point is that there are physical things to know that an ‘essence’ emerges from.
Everything we know about follows that pattern; it is either physical or grows out of something physical**.
Except God, apparently. And I’m supposed to accept this case of special pleading on definition?
*again, if you prefer some other definition of morality the same pattern still emerges. Any definition of morality still comes back to something physical eventually.
** admittedly, my use of the word “physical” is a little dumbed down. Quantum mechanics means the more reliable way of discussing this is as “a duality”. Although technically more accurate, I think the word confuses the sentence.
I don’t know whether perhaps you will find these interesting:
I agree mostly with what you’re saying. But there are unsolved problems concerning your definition of morality (based on Harris) – or I’m not getting it:
1. What’s the physical basis for your definition of morality? You observe/measure something (more wellbeing), and you call it moral, I agree. But where do you observe that this “is” moral – more than an “agreement” about what’s moral?
2. Who says hedonism or capitalism (as phenomena you seem to oppose against “morality”) are immoral? Maybe they’re “moral” if we agree on another definition of morality, and this morality can also be measured.
3. What if the wellbeing of one person clashes with the wellbeing of another? Should we choose, perhaps, the wellbeing of a ‘majority’? On what basis?
What’s the difference between calling something moral and calling something divine, if what’s called moral or divine can be observed (partly) scientifically? What’s the difference between those two kinds of ‘agreements’?
By the way, thinking of “God as love” is not my personal idea. In that sense, it’s not strange at all. For more, click here.
Thanks for the links. I’ll look into it.
As an analogy for the value of science the only point I wish to make about morality is that morality emerges out of a physical world. This is still true if we confuse the definitions of capitalism, hedonism and morality. With Harris’ specific Moral Landscape example the physical reality you measure is the brain-state of a human being (and this can be done in CT and fMRI scanners). I recommend reading The Moral Landscape if you’ve found this bit of the discussion interesting.
As for the difference between “moral” and “divine”–could you not just call “moral” things “divine”?–you could make that confusion but all it acts to do is remove the metaphysical part of ‘divinity’.
It is personal philosophy that puts these things in priority order. And how we go about enforcing these philosophical judgements is not a question for science. I accept that. The point was that science can draw out this moral landscape, and we can use that to help us be moral (by this generally uncontentious definition) if we want it to.
I know “God is love” is not your idea and that it’s quite popular. But unlike other truisms–“a circle is round”, “a square has four sides”–the ‘truism’ “God is love” is meaningless.
Something is known about love; the brain states, the way memories get formed, the involved chemicals and hormones. All of these are known in the physical world. Socially and personally we know the effect these things can have on a person: infatuation, self-sacrifice etc.
If God is love, and love is a specific brain state and certain chemicals that have a detailed, well-documented effect on psychology, then it follows that God is not anything metaphysical at all. In fact God “is a specific brain state and certain chemicals that have a detailed, well-documented effect on psychology”. This is not what you mean.
See, Harris’ morality emerges out of a physical world, and whether or not you care is down to philosophy. God does not emerge out of a physical world and is still, apparently, an ontological truth. These are not actually analogous.
Obviously without your specific definition of a God I run the risk of straw manning the argument here, but it seems that there is not analogous existential truth to that of God. God is a type of existence unknown to us, conceptually indistinguishable from non-existence.
And this is my point: the fact that you feel confident in making any claims is strange to me. And science may not ever be able to say “there is not metaphysical existence” but we can point to where metaphysics are not.
Hawking–to get back to the original point–is justified in saying God is not needed for the spontaneous creation.
Your statement, once again:
1. “I know “God is love” is not your idea and that it’s quite popular. But unlike other truisms – ”a circle is round”, “a square has four sides” – the ‘truism’ “God is love” is meaningless.”
Could you please explain why the truism “Moral is that which promotes wellbeing” has more meaning than the truism “God is love”?
What can be said, scientifically, about “the promotion of wellbeing”, about “love” or about “the origin of the universe” is what can be said scientifically.
Scientifically, it is indeed not necessary to call the promotion of wellbeing “moral”, or to call love “divine”, or to consider the universe as a “creation” (by a creator).
