Stephen Hawking is one of those people whom it is impossible not to admire. I fear though that his series on Discovery Channel (based on his latest book but presenting the material in a different order and less detail) does not demand that same degree of admiration. To explain why I think that, here is the executive summary of his argument:
1. The universe is governed by the natural laws that science has discovered over the centuries. Quantum theory brings in counter-intuitive ideas but has been proven to be true by observation and mathematical deduction. The culmination of this scientific pilgrimage is M-theory, which has now come of age as the definitive model of the universe. Philosophy and religion are redundant.
2. Since human beings, including brains, are material, they are determined just like the rest of the universe. Brains, though, are exceedingly complex and elements of chaos may creep in, just as happens in complex weather systems. Somehow out of this chaos develops a sense of being a self, but there is no objective reality to that. Free will is simply an illusion because we cannot calculate quickly enough what all the neurons in a brain are going to do.
3. Connected with this lack of objective reality of the self is the fact that there is no objective reality to the universe in general. What we perceive as reality is dependent on the model that we make in order to explain what we observe, and no one model can be called definitive.
4. Everything, then, from the smallest particle to the vastness of time and space, whether animate or inanimate, conscious or unconscious, can be totally explained by science. There is no need for belief in God to explain anything.
5. The mathematics has even begun to show us that the very existence of the universe could simply have come about spontaneously from nothing. The idea of creation has been rendered unnecessary.
If one has a smattering of knowledge of the matters under discussion, together with a little media awareness perhaps, watching the programmes can be a frustrating experience. For example, the visual impact of “The Game of Life” is exploited, but no one points out all the presuppositions involved in drawing a parallel between this simple simulation and the vast complexity of the real world.
More important, however, is the fact that each of the five propositions that I have summarised above is extremely shaky. Taking them in turn:
1. M-theory is a hotly debated topic with numerous versions and disagreements, many scientists not giving it much credence at all. It is probably inherently untestable, and its proposed entities would exist at such a small scale they would be prime candidates for the observer effects pointed out by quantum theory.
2. The assumption that if the mind did exist it must be somehow locked up inside the brain is just that – an assumption. It is equally possible that the mind is one aspect of a whole human being, an aspect of which we are aware in our conscious lives. Why assume that this awareness is an illusion?
3. If reality is simply a projection of the model that we create in our heads, then that fact must apply to Professor Hawking’s theories as much as anything else. It is surely invalid to make an exception for one particular model such as M-theory. That is not to deny that the phenomena we observe are partially products of our minds. It is not necessary to conclude, however, that there is no objective underlying reality. Without that it is hard to see how different people would agree in their understanding of reality, and how people could relate to each other.
4. It is certainly true that there is no need for a God to explain those things that science explores – but that is a matter of definition. It could be that the existence of God is the best explanation of the wholeness of human life, of which scientific exploration is only a part. To suggest that science explains everything implies that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is – a claim that itself cannot be proven by science.
5. Spontaneous generation of the universe from nothing is problematic because the word ‘nothing’ is being used in a strange way. This version of nothing must have at least one property that is capable of changing – I believe the usual candidate is symmetry. This is very different from the idea of nothing found in religious beliefs and it seems like a fundamental confusion of categories to make them refer to the same thing.
These are, of course, the musings of an amateur; but a cat may look at a king. Professor Hawking is deservedly an icon of our time. This television production, quasi-religious setting and all, looks like an attempt to convert the icon to an idol.