Hawking, Heaven and Bed Time Stories


News that isn’t really news: Stephen Hawking says that belief in an afterlife is a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark. This is odd to me, because it’s not like the news media asks the Pope for his opinion of quantum tunneling. Stephen Hawking is a physicist, he’s not a philosopher or a theologian. In fact, in his recent book The Grand Design, he declares that philosophy is dead. So it’s strange to hear him philosophizing on the afterlife. After all, it’s not as if physics can prove or disprove life after death.

Hawking goes on to tell us that human beings are just computers and death is nothing more than our components failing. Therefore, what matters is that “we seek the greatest value of our action”.  But if there’s no God, who tells us what the greatest value of our action is? Who or what obligates me to seek the greatest value? Without God or some other transcendent ground for value and moral duty, doesn’t seeking the greatest value of our action become person relative? I mean, I could make up what is the greatest value of my action is on the fly. Didn’t both Hitler and Mother Theresa believe they were both seeking the greatest value of their action? As Dostoyevsky put it: “If there is no immortality then all things are permitted.”

And from what I gather, Hawking is a hard determinist. On his view, everything and everyone simply runs according to mechanistic laws of nature. We’re just DNA propagating computers. Free will isn’t a reality. So if we ought to seek the greatest value of our action, that implies we can. But if are the product of non-rational, deterministic physical forces beyond our control, and we have no free will, then how can we truly seek the greatest value of our action?

This would also seem to undercut his sense of superiority over people who believe in silly bed-time stories like heaven. If we’re just machines, and I’m determined to believe in a “fairy story” and he isn’t, then what’s so intellectually special about that? If he’s right and the universe is the laws of nature in action, then his true belief is simply by luck, not by some intellectual virtue he can congratulate himself for having. Nor can he chide the believer and stay consistent.

I also find it odd that Hawking bashes believers for believing in an unprovable afterlife, but some of the theories Hawking postulates to explain away the appearance of design in our life-permitting universe in the fine tuning of the laws of physics, namely M-Theory and the Multiverse, has drawn sharp criticism from his fellow physicists. Lawrence Krauss points out that M-Theory does not make a prediction that can be verified by experiment, nor has it solved any major physical puzzles about nature, including why universe’s expansion is accelerating. Jon Butterworth, who works at the Hadron Collider, says that “M-theory is highly speculative and certainly not in the zone of science that we have any evidence for”. On the multiverse, John Polkinghorne calls the Multiverse “not physics…but metaphysics” as well as “speculative” and “by construction, unknowable to us”. In other words, these are articles of faith, postulated extravagances used to discard the need for a creator and a designer. (It’s really a backhanded compliment to the design hypothesis that sober scientists like Hawking are compelled to embrace such wild ideas to avoid design.) One might say that belief in an afterlife is no more a fairy tale than such far-out speculations.

Perhaps Einstein was on to something when he observed that “the man of science is a poor philosopher”. That may not always be the case, and it certainly doesn’t have to be, but such a phrase seems fitting for Hawking here. What is ironic is that a lot of his theories and findings on the big bang and fine-tuning of the universe has really been a blessing to the natural theologian. It’s strange how two people can look at the same evidence and come up with very different conclusions.

Finally, I wonder if Hawking has ever taken the time to look at some of the historical evidences for Jesus’ resurrection. Until he has, I don’t think he can simply dismiss the possibility of life after death as a fairy tale.

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