Things to consider (especially since you’re referring to Sam Harris):
It can be observed that people consider certain things as moral. It can even be scientifically explained why people consider certain things as moral. All science can do is observe that certain things are considered (or believed to be) moral, it cannot observe that there is “good” or “bad” in the universe – only that certain things are believed to be good or bad.
It can be observed that people consider certain things as divine. It can even be scientifically explained why people consider certain things as divine. All science can do is observe that certain things are considered (or believed to be) divine, it cannot observe that there is a God – only that certain things are believed to be divine.
2. “but we can point to where metaphysics are not”
It’s not because you’ve described something scientifically that you have answered the question whether or not this reality also points to a metaphysical realm. By the way, your reference to the reality of “love” seems to be a reference to what the Christian tradition would call “eros” (empathy and enmity, forms of auto- and hetero- agression, self-sacrifice and sacrifice of others, etc.).
Hawking is justified in saying God is not needed for the spontaneous beginning of the universe, from a scientific point of view. The claim that he can say more than that, is a claim for scientism.
When this conversation started you were exaggerating what Hawking had said and then accused him of scientism.
All I attempted to do was to explain why that was dishonest.
As for “morality is decisions that alter wellbeing” being more meaningful than “God is love”, it’s not. They are as meaningful as each other, but only if we don’t assume any meaning to the words.
The problem is the actual definition. Love (all types of love) emerge in the brain in the way I described. This is not what you mean when you say “God”. Your ‘truism’ “God is love” is meaningless because the definition for love is NOT what you think the definition of God is. Love is physical – it manifests physically – and occurs in the brain/mind (depending on your exact definition: the event/experience respectively). God is NON-physical.
Non-physical is physical? Do you see why this is not a sound truism?
Now, time for me to admit the mistake I have made. I’ve been running off of an exclusionary principle; if a physical explanation prevails then there are no metaphysics there. That is over stepping what I can sincerely know: when a physical explanation prevails then a metaphysical explanation is not necessary. But not being necessary does not exclude it from existence. My bad.
The problem is that even this is all Hawking said. God is not necessary. That is a physical claim: a physical explanation suffices. Therefore superfluous (i.e. metaphysics) claims are superfluous. That doesn’t exclude them from existence, it just makes them superfluous.
What of that do you actually take contention with?
I didn’t exaggerate, I think. This is from Hawking’s statement:
“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
As if a scientific explanation can claim it’s the only possible answer to the question why we exist. That’s not a scientific claim. It’s like “knowing” that the ultimate goal of life is to “reproduce” or to take part in a “survival of the species”. That something like this might be the goal from a scientific point of view, well alright, and that there’s nothing else necessary to explain why we do what we do from that point of view, okay – but that’s it.
1. “Therefore superfluous (i.e. metaphysics) claims are superfluous.”
Yeah, okay, I accept that. From a biological, evolutionary point of view, certain claims about the goal of life are equally superfluous. I can live with that, of course.
2. “Love (all types of love) emerge in the brain in the way I described.”
The thing is: our brain has the capacity to develop “love”. But this capacity is “activated” or it’s not during the encounter with others. So my own brain is not sufficient to develop love. In other words, love doesn’t simply emerge in the brain, but in the eventual encounter of this “brain” with others. Of course science can observe what happens physically. It can explain how we developed this capacity, what its biological pros and cons are, etc. It can make all kinds of statements of what’s physically observable. But the statement that love (with a certain ordering of types of love) is a way to experience part of a reality which transcends the purely human realm, is not physically observable, and is indeed superfluous from a scientific point of view.
I’m not saying that what’s not observable can be observed. I’m not saying that what’s non-physical is physical. Sure love is a physical reality. The claim that there’s also a “perfect version” of this reality – so to speak -, is not physically observable, and belongs to the metaphysical realm.
One can believe that the ultimate goal of the whole of human experience lies in the fulfillment of the reality of love, something which cannot be ‘known’…
I’m saying that the capacity to love becomes observable only during an encounter with others, and that I didn’t create this capacity, nor the enounter, nor the others “myself”. I know this. Science can only explain “what’s already there”, it can’t explain the mystery that “there is something (which originated and evolved in such and such a way) rather than nothing”. In short, science cannot know or observe if what it has to say about the “goal” or “reason” of reality is indeed the “ultimate” goal of reality. Claims about the ultimate goal of reality (whether or not you limit those claims to what’s scientifically observable) are metaphysical claims. They are indeed superfluous from a scientific point of view.
