Hawking on faith/science compatibility

June 11, 2010 • 3:57 am

Stephen Hawking is amazing. He has a disease that should have killed him decades ago, but keeps soldiering on as his body wastes away.  He’s always cited by accommodationists as being quasi-religious, since he said in A Brief History of Time that if physicists were to hit on a “theory of everything” they would have seen into “the mind of God.”  Over the ensuing years it’s become clear that Hawking meant “God” as “the physical laws that govern the universe.”

Here he is in a new interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC, discussing the Big Issue (there’s a short video clip and a longer description of his views):

Sawyer: So, to the people who say science and religion are irreconcilable, you say. . .?

Hawking:  One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature.   However, this is not what most people would think of as God.  They mean a human-like being with whom one could have a personal relationship.

Sawyer then asked him if there was a way to reconcile science and faith.

Hawking:  There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

He’s right, of course.  The last, terse sentence sums up in six words the entire history of science and faith.  Hawking, willfully misunderstood by those desperate to harmonize science with faith, recognizes their profound incompatibility. 

It’s time to admit that those who still claim that religion and science are compatible–ignoring their fundamental and blatantly obvious differences in philosophy, methodology, and success at understanding the universe–are intellectually dishonest.

81 thoughts on “Hawking on faith/science compatibility

  1. “Science will win because it works.” Wonderful! I feel a T-shirt coming on. I just need an image. How about a Van de Graaf generator sending out a bolt of lightning that smites a steeple? (Which reminds me that some of the faithful at first regarded lightning rods as impious, but natural selection seems to have made them the norm.)

  2. Theists are running around with the goalposts with no where to place them. The accommodationists are running after them. Meanwhile Science gets the job done.

  3. I agree with him about the incompatibility of science and religion, certainly, but saying that ‘science will win’ is somewhat confusing.

    ‘Winning’ in this context, clearly means ‘working’ in the sense of having great explanatory power, creating functioning technology, predictive power, etc: everything that science – and post-Renaissance thought in general – embodies.

    But as we see every day, this isn’t what many people would consider ‘winning because they’re largely emotional and irrational when it comes to their own opinions and beliefs. You can’t stop irrational people from denying rational science if they want to, nor can you stop them from being sucked in by organised religions who prey on their cognitive and social weaknesses.

    I don’t think rationalism can ever stamp out those who aren’t rational because they’re not personally amenable to its power, however weak-minded that makes them. As Hugh Laurie (or possibly his character Dr. House) once said, “If you could argue with religious people, there wouldn’t be religious people’.

    1. No, you can’t stop irrational people from denying rational science if they want to, but you perhaps can discourage rational people from backing them up in this futile project.

      Furthermore, it’s never possible to know ahead of time who is irrational and who is not, and it is quite possible to persuade rational people not to deny rational science, so even awareness that you can’t stop irrational people from denying rational science if they want to needn’t mean you should stop arguing.

      1. I agree with you both. However, one does need to be careful when it comes to positing a simple and perhaps simplistic rational-irrational dichotomy.

        I think that humanity in general has a need for personal meaning and a desire to understand how the world works and is connected to us.

        Need versus desire. Not desire as in sexual – which is, in fact, not desire, but need.

        To construct personal meaning based on an the acceptance that this life, with its attendant suffering for us and our loved ones, is all we are ever going to know, demands a lot of us.

        Those who are unable to accept this profound truth should not be despised but tolerated – as long as they do not attempt to justify or encourage others to believe things which science can demonstrate to be false.

  4. What drives me nuts about the accommodationists is there postmodernism take on science and religion. Both make claims on the nature of the universe. Science furnishes, depending on the subject, complete to somewhat-complete answers.

    As Hawking says, “science… it works.”

    Think of prayer-only medicine… That doesn’t work, despite what the Christian Scientists say. Mental health — both the Mormons and the Scientologists are deluded to their practices and beliefs. And we could go on… Every modern convience and practice has come through/been substantially improved by science.

    We don’t starve (though we do force others to even though we could easily stop it)… We don’t die-off in huge plagues, though Jenny McCarthy is trying… We can survive cancer at rates unheard of just fifty years ago…

    It’s just amazing how far science has taken us… And how absolutely little religion has done for us…

    And yet we have this debate? Fuck me. Religion is nothing but a parasite and has NOTHING worthwhile to contribute to society.

