Thursday, May 19, 2011

OneAngryCultist: Weighing in on Stephen Hawking

In an exclusive interview with The Guardian, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking made some ripples in the news by announcing that, “a belief that heaven or an afterlife awaits us is a "fairy story" for people.” This, naturally, sent some cultists into an uproar and nearly flooded my Facebook feed with cross-postings for a few days. When approached by our very own Ian Awesome to weigh in on the matter, I was warned in no uncertain terms to “[not] knock him on the basis of being an atheist.” At the time, having not read the article myself, I couldn’t really see what the issue was with his statements and, to be perfectly honest, I still don’t. Now, I’m no stranger to poking at the more rabid fundamentalist atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins whose evangelicalism of the Truth ™ of Science borders on fanaticism however, looking at Hawking’s statement I can’t find much to fault him on other than falling into the same pit of literalism that many cultist of different denominations tend to fall. Additionally, the fundamental problem I have in this discussion is the insistence of an either/or dichotomy between science and religion as an explanation.

Personally, I love science and using the scientific method as a mode of critical inquiry. The problem with defining metaphysics and religion by the standards of science, however, is about as sloppy as using liquid measurements to calculate distance of one object to another – the two are descriptive of two entirely different sets of phenomena and one can’t use the standards of one to verify the other. That being said, I definitely think there’s a lot of room for them to complement our understanding of the phenomenological world. That being said, I did gain a new appreciation for Hawking in his comments on Science, Truth and Beauty:

What is the value in knowing "Why are we here?"

The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can't solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

You've said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?

Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

So here we are. What should we do?

We should seek the greatest value of our action.

You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?

I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

What are the things you find most beautiful in science?

Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics."

While I respectfully disagree with his “brain as computer” metaphor, I really don’t see much here being said from which the more religious couldn’t benefit, in particular seeking the greatest value of our actions which, much to his possible own dismay, really sums up the essence of what good theology is all about.

No comments:

Post a Comment