May 18 2011

Hawking on Heaven

A recent quote from physicist Stephen Hawking is causing a bit of a stir – actually, not much of one when you think about it. But those who take an interest in such things are, well, interested.

In an interview with the Guardian he is quoted as saying:

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. 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.”

This is an elegant statement from a respected scientist. Hawking personalizes his view by putting it in the context of his own life. To him the prospect of death is an old friend. He faces his own mortality with acceptance. But at the same time he affirms his love for life – life is possibility and he wishes to make the most out of his own brief existence, which he also hopes is not that brief.

This is a good statement of philosophical materialism – we are material beings living in a material world (much like Madonna). The implication is that there is no immaterial afterlife.

While referring to such beliefs as a “fairy story” may come off as dismissive, it is clear that Hawking is stating his own personal opinion. He says, “I regard.” He is not claiming to have a logical argument that disproves God or an afterlife. He is not offering proof of the materialist paradigm. He is simply choosing to take a scientific view of reality.

If you read the rest of the short interview it is clear that Hawking takes the scientific approach to all such questions. When asked about whether our existence is all down to good luck, he says:

Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

In other words – Hawking is operating unapologetically, and transparently, in the scientific paradigm. He finds that to be the most useful way to approach the big questions of existence.

Everyone certainly has the right to promote their own world-view, and Hawking has earned a place in the public arena and therefore his views get more attention than the average person. However, what often happens is that those who publicly express unpopular views are challenged, usually couched as the claim that it was somehow wrong or irresponsible for them to do so. This is often nonsense, and the same people complaining would likely not be complaining if views with which they agreed were being expressed.

Already there is an excellent example of this, from fellow physicist Scott M. Tyson.

“I think that people in general believe that scientists don’t believe in God, and that’s just not true,” said Tyson, author of The Unobservable Universe: A Paradox-Free Framework for Understanding the Universe ( “History is filled with scientists who were also men of faith, from Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton to Einstein. Now, I do also believe that there are other scientists who would like to prove that God doesn’t exist. These scientists might want to rain on everyone else’s parades with respect to God really, really badly. The problem is that one of the limitations of science is that science simply cannot prove the non-existence of objects and phenomena over the full spectrum of possibilities. So, while scientists may be able to prove in a scientific framework that there is no life after death, they cannot, nor should they even attempt to, prove it in a theological framework, which is the territory of faith. To do so creates unnecessary divisiveness that can serve no beneficial purpose. And that’s the line Dr. Hawking crossed – he essentially discounted the idea in both frameworks, and nothing good could come of that.”

I suspect that Tyson is using this as an opportunity for self-promotion (hence the gratuitous reference to his own book) – but I’m OK with that. I won’t begrudge someone a little bit of judicious self-promotion. What concerns me is the shoddy logic. Let’s break down the logical fallacies.

Hawking never claimed that scientists in general do not believe in God, or that all scientists do not believe in God, so counter examples are irrelevant. Also, the Einstein reference is dubious, and the best evidence we have indicates that Einstein did not believe in a literal deity. Hawking was just giving his view.

For the record, surveys vary but according to one survey about one-third of scientists (depending on discipline) do not believe in God, which is higher than the general population. Another survey of “top” scientists found that disbelief in a personal God or immortality was greater than 90%.

Tyson then implies that Hawking is trying to prove that God does not exist, which is simply not true. Nothing Hawking said can be interpreted as an attempt to prove the non-existence of God. Tyson then implies that some scientists are motivated to “rain on everyone else’s parade.” This is an ad hominem logical fallacy – motives are irrelevant. But also, he is just assuming negative motives without justification.

Tyson then makes his one semi-legitimate point – that science cannot disprove a non-scientific hypothesis – one that is inherently unfalsifiable, which places it outside the realm of science. (I am paraphrasing and perhaps giving Tyson more credit than he deserves.) I agree with this.

But then he spoils his semi-good point with more nonsense by saying “prove it in a theological framework.” First – Hawking makes no attempt to argue theology (and thus Tyson’s point is a strawman). He is clearly speaking within the framework of science, and within that framework there is no evidence for God or an afterlife and so both hypotheses can be rejected.

Further – within the “theological framework” (which is very unclear and not well-demarcated), there is no such thing as “proof”. Theology is not about evidence and proof. The very notion of “theological proof” is an oxymoron. I see no evidence that Hawking is making this error – this is a fallacy introduced by Tyson himself.

Therefore, Hawking has not crossed any line, but Tyson has by falsely accusing Hawking of doing so. It is Tyson who is confusing the framework of science with the framework of theology, and is creating divisiveness where none need exist.

Scientists should be free to express their opinions about the nature of reality from a scientific point of view, and even to advocate for the scientific view itself. That is all Hawking is doing, and I congratulate him for doing so. Tyson is grossly confusing the issue in order to make false criticisms of Hawking.

I find this to be a common pattern. The defenders of science mostly (of course there are exceptions) are interested in clarifying the extent and limits of science – carefully delineating its arena. Defenders of theology are the ones who are frequently blurring the lines and making a philosophical mess of things. Tyson has simply provided yet another example of this.

Hawking has clearly become more outspoken, which is not uncommon when public thinkers reach this stage of their lives. Carl Sagan commented that he suspected The Demon Haunted World was going to be his last great work, and so that motivated him to make this book as powerful as possible. Hawking seems to be following in Sagan’s footsteps, and that’s a good thing.

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