Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Lord Sacks v Stephen Hawking

In his latest book The Grand Design, Professor Stephen Hawking, who had been wont to use the term 'God' in much the same way that Einstein did, has apparently taken a more public stance against first causes, asserting that it is now unnecessary to "invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going".

There's a small irony in this, because Hawking was instrumental in undermining the 'steady-state universe' paradigm of his early Cambridge years and in easing into mainstream secular consciousness the notion that the cosmos had a moment of conception.*

Taking issue with Hawking, last week the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (pictured above) referred to this more radical stance as "an elementary fallacy of logic", adding that whereas science is about explanation, religion is about interpretation. (Thus echoing the views of our local Sunday morning casuist Jorge Loring. )

Sacks went on to say that the mutual hostility of science and religion is one of the "curses of our age". Science, he notes "cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science."

This is not an unreasonable position, but one can still sympathise with scientists for wanting a degree of payback for all those centuries where religion did consider itself a system of explanation. And one of the reasons that scientists like Richard Dawkins have ended up so insufferably dogmatic is surely their fear that the achievements of the Enlightenment might somehow be undone in years to come by the West's most powerful nation, where anti-intellectual horrors like the Creation Museum have recently taken root.

Less militant atheists and agnostics could also be forgiven for thinking that all this talk of separate 'domains' for science and religion smacks of a last ditch attempt by religion to define a cultural space for itself from which scientific intrusions are excluded per se. After such a long retreat, it's time to stand and fight to defend the Fatherland!

However, what bothers me about this cosy bilaterality is that it would appear to suit both sides to avoid assigning a role to philosophy. To get an idea what gets lost when this is set up as a two-horse race, ask yourself one of the questions that consistently split believers and unbelievers: i.e. how could something have come of nothing?

Scientists have recently come up with an answer for this one. Down at the quantum scale the difference between something and nothing blurs and there is an underlying potentiality that means energy can flicker into existence out of the 'pregnant void'. (I haven't read Hawking's exposition of this process, but the insight is already common in cosmology.)

There you have it, a solution which will satisfy scientists but leave the religious rigidly unassuaged. Voices from out of the two domains may sound as if they are asking the same question, but they aren't — and this is where philosophy has a role to play, because it helps us to understand the assumptions that underly the big questions that we are bound to ask of existence.

People rightly want to know why there is something and not nothing. Yet this is a philosophical question and thus a more open one than the Book of Genesis and other creation myths allow for. If you insist that there must have been absolutely nothing (except for the Creator himself who must have always existed) followed by something, you are making two assumptions more than most true philosophers will permit themselves. Scientists meanwhile assume the 'ah, but who created the creator?' retort is enough to see this one off. But it isn't.

Anyway, the issue in the current Hawking v Lord Sacks controversy is actually a little more complicated than a straightforward explanation v interpretation dichotomy: it is really about the limits of knowledge.

In one of his more militant moments Professor Dawkins might insist that it would be wrong to set any artificial limits to what humanity can discover about its situation using the scientific method. But even if we agree with this, we also know that science is highly unlikely to come up with all the answers in our own lifetimes. There thus remains a profound mystery, and there are aspects of it which we may have to admit will never be solveable by reason alone.

The Selfish Gene has been widely misunderstood as a treatise justifying human selfishness. Not so, Dawkins contends. We might have all these calculating little robots inside of us, but the wonder of humanity is its ability to transcend them with genuine altruism. Nevertheless, while science can explain why we are kitted up for making moral choices, purely practical explanations for why it is best to be good seem inherently inadequate.

Across the globe and throughout history religious teachings have stepped into this breach, instructing people how they ought to behave, and one can examine each of the main traditions and quickly comprehend how successful they have been as guardians of moral rectitude. It's not hard to find numerous examples of how simultaneously oppressive and hypocritical they have tended to be, and yet within each, one can also trace individuals who have somehow escaped the worst excesses and distortions of the movement as a whole.

Anyway, on a personal level, I find that I am capable of living with an explanatory gap in my life — 'the mystery' — and can proceed with the rest of my life (and death) without needing to know how much of this gap will ultimately be filled by science or indeed by 'spirituality', while finding a good deal of solace in asking reasoned philosophical questions of this lacuna.

It is unquestionably the most startling fact of our existence, a truly significant something which exists, and which conceivably might not have. Just imagine that you had been born into a world where none of the fundamentals were open to question. Believers don't need to of course...which is one of my greatest objections to religion. If you deny yourself the urge to confront the greatest provocation for any conscious mind, you are in a real sense not really living. (Or at least attempting to live like the beasts, when you really don't have to!)

The assumption that out of nothing something cannot come is one I let go of some time ago. Philosophy teaches me to probe beyond such sticking points. And my academic background as a historian also taught me that denial is never the best response to new factual information which poses logical challenges to my pre-existing beliefs.

*The notion that the Big Bang was the absolute beginning of everything has become widespread in mainstream culture, but it is not something that can be backed up with any empirical evidence and is thus not something you will find eminent scientists asserting in print.


Mark said...

If spontaneous creation could be proven, then the argument would be more persuasive. Until then, it is faith in a hypothesis. One reason for my faith is the reasoned conclusion that truth does not change, and a challenge for me in accepting the hypothesis of scientists that they are all too often wrong.

To your other points, it is an error to allege that believers may not question the 'fundamentals', for quite the opposite is true; we all have free will and the right to reject even that which we have come to believe is true. Surely many believers have never questioned the fundamentals, but this proves as much as admitting that many atheists have declined to do so as well and are merely accepting and repeating the atheist doctrines handed down to them.

It is striking to me that you are comfortable accepting the 'mystery' you described when it is the mystery of God that is, for me, the most challenging aspect of faith. My conclusion is that the believer has questioned and answered positively, the atheist questioned and answered negatively and the agnostic questioned and declined to answer. Is a lack of certainty inherently superior?

GC said...

No it isn't, and neither is it 'faith', as you have also suggested.

It is something I am comfortable with, but recognise why many others wouldn't be.

The scientific argument for spontaneous 'creation' of matter/energy is somewhere between mere hypothesis and a proof as you would accept it. Nevertheless, even if you could see it done in a test tube I doubt you would take it as the final word on the origins of the universe. And neither would I, because as I said in my post, there are assumptions in your 'reasonable' belief that something cannot come of nothing that science is ill equipped to address - the underlying 'so what's the point of it all?'

In other words, whether or not something came of nothing, the fact that something exists and not nothing is a key part of the mystery.

The trouble is too that 'something' and 'nothing' are both common sense categories which don't fully stand up to a battering from philosophical enquiry, and science is some way down the road to proving that 'nothing' (the void) doesn't exist and never did.