  5. But, but, but, though intellectually dishonest, the accommodationists are not STRIDENT. What do you need to have intellectually coherent and honest content if your style and intent is nicey nice?

  6. It’s good to actually know Hawking’s position. Einstein’s quirk has had unfortunate effects such as these metaphors and “the God particle” for Higgs boson (“higgson” :-D), even if he himself seems to have claimed he was atheist on several occasions.

    He has a disease that should have killed him decades ago,

    Not quite, I think. Hawking’s ALS is atypical and slow progressing; two other similar cases is claimed to have lived with it between 30 and 40 years. But he is probably the longest lived so far FWIW.

    1. “God particle” was something Lederman’s publisher cooked up. Lederman himself writes in that very same book that the title he wanted was “That Godd*mned Particle”. It’s really evidence for nothing beyond the tendency of publishing companies to pander to religious sensibilities.

  7. Dr. Coyne writes, “[Dr. Hawking’s] always cited by accommodationists as being quasi-religious”

    The same happened and still does with Albert Einstein for similar reasons. Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Einstein dedicated an insightful chapter explaining his views on a deity.

  8. “It’s time to admit that those who still claim that religion and science are compatible-ignoring their fundamental and blatantly obvious differences in philosophy…-are intellectually dishonest.”

    I thought that science was both a body of knowledge and a methodology. What specific philosophy does science demand and since when did that philosophy become a prerequisite intellectually honesty?

    1. Until or unless there is evidence for something supernatural, the intellectually honest will use naturalism to explain phenomenon or admit they do not know. The faithful and their accommodationist buddies will make vague references to supposed “other ways of knowing” without ever clarifying what exactly these “other ways” are (or why they tend to conflict with one another.)

      Objective reality is about the stuff that is the same for everybody no matter what they believe.

      1. Ask and ye shall receive.

        I submit that time dilation is, in fact, supernatural.

        Reasoning: Time dilation involves time speeding up and slowing down (it slows down as you accelerate, and speeds up as you decelerate). However, from the earliest times altering time — slowing, speeding, stopping — has always been considered magic. Magic has always been considered supernatural. Therefore, since time dilation does this, it is supernatural. But it occurs. Therefore, some supernatural things occur.

        Now, I don’t really think this, but I bring it up to raise a point that I raised in more detail on my blog: we need to have a definition of what counts as natural or supernatural. I also point out that it isn’t the job of anyone who is claiming that a “supernatural” thing exists, because supernatural is defined relative to natural, and it’s up to naturalists to define it, and define it in such a way that it doesn’t just mean “existent” by definition.

        Personally, I find both terms irrelevant, but that’s because I find naturalism incoherent because there is no definition of natural that I can see that either has not already been disprove or that doesn’t just mean “existent”, assuming its conclusion.

        So, if you disagree that time dilation should be considered supernatural, show why it shouldn’t be. This will require you to, hopefully, define a workable definition of natural so that we can distinguish the natural from the supernatural. I doubt you can do it, but I welcome all attempts.

        And, BTW, quoting “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” is NOT a counter to my claim, since I then say that that would make anything that we thought supernatural really natural, and so while this would indeed stop people from claiming that supernatural things existed — if they accepted that — it would also mean that you have no reason to consider gods and ghosts any different from natural things, which means no “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” without then proving extraordinary …

        1. I don’t think “supernatural” needs a definition because I consider the concept incoherent. I’ll save the rest of the argument for my blog. 😛

          As for time dilation, I think a pretty good rule of thumb is that anything with equations that describe it doesn’t count as supernatural.

        2. Oooh. Our friend V is confused. Again.
          Last time he kept insisting neuroscience doesn’t negate dualism. And that neuroscience experiments are consistent with “imteractionist dualism”. Once I explained to him what the word means and why it is indeed negated by the data, he just melted away.
          This time, it is time dilation that is supranatural? Not exactly. Time dilation can be derived mathematically and demonstrated experimentally. If time dilation is supranatural I don’t see why gravity isn’t. If keep broadening the scope of something like this is becomes meaningless.
          PS: It is totally irrelevant that altering time was considered magic by ancient people. Are we supposed to rely on Greek or Norse mythology for our science? The ancients had all kinds of beliefs. But they were wrong. And so are you.