Following a priest like Lemaître, science doesn’t need God. Period. This doesn’t mean “God” isn’t necessary at all – Lemaître says God is necessary from the perspective of “salvation”, for people who believe there is something like salvation, and who believe they (or the world in general) need to be rescued.
But then again, is there anything at all really “needed” or “necessary”? Why do we need science? To cure people, sure. To build weapons, sure. What is considered necessary all depends on certain criteria, on what people find important – criteria which are themselves not absolutely necessary, and so on…
Your statement: “See, Harris’ morality emerges out of a physical world, and whether or not you care is down to philosophy. God does not emerge out of a physical world and is still, apparently, an ontological truth. These are not actually analogous.”
WHAT CHRISTIANS CALL “AGAPE” (A CERTAIN KIND OF LOVE) EMERGES OUT OF A PHYSICAL WORLD. TO CALL THIS DYNAMIC “DIVINE” IS A MATTER OF FAITH/PHILOSOPHICAL POSITIONING – OR A MATTER OF OBSERVATION IN THE SENSE THAT IT CAN BE OBSERVED THAT “CERTAIN PEOPLE CONSIDER THIS DIVINE”. [This is not the same as “God or Love can be reduced to what is knowable and observable by science”!!!]
WHAT SAM HARRIS CALLS “WELL-BEING” EMERGES OUT OF A PHYSICAL WORLD. TO CALL THIS “MORAL” IS A MATTER OF FAITH/PHILOSOPHICAL POSITIONING – OR A MATTER OF OBSERVATION IN THE SENSE THAT IT CAN BE OBSERVED THAT “CERTAIN PEOPLE CONSIDER THIS MORAL”.
So, what do you mean: “not actually analogous”?
More on Sam Harris and the basic flaws in his The Moral Landscape: click here for a very good, to the point, review.
See these quotes from page 2 of the review:
“Harris’s view that morality concerns the maximization of well-being of conscious creatures doesn’t follow from science. What experiment or body of scientific theory yielded such a conclusion? Clearly, none. Harris’s view of the good is undeniably appealing but it has nothing whatever to do with science. It is, as he later concedes, a philosophical position. (Near the close of The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that we can’t always draw a sharp line between science and philosophy. But it’s unclear how this is supposed to help his case. If there’s no clear line between science and philosophy, why are we supposed to get so excited about a science of morality? After all, no one ever said there couldn’t be a philosophy of morality.)”
“Of course science can help us reach some end once we’ve decided what that end is. That’s why we have medicine, engineering, economics, and all the other applied sciences in the first place. But this has nothing to do with blurring the is/ought distinction or overcoming traditional qualms about a science of morality. If you’ve decided that the ultimate value is living a long life (“one ought to live as long as possible”), medical science can help (“you ought to exercise”). But medical science can’t show that the ultimate value is living a long life. Much of The Moral Landscape is an extended exercise in confusing these two senses of ought.
Despite Harris’s bravado about “how science can determine human values,” The Moral Landscape delivers nothing of the kind.”
You made me think, that’s for sure. Here are some thoughts I developed further in the course of our conversation.
1. I know that science can never answer all questions, even if it would have answered all questions within its reach.
Because of this knowledge, it is reasonable:
To suspect (nothing else) that there’s reality beyond the scope of what’s knowable by science;
or to put it rather negatively, to doubt the claim that what cannot be known by science automatically isn’t real.
2. Science cannot make metaphysical claims because it is concerned with making claims about the physical world.
– That something is moral (e.g. “what improves wellbeing” – whatever the definition of wellbeing), cannot be observed, proven or disproven by science. [Once something is believed to be moral, science and reason can be of great assistance, of course.]
– That something is divine (e.g. “love for one’s neighbour”; agapè), cannot be observed, proven or disproven by science. [Once something is believed to be divine, science and reason can be of great assistance, of course.]
3. The belief that “God created the universe” is also a metaphysical claim which cannot be proven or disproven by modern science – since modern science is concerned with making claims about the physical world. Once the universe is believed to be a “creation” – one way or another, for example by a loving being that is not some all controlling “master of puppets” -, it is possible to reason from that perspective. Likewise it is possible to reason from the perspective of something that is believed to be moral.
