Science Matters

RoboCopMichael Meuleman, one of my students, briefly talked about his passion for brain imaging and brain imaging technologies. It’s his dream to further work on speech reconstruction for disabled persons, using and developing brain imaging technology himself. Michael referred to famous physicist Stephen Hawking as one of many who could benefit from this research. As a matter of fact, Hawking already participated in attempts to convert his brainwaves into speech. Soon, RoboCop won’t be science-fiction anymore!

On my way home from school, I kept thinking about what Michael had said, and decided to do some reading on the subject matter. In amazing times like these, when valuable information is just a few worldwide web clicks away, I discovered the research my student was referring to quite easily: click to read it here.

Speaking of Stephen Hawking I remembered how Oxford mathematician John Lennox responded to some of Hawking’s philosophical claims in a book called God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? This again reminded me of something that same John Lennox said during a lecture – it actually blew me away at the time:

Applied to the research on brain activity for speech reconstruction, Lennox reasoning implies the following.

When we identify a person’s brain activity while that person is hearing or thinking about, for instance, the word jazz, we might see something like this:

brain activity

In order to enable people like Stephen Hawking to communicate more rapidly by using their brain activity, computers need to do two fundamental things (among many processes):

  1. Register the type of brain activity that is ignited by certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…
  2. Interpret brain activity so it can be translated to certain sounds – vowels, syllables, words…

The thing is, brain activity as such does not give you any word. In other “words”, the full picture or complete reality of a word like jazz is not given in a scientific representation of brain activity. That activity needs to be connected to the word in question. Computers need to be programmed to decode certain brain activity and to recognize or interpret it as the word jazz. Brain activity itself is nor produces the word jazz. There already has to be meaning (and an entity which produces it) before we can ask ourselves what that meaning looks like in scientific terms. More broadly speaking, the things we can say in scientific terms don’t ever give us the essential reality of a particular phenomenon. Science can only begin to explore reality because of the mysterious fact that there is something to explore to begin with! It comes as no surprise then that science can be considered a highly spiritual activity, as it continuously refers to a reality which transcends its endeavors.

The tendency for scientism by the “secular fundamentalist” (see Chris Hedges) new atheist movement, as if science can answer all important or relevant questions, as if science can provide us full knowledge about the true nature of reality, should be discarded as a perversion of science. If phenomena would not reveal themselves to our eyes – whether we look through telescopes or microscopes -, we would not be able to gain any scientific knowledge at all. No scientific knowledge without the mystical realization of revelation. And no scientific or other knowledge that can ever “solve” the mysterious fact that there is something rather than nothing. In the words of theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman John Dyson (born December 15, 1923, only ten days before René Girard :)):

“The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries.”

Freeman John Dyson

It’s amazing what science can do, but it’s even more amazing that there is anything to do at all. Hopefully we, human beings, learn to use scientific and technological knowledge for some good. At least one of my students seems up to it :), and I’m sure most of them are. And while we’re at it: science can never answer the question what goals it should help to accomplish – those questions are and remain philosophical and draw from many sources…

Questions for Stephen Hawking

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.


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

The Faith and Reason of Father Georges Lemaître