          1. I’m sorry that I don’t feel obligated to reply to everything you say, but I do believe that your reply essentially addressed nothing. Sort’ve like this one.

            See, you miss the point here. You’re saying that time dilation is natural because we have math for it and can demonstrate it experimentally. Why does that make it natural? And does that make everything that we can’t do that for supernatural? I actually asked for a definition of natural, so is this yours? What’s your justification for this definition?

            1. You are such a sweety, V. You keep denying neuroscience, arguing for over a day, posting 7 comments in 24 hours. Then the moment it gets a little technical, you disappear. And that is because “you are not obliged to respond to my every post”?
              You’ve got some nerve, have to give you that.
              Either way this my last comment that scared you away.
              “Insightful Ape
              Posted May 27, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink
              Our friend V looks quite confused about the meanings of words.
              “Dualism” claims that mind has some sort of existence that is separate from the brain, though it interacts with it. That is basically what “interactionist” means.
              And that is precisely what is contradicted by the data. If mind or soul or whatever you call it is “immaterial” then it should not by bound by material coonections, like the neurons are.
              But that is precisely what happens. Experiments on individuals with damage to the corpus callosum shows that some part of the brain has access to information that another part doesn’t.(Go look up “Alexia without agraphia” and “color anomia”). So has is this consistent with dualism, does your soul split in two when you have a stroke?
              Again, this is just like the young earth creationists claiming the data do not prove consistently that the earth is more than 6000 years old. But they’ll use the oil, gas, and coal discovered by geologists, no problem there.”
              Now, if basis of calling something natural or supranatural is the tendency of ancients to call it “magic”, then why not lightning? Why not day-night cycle? Both of those phenomena were attributed to “magic” at some point or other by some ancient civilization.
              I am just amused that you are trying to prove the existence of “supranatural” just by a game of words.

            2. I’m sorry if it hurts your feelings to be ignored, but none of what you’ve cited means anything about my behaviour.

              To reply to that “comment”, interactionist dualism says that if you change mind, you change brain AND that if you change brain, you change mind (or, at least, that you can). Thus, instances where certain functionality has access to information and certain other functionality doesn’t due to changes in the brain really doesn’t disprove it at all.

              As for my goal, I’m not, in fact, trying to prove that anything supernatural exists at all. I’m trying to get people to define natural, especially those who demand proofs that supernatural things exist. So, you mention other things that we thought magical. So what? Obviously ALTERING TIME is more significant, and all you’re doing is walking yourself right back into the problem of “Maybe those things are, therefore, really supernatural to”. Of course, for lightning — for example — people thought it magical because it was the work of a supernatural being, which we don’t have for time dilation, but, hey, anything to avoid having to give a definition of natural, right?

            3. Of course, you are trying to wriggles yourself free from the point you were proposing, since your position in untenable.
              You were trying to show that neuroscience does not disprove the existence of soul. Which it does, as evidenced by conditions in which having a stroke seems to split your soul in two.
              You want a defintion of natural? Well, you first. You brought this up. What is the definition of magic?
              As it turns out, lightning is more significant that time dilation. The ancients at least knew about the existence of lightning. They didn’t at all know about time dilation, the way we define it now. So if the ancients didn’t know about something, that makes it supranatural?
              But, hey, anything to avoid having to give a definition of magic, right?

            4. And now I remember why I stopped replying to you.

              First, you are not talking about the stroke cases, but about cases where the corpus callosum was, in fact, ACTUALLY SEVERED (I think usually to treat epilespy, if I’m not mistaken), which gave the appearance of there being two personalities in the same “brain”. This isn’t as great as you think, because multiple personality disorder also seems to have similar effects, and we don’t know if that is a duality of expression or a real duality. Additionally, I’m not wedded to — and neither is interactionist dualism wedded to — an idea of a “soul” granted by God, and so while it’s a problem for a soul — ie how can you have two souls? — it isn’t as being a deal for a dualist who can claim that multiple personalities can, in fact, exist in one “mind”.

