As predicted, Stephen Hawking’s comments about the nonexistence of heaven have ticked off people. Like Mooney, Hawking regularly “strikes a nerve”—except that Hawking is right. This was particularly grating:
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.
Out of the woodwork came Rabbi David Wolpe, identified by The Washington Post thusly: “named the No.1 Pulpit Rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine, Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and currently teaches at UCLA”. You may remember Wolpe from the Rabbi Smackdown Debate, where he and rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson debated Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. If you saw that debate, you might remember that Wolpe didn’t seem to believe in heaven. But he backtracks on this issue in his latest piece at the Post’s “On Faith” site, “Stephen Hawking can imagine there’s no heaven.”
I’m once again ashamed that a rabbi—supposedly a liberal, Number-One rabbi—can write stuff like this. The pattern is familiar. First Wolpe denigrates science by showing that its “truths” are ephemeral:
One of the remarkable realities of scientific progress is that in every age its commonplaces have proven to be false in the eyes of later generations. We cannot possibly know which platitude of science will seem as silly now as phlogiston does today. Yet some scientists proclaim with thunderous certainty equal to the most blinkered religionist what is or is not true based on nothing more developed than distaste. Richard Dawkins does not like religion, so it cannot be true. Stephen Hawking has an aversion to theology, so theology is merely wish fulfillment. The careful parsing of possibilities that is so integral to science itself suddenly disappears when the issue is faith. Recently in a debate I had with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens it became clear that the only truly unscientific approach is to repudiate the very possibility that human beings live on. To deny for its own sake — now that’s dogma.
I think it’s much more likely that in two hundred years water will still be seen to have two hydrogens and one oxygen than that we’ll have evidence for God. Throughout his piece, Wolpe doesn’t seem to realize that scientific “truths” (even those that are later discredited) are based on evidence, while his belief is based on no evidence at all. To wit:
Can science and religion coexist? Of course they can if each side is willing to practice a little epistemological humility. Science is a tool for discovering truths about physical reality. As our most powerful tool, it is a natural — though mistaken — leap of logic to suppose that the things to which this tool applies are the only things that really exist. Since science cannot investigate an afterlife, there must not be one.
Talk about epistemological arrogance: how about asserting in the absence of any evidence that there’s a sky father that doesn’t want you to eat bacon! And science doesn’t rule out an afterlife because we can’t investigate it; we rule it out because there’s no evidence for it. (There could be, of course—seances or past-life accounts could give us verifiable and unique information about the past or future). I had thought that Wolpe was a more modern and sophisticated rabbi, but he obviously thinks that “arrogant scientists”, convinced as they are by evidence, as far worse than arrogant theists:
Are many believers also incapable of self-doubt? Without question. It is just more piquant to hear the apostles of doubt and reason and evidence pound the university lectern like a fire and brimstone preacher and cast all careful empirical weighing out the window when religious claims are concerned.
Who, exactly, has “pounded the lectern”? I didn’t see any lectern pounding in Wolpe’s debate with Hitchens and Harris: just four civil people sitting in chairs, cracking jokes and, on the side of the rabbis, refusing to make tangible statements about what they believe. And who’s casting “careful empirical weighing” out the window when it comes to faith? The rabbis, of course: they don’t think a lack of evidence means anything when it comes to “religious claims.”
Curiously, although Wolpe, like many Jews, wouldn’t sign on to the existence of an afterlife or Heaven in the debate, he seems to do so here, and says that he, rather than Hawking, is eminently qualified to say it exists:
Stephen Hawking is an estimable scientist and no doubt an admirable man but he has no more competence to pronounce on heaven than any other thoughtful adult. Galileo made the distinction centuries ago that faith was about how to go to heaven and not about how the heavens go. I fully acknowledge Hawking’s expertise in the second half of that sentence. In the first — which we may think of as how to live as sacred life, a life in service to something greater than oneself, a life in which the non-physical is as real as the flesh in which we are encased , or even more real — when it comes to that, I would not choose Stephen Hawking as my guide. Master scientist though he may be, I’ll turn to a still higher authority.
Heaven and god are “more real” than human bodies? And Wolpe’s idea that faith can tell us how to live a moral life is not only contravened by the evidence, but bespeaks a willful ignorance of the millennia of secular reason and philosophy concerning how one lives the “good life.”
On the site, six other people weigh in on Hawking’s statement; two of them (Tom Flynn and Herb Silverman) are atheists. You’ll be amused by Anglican bishop Nicholas Wright’s argument that “Hawking is working with a very low-grade and sub-biblical view of ‘going to heaven.’”