4. From a purely scientific point of view in the modern sense, metaphysical claims like the ones mentioned in 2 are never “necessary”.
That’s it, for now.
It seems to me that points 1 and 2 just make the whole argument moot. If you’re saying we can’t prove that God doesn’t exist or is not necessary, that might be true. But you’re also tangentially saying, surely, that there’s no reason to think he does exist. He is unknowable.
Unless you believe God made himself known one way or the other (by revelation); it’s not knowledge, it’s a belief – I know :). It’s making metaphysical (not observable) claims about our physical (observable) reality. It’s like believing further questions are unnecessary when something is explained scientifically.
Furthermore: if something (i.e. the origin of our universe) is explained scientifically, why should this imply that other questions about it are “unnecessary”? In fact: I KNOW that science cannot answer all questions (because of the logical conclusion of scientism). It’s not because something isn’t necessary scientifically, that it’s not necessary at all.
Questions like “Is there something like salvation for humankind?”, “Is there something like ‘perfection’ of our human world?” etc. can never be answered by science (even if science could explain why we pose such questions, the questions themselves would not be answered). Maybe some people consider those questions not necessary (in fact, what is necessary overall?), but that doesn’t mean it’s proven they are unnecessary…
I have most respect for the “it’s a faith position” type arguments. If it’s a faith position, and a personal matter of revelation, then that’s not really something anyone else can criticise, imo. It’s just that, in that case, I don’t see any reason for the believer to engage in debate with the scientist: we’ve defined them as separate areas.
In which case, the only questions remaining are: What type of God remains that isn’t precluded by things we do know about science? (Because I’d contend it’s all the major religions).
And more importantly, why does this God reveal himself to some honest truth-seekers, but not others?
About your question on “the type of God”. From a Christian perspective it would be: “perfect love (understood as agapè)”. Which means believing in a God who is essentially “relational” (expressed in the idea of the trinity), and who seeks “the other” (“man” or “humanity” in general) – emptying “himself” to perfect love between human beings, as the “fulfillment” of “creation”. Now, we know what agapè does between human beings, how its dynamic works, etc. We also know that it’s hindered by other dynamics. We can make all kinds of scientific statements about agapè. To believe it will be perfected, and that there’s a “perfect version” of it, etc. is a non-scientific statement. That’s a matter of faith.
Concerning your second question: I do believe, also from a Christian point of view, that God reveals himself in many ways, also to those who don’t seem to know him – before and after Christ. God’s revelation in Christ is not the only way he made himself known, but I do believe it is the most complete way. A unique way, yet not an exclusive one… Of course, I’m talking from a faith perspective now. These types of reasoning are “not necessary” for an atheist.
Now this argument is starting to make more sense. Knowledge is different from intuition, isn’t it? We intuit God, we can’t KNOW Him. He gave us intuition so that we could live in harmony with His wishes and so that we can FEEL His presence. Sometimes, we can also know a small part of Him, with our intelligence but that is only when our intelligence is FIRST informed by our intuition. How many times has our intuition informed us correctly of things we could not know? MANY MANY times, in my experience. But scientists will tell us that there are scientifically valid reasons for the intuited knowledge. They say, “well, you noticed that subconsciously” or “the amygdala processes things outside of our awareness.” or “the right brain has a different organizational structure for what it sees” or whatever. All true statements, right? So if I intuit God, give my right brain credit or give it to my “gut brain” or give credit to my amygdala, but don’t call it blind faith or delusion.
One day, we might be able to figure out “scientifically” why some of us perceive the presence of God in the world and some don’t. There are already clues in the minds of psychopaths, they don’t bond as infants to their mothers and they grow up at odds with all humanity. The psychopath I lived with actually said, “I HATE humanity.” I thought he was just having a bad day… lol!
There’s a really good paragraph in an essay I was reading today, that gives a great description of “knowing” from the heart.
That’s just one page in a series of pages of an essay by Sep Kamvar. To read the whole essay, click on index at the bottom. It’s about designing tools (apps) that come from the heart, that extend intuition.
Eric, you might like it, as it pertains to strengthening the other leg, IMO.
Thanks again for your blog.
The internet is rich, so rich… “Helping one another by offering to one another life-affirming gifts”, even to those who are not (yet) open to receive them.