              As for the definitions … I started this by asking you guys to define natural, since that’s required before anyone can define supernatural, and I demonstrated that if you don’t, then I get to run the definitions. I did suggest a plausible one — most people do think that slowing down time is supernatural — and I can, if I wish, take all of your comments and say “Yes”. I can say “Lightning is supernatural”, and so is anything else that people once thought magical. And without providing a clear and workable definition of “natural”, there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

              Now, again, I don’t ACCEPT that, and think that both lightning and time dilation are natural. I said so in the first comment. But that doesn’t absolve you from having to define natural in some meaningful way.

            5. Emm…you are quite wrong.
              I was not talking about the dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). That is a functional, not physical, phenomenon and so is irrelevant to the discussion.
              But strokes affecting the posterior part of the corpus callosum do create the impression that the soul-if it existed-were devided in two, and that negates the mind-body dualism hypothesis.
              Now, if you wouldn’t mind coming up witha definition of “magic”. I am still waiting.

        3. Why should anyone accept that time dilation is supernatural? Because you and some others say so? That is an argument from authority where there is no authority. Magic is not supernatural even if you and some others say so. Your definition of supernatural is a very poor one. It is definitely the job of someone who claims something is supernatural to prove it exists.

          1. Wait … are you seriously trying to claim that if we called something magic — and I mean really magic, not the illusions that “magicians” do — that it wouldn’t be supernatural?

            Also, you miss the point entirely by claiming that my definition is very poor. The point of my raising that was to point out precisely that we need a good definition of supernatural before anyone can ask anyone to prove that something “supernatural” exists. I argue that that means we need to define “natural” first. So go to it.

            1. So, if something is “really” magic, it is supranatural.
              And what is the definition of “really”? Does it mean that it should have been properly investigated, and all other plausible explanations excluded?
              You are talking about the views of ancients about time dilation. Why do you think they were “really” magic? It seems your definition for “really magic” is “the ancients thought so”.

  9. Titles like “God created the Integers” were always misappropriated.

    Nonetheless, placing “god” in any title will increase the likelihood of that book being read.

  10. “‘Science will win because it works.’ Wonderful! I feel a T-shirt coming on. I just need an image.”

    A picture of Werner von Braun perhaps?

  11. People need to distinguish “god”, which is short-hand for the abstract unknowable, from religion, which is a load of horse puckey.

    1. Way to move the goalpost. “Quick, we are loosing Hawking, let’s move gods over there!” Never mind that this agrees _big time_with the post that accommodationism is intellectually dishonest, totally corrupt, laughable yet pitiful in its perversity.

      [Btw, no dice. Facts and theories permits the state of “don’t know”, abstract or not. Conversely if something actually is claimed to be factually existing but being unknowable, it is exactly a load of manure.]

      1. The unknown, and perhaps unknowable, exists, and one can give to it whatever name he wants. It is only when people make unverifiable claims about it that a conflict arises.

        1. Why give the unknown any name other than the unknown? If you call it Daisy or Alice or Susan or God, people are bound to think you mean something rather specific, and not unknown. People “can” do that, of course, but it’s confusion-sowing and pointless to do so, apart from talking to oneself.

          1. god is just a word, and it is a free country. As an atheist, I’ve got no trouble with it. Susan is good too. I refuse to capitalize it though, even when it begins a sentence.

            1. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
              “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
              “The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

            2. I disagree. “god” should be “just a word,” but in our religion-addled species and (in the case of the USA) in our religion-stupid country, it is unfortunately not “just a word” because is it taken as license to do bad things by those who think shaking a stick in the air makes it rain (or something like that, at any rate).

            3. How you or I use a word will not change the religion addled. Why should I surrender a perfectly good word to them? As Humpty Dumpty said “which is to be master-that’s all”

            4. @Neil
              It seems that quite a few people here will only let you choose what a word means if you have a religious cult following.
              “You there Judeo-Christians-Muslims , you’ll have a big following we’ll let you decide what God means, but you scientist with the frizzy hair, God is sum of the laws of nature? Nope you don’t have a say.”
              Its funny because historically God has meant different things to different people but it looks like people would rather tackle the omnipotent omnibenevolent God.

