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Hawking. Again.

05/18/2011 Comments (136)

A reader writes:

Stephen Hawking has recently declared that he doesn’t believe in Heaven: 

As someone in the science community, I have become more and more embarrassed by Hawking. He has made some interesting and important contributions to theoretical physics over the years while dealing with the great adversity of his condition, but at this point he’s just famous for being famous—Paris Hilton with a PhD.

I am all for good science and religion dialogue, but I don’t think the media should be giving so much attention to Hawking for sophmoric rants like this. They might as well have a front page story about Ms. Hilton’s thoughts on string theory.

Hawking is the beneficiary of the high priestly status our civilization confers on scientists and, most especially, celebrities. Somehow, people seem to think that Hawking has access to some special knowledge and, in some cases, they actually seem to think that if Hawking thinks something, it is ipso facto true that this renders it a Scientific Fact (the capital letter is essential). This is what I call the Thomas Dolby Syndrome and allows me to gratuitously insert one of my favor 80’s music moments into a discussion of the relationship between science, theology and philosophy that might get a bit dull otherwise:

Ah! That’s better.

Now here’s the deal, kidz. When the subject is physics, Hawking is your man. He has forgotten more physics than most of us will ever know. But, if the subject is, say, how to costume the cast of “The Wiz,” or which sort of pipe to use to re-plumb your house, or how to deal with that drunken, swiving man of yours, or hot air ballooning, or, dare I say it, whether or not Heaven exists, Hawking has no more competence to speak than the veriest lush at the local bar (and sometimes even less if the lush happens to have training and experience in theatre costume design, plumbing, family therapy, hot air ballooning or philosophy and theology). 

Indeed, even within the scientific community, Hawking is an ignoramus outside his extremely specialized field of physics. When he starts gassing on about how the mind is nothing more than the epiphenomenon of a computer made out of meat he is giving you, not science, but his reductionist materialist faith. And it is a faith that has been running aground for years now on the simple fact that we are no closer to creating artificial intelligence with a computer than we were when the quest began. The problem is that the faith that mind is nothing more than a function of matter and energy keeps running into hard scientific reality which keep showing it is not. Some of the best brain researchers (some of them atheists) are, in fact, beginning to reluctantly turn to St. Thomas’ philosophy and to carry on conversation with Dominicans because, well, their philosophy leaves room for ideas and concepts that the crude materialist reductionism of a Hawking does not.

As to the rest of the tommyrot he spouts, I’ll let the inimitable Michael Flynn do the autopsy.

What floors me is that a physicist, of all people, could say, in effect, that it’s impossible for the universe to be stranger than his model predicts it could be. Have these people no sense of irony or perspective? They spout off about the small-mindedness of Galileo’s persecutors and then spout this hermetically sealed nonsense. Even the hard-boiled old atheist J.B.S. Haldane was capable of saying the universe was not only queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we can imagine. Is the notion of heaven really so hard to conceive? After all, even when we are talking about this universe, we’re still only discussing a mighty thin slice of reality:

All the stars, planets and galaxies that can be seen today make up just 4 percent of the universe. The other 96 percent is made of stuff astronomers can’t see, detect or even comprehend.

If even the natural world is that unplumbed, why dogmatically declare there is nothing beyond it?

This is particularly weird for an advocate of the idea of the multiverse (the notion that this universe is but one of countless universes). To affirm the possibility of this while denying the possibility of a New Heaven and a New Earth seems particularly odd. Categorical denials about how many levels reality (or how many mansions our Father’s House) is allowed to have seem pretty silly from this guy in particular. 

What really drives this is not that Stephen Hawking is a scientist, but that Stephen Hawking is a man. His opinions on these matters are not some special insight derived from his studies in physics.  They are in absolute room temperature conformity to the opinions of his age and class. Everybody in his social circle talks that way and would be scorned and cast out of polite society if they did not.  The rubbish that belief in Heaven is for cowards and children afraid of the dark overlooks three things.

First, it overlooks the fact that many religions have no concept of Heaven (including early Judaism, which spoke only of Sheol or the underworld) and that these all came into existence when life was considerably more nasty, brutish and short than it is today.

Second, it is predicated on the nonsense that Dr. Hawking’s illness somehow bestows deeper spiritual insight. The claim is that he has stared into the abyss of death for 49 years and now is qualified to declare with Authority that Heaven does not exist because of his suffering.

Nonsense. I’ve stared into the abyss of death for 52 years. You’ve stared into the same abyss for however long you’ve been alive. Because we’re all going to die. And indeed, most of us have already lost someone—sometimes someone very dear to us—to death. This naked appeal to the cult of the victim is excellent theatre, but bad philosophy. In simple fact, Lou Gehrig’s disease does not confer on its victims the power to see beyond the walls of death.

Finally, Dr. Hawking’s declaration that belief in an afterlife is somehow a fairy tale for children afraid of the dark overlooks the fact that nobody in their right mind, concocting a comforting fairy tale, would invent the doctrine of Hell.  Indeed, one can proclaim with just as much stentorian theatricality that Dr. Hawking’s disbelief in an afterlife is due to his fear of Hell.  However, the fact is I don’t know that—just as he cannot read the minds of all who believe in Heaven and know that it is rooted in childish fear.  Real scientists work from data, not from the conviction that they are suddenly endowed with the mystic ability to read souls like the Amazing Criswell when it comes to dismissing ideas unfashionable among their peers.

What Hawking fails to take into account is that Christian belief about the afterlife comes, not from somebody’s need for comfort in the dark, but from a Man who came back from the dead to announce himself Lord of the Living and the Dead. It was he who announced the reality of both Heaven and Hell, not because they are convenient or even expected, but because they are the weird shape reality takes. The apostles were quite ready to believe in ghosts. What they didn’t expect was a resurrected man capable of eating fish. Christian belief in Heaven (and Hell) comes from him, not from some wish fulfillment fantasy.

Filed under chattering class follies

About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.