The Other I

September 4, 2010

“We don’t know” vs “It’s nothing but”

It would be interesting to know if Stephen Hawking’s new book, Grand Design but not Grand Designer, has caused as big a stir on the American media as it has here.  It isn’t quite another Galileo moment, but it has the same ring.

What Hawking is saying is that we do not need to posit a Creator for the universe, that we know the laws of physics now well enough to understand how the universe may have spontaneously emerged out of nothing.  I don’t claim to understand this, but I am sure that Hawking, one of the pre-eminent physicists in the world today, knows that he is talking about.   In other words, he is talking physics, not theology.

But Hawking is knocking down one of the great “We don’t knows” used to buttress the existence of God for almost half a millennium.  If we don’t need a Creator to understand how we got here, what rationale do we have left for believing there is a God?

Personally, I have long felt that substituting “God” instead of “I don’t know” for any question to which we don’t have the answers was always going to be faith on very shaky grounds.  Scientists have been answering our “I don’t knows” for centuries — how the stars stay in the heavens, how the eye works, how the great diversity of life occurred, why volcanoes erupt and earthquakes crack open the face of the earth.  And now this blow:  how the universe started.

The stubborn, unyielding, rejection of science on the grounds that it can’t be so because the Bible says so is not terribly new, but it does seem to be activated by fresh virulence and irrationality.  Yet, it seems to me, the direction is irrevocable:  believing in God because we have no explanation for an event convinces fewer and fewer people.

Though you might not think so listening to many of the theologians being interviewed over here.  Few seem to have a concept of God that can withstand the possibility that the universe is the result of the application of natural laws rather than of supernatural intent.

But if I have no patience with the backward kind of thinking that says “this can’t be true because there is a God,” I equally have little patience for the “It’s nothing but” proclamations of absolute reductionism.

The great majority of people in the world today have neither the opportunity nor ability to analyze the scientific or philosophical issue related to these questions.  But I do think people often reject science because they think the scientific attitude requires  a “It’s nothing but”  conclusion.

And so when someone of Hawking’s stature says that we have no need for a Divine Creator to explain the existence of the universe, what they hear is that life has no meaning, that love and generosity have no value, that their lives, their families, theirwork, have no purpose.  It is a message of despair that many people think must follow from a universe without a Divine Creator.

I disagree.  I trust my own sense that my life, that all of life, has intrinsic value.  I happen to think that it is we who must create meaning, rather than a God presiding above from a supernatural throne.

But I do think I have some appreciation of the whiff of despair that science like that of Hawking can create in those who have been taught that it is only God who gives us meaning.

But I don’t think it is Hawking that is the problem.  Or science.


1 Comment »

  1. Absolutely. And it becomes more and more necessary to consider whether it is even ethical to teach that it is only God who can give us meaning. And that for example belief in God is some kind of unique key which unlocks a secret passage into the depths of our being.



    Comment by Chris Lawrence — September 4, 2010 @ 8:32 pm | Reply

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