            5. I also never capitalize it when I am referring to it in my own voice, but I was referring to it as a proper name like ‘Alice’ because that was my point.

              I still don’t see what is the point of attaching a random name to “the unknown” instead of just calling it “the unknown.” (I know it’s a free country. But I don’t see the point.)

            6. The point is, it is a metaphor. Scientists and atheists are allowed metaphors. Even the most scientifically-minded can be awed by the incomprehensibility of existence and the wonder of the natural laws, and use the word god to express their awe. To me, it is the most appropriate and satisfying word, and does not imply that I believe in a personal god. That is presumably how Einstein used the word, and how Hawking uses it. Think of Darwin’s tangled bank paragraph–pure metaphor to express his astonishment and wonderment. We don’t take that “life breathed into a few forms” metaphor literally.

            7. Neil: “…does not imply that I believe in a personal god…”

              For huge numbers of people it does imply a belief in a personal god, and unlike poets, these people are thinking non-fiction rather than fiction.

              If you are talking to yourself, you can use words with whatever meaning you want, but communication with others requires us to heed how others normally use words.

              I could metaphorically call an ATM Santa Claus, and defend that usage as a metaphor, but unless confusion is my purpose, what’s the point? As Ophelia asks, why not call the unknown the unknown?

            8. No, he’s suggesting that if you wish to be understood you’d better use the language in accepted ways.

              Of course if you wish to obfuscate then carry right on!

          2. No, god is not “shorthand for the unknown”. For the millions, rather billions, of the faithful in this world, god is the entity that works miracles and answers prayers.
            It is a very bad idea to take a perfectly meaningful word and take it to mean something no one will agree with you on. That is not why language was invented.
            If I call something that shoots lead bullets and is used to hunt game animals a “camera”, it will not make it a camera. But it will make me the laughing stock of the whole world.

            1. First, language was not invented, it evolved. Second, the word “god” has scores of different meanings already. Third, I am in good company with the meaning I put on the word.

            2. Even the most scientifically-minded can be awed by the incomprehensibility of existence and the wonder of the natural laws, and use the word god to express their awe. To me, it is the most appropriate and satisfying word, and does not imply that I believe in a personal god.

              Really? Why? What’s appropriate about it? Since the most usual and familiar meaning of the word “God” is the name of a supernatural person, and of “god” is the word for a supernatural person, how can that word be the most appropriate and satisfying word for the incomprehensibility of existence and the wonder of the natural laws?

              Furthermore, how can any word be appropriate and satisfying for the incomprehensibility of existence and the wonder of the natural laws? That doesn’t seem like something that can be compressed into a single word.

            3. Ophelia, you answered your own question with your last paragraph.

              Because I do not believe, I have no hang up with the word (uncapitalized, it is not a proper name) and use it metaphorically as might some music critic who says “Wagner’s god was music”.

        2. I think the claim: “God exists” fits the category of unverifiable claims (unless you are playing weaselly semantic games with the word “god”.)

      2. OK, language evolved. But the adaptation it served was to communicate, not confuse.
        The word god has scores of different meanings? Yeah, try telling that to the Muslims steaming out of Friday prayers. To pentecostals speaking in tongues. To orthodox Jews who will not flick a switch on Saturday. To the Mormons who keep knocking on my door. God means only one thing to them: the guy who is spying on them 24/7, will punish them for impure thoughts, and all this means he somehow loves them.
        Claiming you are “in good company” is rhetorically useful but for all practical purposes, it is not true. You are simply ignoring the majority of people living on this planet. God does not have scores of meanings to them, just one.

  12. I recall Christopher Hitchens telling a story about Georges Lemaître and the pope. Lemaître explained to the pope his idea that the universe began with a big bang. The pope’s response was “Ok, so we’ll just make it official church dogma and everyone will be REQUIRED to believe it.”

    Assuming this account is true, (anyone know more about this?) it sums up the incompatibility of science and religion as well as being a perfect example of Hawking’s statement “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason.”