Thanks for the tip, Skylar!
Er valt wel het één en ander aan te merken – met name op de sex en liefde voorbeelden – maar die aanmerkingen laten onverlet dat wetenschap op enkele metafysische aannames (geloof is in dit verband misplaatst) berust. Die kunnen niet bewezen worden.
Alleen beweert Hawking dat helemaal niet. Net als iedere wetenschapper aanvaardt hij die aannames om een eenvoudige reden: ze werken. Ze bezorgen ons begrip, kennis en het vermogen onze omgeving radicaal te veranderen, ten goede en ten slechte.
Wat van geloofsaannames, inclusief theologische, bepaald niet gezegd kan worden.
Volgens Hawking is “spontane creatie de reden waarom er iets is eerder dan niets, de reden waarom het universum bestaat, en de reden waarom wij bestaan”.
Met andere woorden: het wetenschappelijke antwoord op de vragen “waarom bestaat het universum en waarom bestaan wij?” is voor hem een voldoende en volledig antwoord. Dat is de filosofische aanname van het (om diverse redenen problematische) sciëntisme. Hij kan nooit bewijzen dat het wetenschappelijke antwoord op de vraag “waarom is er iets eerder dan niets?” het volledige antwoord is. Dat was mijn eerste bedenking.
Mijn tweede bedenking: Hawking denkt over “god” in termen van een “god of the gaps”, en herleidt het theologisch discours tot een wetenschappelijke hypothese. De moderne wetenschap maakt de hypothese god echter overbodig (terwijl “god” in een premodern wetenschappelijk discours natuurlijk wel een functie had). In de moderne wetenschapsbeoefening speelt god geen rol van betekenis. Dat is al lang evident, bijvoorbeeld voor iemand als Georges Lemaître. Het blijft eigenaardig dat Hawking met zijn bewering impliceert dat de wetenschap iets zou kunnen bevestigen of ontkennen over “god” (als schepper etc.). Fundamentalisten verwarren discours op eenzelfde wijze.
De uitspraak “ik geloof in god, schepper van hemel en aarde” is echter van een andere orde dan “omdat er een wet is als de zwaartekracht, kan en zal het universum zichzelf vanuit niets creëren…” Analoog: de uitspraak “ik heb vlinders in mijn buik” is van een andere orde dan “rupsen ontpoppen tot vlinders…”
Wetenschap “werkt” inderdaad. Maar wetenschap is een middel, geen doel. De doelen waarvoor de wetenschap wordt aangewend, berusten op denkwerk, niet-wetenschappelijke (filosofische) rationaliteit – en die wordt dan weer beïnvloed door allerlei andere factoren (emoties etc.). Je kan je wel degelijk afvragen hoe je met de wetenschappelijke know-how om kernwapens te ontwerpen moet omgaan als christen – d.w.z. vanuit een christelijke rationaliteit. Je kunt je als christen ook afvragen of je die rationaliteit het laatste woord laat hebben, of dat je sociale en geopolitieke factoren een prominentere rol laat spelen.
Kortom, wetenschap zegt “iets”, maar lang niet alles. Het christelijk verhaal, met zijn eigen rationaliteit, zegt ook iets (en je kan daarmee akkoord gaan of niet) – zoals ook pakweg een boeddhistische rationaliteit iets zegt. Het heeft geen zin om de discours met elkaar te verwarren. Wat de wetenschap zegt over “creatie” is niet in tegenspraak met wat het christelijk verhaal zegt over “god als schepper”. Als je daar wel een tegenspraak in ziet, dan moet je misschien ook een tegenspraak zien tussen “ik heb vlinders in mijn buik” en “rupsen ontpoppen tot vlinders”. Of dan is de uitspraak “ik heb vele watertjes doorzwommen” plots niet meer waar als blijkt dat de persoon in kwestie “helemaal niet kan zwemmen”. Geloof mij vrij: “ik heb vele watertjes doorzwommen” kan waar zijn, zelfs als de persoon in kwestie nog nooit “echt” heeft gezwommen. Het is een kwestie van discours niet met elkaar te verwarren – wat Hawking wel doet, als hij filosofische en theologische kwesties denkt te kunnen beantwoorden met een geïmpliceerde en problematische vorm van sciëntisme.