Monday, September 13, 2010

Hawking Atheism

Richard Dawkins famously praised Darwinism for making it possible for someone to be an "intellectually satisfied atheist." While such satisfaction may be more possible, obstacles remain, and one of the highest hurdles for nonbelievers who wish to be both satisfied and confident would be finding an explanation for the ultimate origin of the universe. Theories positing either the eternal existence of matter or an infinite regression of causes are problematic both scientifically and philosophically. Stephen Hawking has now taken up the cause in a somewhat different way. In an essay that appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal, which was excerpted from a soon to be released book, he reaches this conclusion:

Many people would like us to use these coincidences as evidence of the work of God....That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously 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.

Mr. Hawking is widely regarded as a brilliant theoretical physicist, and one should be careful about accusing him of writing sheer nonsense, but it is hard to try. His use of the term "creation," seems odd, given that the word implies a creator, but he may have decided that it would be less embarrassing than "spontaneous generation," a concept that most high school freshmen have learned is less than reputable. Mr. Hawking confidently asserts that "modern science" ascribes "creation" to "the laws of gravity and quantum theory." Ascribing an outcome to laws of a theory is semantically awkward to the point of incoherence, but perhaps that is why the author chose to use the rather weak verb "allow." Given that Mr. Hawking has already described nicely how the universe appears to be "extremely fine-tuned," this talk of how laws of theories allow spontaneous generation sounds more like make believethan anything real.

Indeed, the rest of the essay is not much better. In spite of the smug, dismissive tone -- Mr. Hawking implicitly lumps all theists with pre-modern Viking myths -- that claims a basis in "modern cosmology," the article is little more than a speculative stab at reaching a conclusion arrived at for reasons that have nothing to do with the facts. His confident assertion that God is "not necessary" hardly seems justified by admissions that he is basing his notions on "a consequence predicted by many theories."

It may be true that Mr. Hawking finds satisfaction in speculative science based on predicted theoretical consequences. Some of us require more evidence than that.

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