"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."
So maintains the famed cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, in an exclusive interview in The Guardian that has received widespread media attention.
So what is the chief end of human beings? “We should seek the greatest value of our action.”
He doesn’t say the greatest value to whom, of course, but then again we shouldn’t expect philosophical precision from a scientist - much less theological precision.
This is not a new position for Mr. Hawking – his former wife outed him as an atheist a few years ago. And this is not the first time that Mr. Hawking has dabbled in what science writer Timothy Ferris has called “Godmongering.” As I wrote in an earlier blog on Hawking’s most recent book, “Many scientists seem eager to establish themselves as pastors and priests in a new secular society - and we seem only too willing to ordain them.”
The problem? They are, by and large, false prophets.
Taking Hawking’s conjectures to heart on the matter of heaven is as sound as that of the first man to orbit the earth, Yuri Gagarin, who sarcastically commented that upon reaching outer space he failed to see God.
As if that ended that.
Hawking bases much of his thinking on a theory that possibly explains the creation of something from nothing from tiny quantum fluctuations. Seizing this explanation, he jumps to the non-existence of God.
Quite a jump.
Consider the weakness of Hawking’s rash conclusion. As Alan Guth, the V.F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has written, if the creation of the universe can eventually be described as a quantum process, we would still be left with a deep and abiding mystery: Where did the laws of physics come from?
Or think of the Big Bang theory, arguably the leading hypothesis of the beginning of the universe. Fine. No problem. But an argument against God? Hardly. Who made it bang? And where did the stuff for that first bang come from? It is nothing but arrogance to claim that studying physics or the origins of the universe alone qualifies you to draw conclusions about its meaning or purpose.
As Michael Wenham recently wrote in response to Hawking, the universe “is certainly discoverable by science,” but that is very different than making science the final word on its meaning. Science doesn’t govern the universe; instead “science is governed by the universe.” Borrowing from an article by Alicia Cohn on pop icons, our cultural malady is that we let scientists have the power to define the worth of things and ideas. And we are the ones who have given them that power. As Wenham adds, “Openness to the theoretical possibility of there being 11 dimensions and fundamental particles ‘as yet undiscovered’ shows an intellectual humility strangely at odds with writing off the possibility of other dimensions of existence.”
So once again we should remind ourselves of the words of Robert Jastrow, for 20 years the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on what continues to be as sane a prediction for the final interplay between science and religion as any:
"For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."
James Emery White
Ian Sample, “Stephen Hawking: 'There is no heaven; it's a fairy story'”, guardian.co.uk, Sunday, May 15, 2011. Read online.
James Emery White, “Unfortunate Godmongering,” churchandculture.org, posted September 11, 2010. Read online.
Michael Wenham, “I'd stake my life that Stephen Hawking is wrong about heaven,” guardian.co.uk, Tuesday, May 17, 2011. Read online.
Gagarin quote: There is some dispute as to whether Gagarin said this, or if it was Khrushchev’s comment in a later speech.
“Many Kinds of Universes, And None Require God” by Dwight Garner, The New York Times, Wednesday, September 8, 2010, p. C1. Read online.
Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephenby Jane Hawking.
The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Originsby Alan Guth.
God and the Astronomersby Robert Jastrow.
Alicia Cohn, “Lady Gaga: Where’s the Outrage?”, christianitytoday.com, Tuesday, May 17, 2011. Read online.
To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.
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