    That’s what a dogma is: an belief which is seen as authoritative and therefore not subject to doubt, dissent or deviation. Science is anti-dogma.

    1. I heard the same story about Lemaitre and the pope…but the punchline was that Lemaitre was HORRIFIED at the prospect.

      Quite rightly so, since the hypothesis hadn’t even been validated at that time.

      1. Assuming the story’s not apocryphal, there’s always the possibility that the Pope was being ironic. It’s been known to happen.

  13. “He’s always cited by accommodationists as being quasi-religious …”

    It is intellectually dishonest to attribute to all accomodationists the remarks of some (notably un-named) accomodationists.

    But, apparently, intellectual honesty is OK here if you’re right and not if you aren’t.

      1. Just because you heard that a statement was directed at ALL accommodationists, doesn’t make it so.

        I’ve heard many religious people make the claim that someone is saying “all religion is bad” whenever they criticize any religion. There’s a difference, but the faith-addled seem to miss it. The faitheists (like you) make the same mistake).

        I think you guys get defensive about things no-one said so your brain can avoid examining what was actually said.

        Accommodationists have assumed Hawkins is one of them. Just as they did with Einstein. They aren’t. And they’ve repeated it on all sorts of forums and blogs just like they do with any argument they imagine is good. Come to think of it, Mooney did it with Sagan. (There I named one; your welcome.) The rest of us have read quite a bit on the subject and so there is no need to cite the latest faitheist reiterating the silliness on this blog, (but I’ll be sure and cite your silliness and the next faitheist who asks me to do so, Mike from Ottowa.) You might want to try reading up before whining out your next bit of commentary.

        1. –oops–“you’re welcome” not “your welcome”– and this was directed at Mike from Ottowa’s whiny post.

        2. “Just because you heard that a statement was directed at ALL accommodationists, doesn’t make it so.”

          I notice you do not explain how you come to a different conclusion by reference to the actual words at issue. I draw your attention to the lack of any qualifiers associated with “accomodationists” and to the use of the word “always”. By all means point out the words of qualification you believe Jerry Coyne used in that post.

          “You might want to try reading up before whining out your next bit of commentary.”

          Actually, it is clear I’ve read what Jerry Coyne wrote while you’ve not. Otherwise you’d have either pointed out the qualifications you believe are in his post or conceded that indeed he had done the intellectually dishonest bait and switch I pointed out.

          You seem to be an odd version of Humpty-Dumpty for whom words mean precisely what you think Jerry Coyne meant by them, nothing more and nothing less.

          BTW, is your spelling “Ottawa” as “Ottowa” supposed to be some clever jape or is it merely an epitome of your standards for accuracy?

          1. nope, fools just don’t warrant proof-reading.

            Come to think of it, I don’t think they warrant second responses either.

            I’ll leave you and your straw man in peace. (You two make a cute couple.)

    1. Now, if we could get the quote of Richard Dawkins quoting the New Scientist editor on science being interesting.

  14. “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

    He’s right, of course. The last, terse sentence sums up in six words the entire history of science and faith.”

    With all due respect to both Coyne and Hawking, the expression “it works” can mean “it works for me.” In other words, faith, regardless of its truth, works for billions of people.

    1. Hawking is right in as much as science produces empirically testable explanations of observed physical facts.

      This way of explaining physical facts works for anyone who is prepared to subject their proposed explanation of physical facts to rigorous and honest empirical testing.

      If people want to attach non-empirically testable explanations of any kind, to physical facts,then so be it.

      But if in doing this, beliefs of faith should flagrantly contradict well-tested empirical explanations, it is clear that then science and religion are incompatilbe, and that science will win for anyone who cares about truth.

        1. Ah, the age-old god of the gaps game. Every time science disproves another invention of religion, just squeeze your god into a smaller gap. After all, there will always be something that science hasn’t explained, so there will always be room for a god. Why this brand of theology is so alluring is a mystery, but it seems to be for a certain segment of religionists.

          1. I’m not so sure that it’s popular because it’s alluring so much as because it’s the last line of retreat.

  15. Weird. Hawking’s definition of God fits my own thoughts on the big man in the sky.
    I’m liking him more already, even after he talked about aliens.

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