How does one argue with Hawking?

More generally, how does one argue? More specifically, how does one argue with atheists? (I’ll entertain no replies along the lines of ‘with a crowbar’.) More generally again, what constitutes an argument?

That such questions need posing is a direct result of the triumphant Age of Reason, which predictably destroyed reason. For reason operates from certain presuppositions, the most vital of which is that truth exists.

This premise turns thought into a teleological process – it travels along a clearly signposted road towards its destination: truth. The road may meander, sometimes turn back on itself, zig and zag, but the overall vector is discernible and unmistakable.

Hence it used to be assumed that if X is true, and Y contradicts X, then Y is false. Now that the Age of Reason has borne its rotten fruit, it’s believed that Y is differently true – and so are all other letters of the alphabet.

Debate inspired by this premise destroyed the natural progression from opinion to judgement to argument, indeed erased all distinctions among them.

When one contradicts someone these days, one often hears: “I’m entitled to my opinion.” To which I sometimes unkindly reply: “Yes, but you aren’t entitled to an audience. I don’t care about your opinion. I would be interested to hear your judgement presented in the form of an argument.”

An opinion, which any person is indeed entitled to have on any subject, doesn’t require any support. It is what it is. Thus in my opinion, all those parallel universes are tosh.

However, I can’t turn this opinion into a judgement because I don’t know enough astrophysics. Such knowledge would be required because, unlike an opinion, a judgement requires solid support that can only come from ratiocination based on extensive knowledge of the relevant facts.

Should I take the trouble of acquiring such knowledge and thinking it through, I could conceivably be ready to make an argument, which is a logical, coherent and persuasive presentation of a judgement.

This basic rhetorical path has now been overgrown with the weeds planted by the Age of Reason. Most people are now unaware of its existence, which is why they feel that any opinion, no matter how unenlightened and rash, must enjoy equal rights with judgement and argument. In fact, they feel all three are the same.

But they aren’t, and Hawking would be safe from me had he stayed in the realm of astrophysics that’s outside my ken. Yet he ventured outside the secure walls of that fortress to launch a foray into fields in which I feel qualified to form a judgement and present it as an argument. He, on the other hand, finds himself on shaky ground. Now we can argue on equal terms. Now the battle is on.

The Rev. Peter Mullen has written an excellent article on the late scientist, from which I can nick a few quotations by Hawking, such as “Given the laws of physics, nature drags itself into existence and there is no need for a Creator.”

This flies in the face of the truth first expressed by Lucretius (d. c. 55 BC) as ex nihilo nihil fit: nothing comes out of nothing. (Having thus presaged the First Law of Thermodynamics, Lucretius then beat Darwin to the theory of evolution by observing that it was by their superior cunning and strength that all extant species were different from those that had become extinct.)

A powerful preemptive blow against Hawking’s stab at philosophy was delivered by St Anselm (d. 1109) with his ontological argument. According to the archbishop, even if we don’t believe in a Creator, we can still think of the greatest possible being.

If so, we must also be able to think of a greater one, then of still a greater one and so on, until such incremental steps take us to the existence of the ultimate being “that than which nothing greater can be thought”.

Another, even stronger preemptive blow against Hawking’s ex nihilo, was struck by St Thomas Aquinas with his argument from contingency (or causality), which develops the ontological argument.

Without going into a thicket where we can all get lost, the argument states that, while few things, such as mathematical relationships, are necessary, most things are contingent. They depend on something else for their existence, and without that something else they wouldn’t have existed.

Three times two equalling six is a necessary thing that would remain what it is whatever else happened to the world. But, say, a tree is contingent on things like soil and water, without which it might not have existed. Therefore, three times six doesn’t require an explanation, but the tree does. Why does it exist? What is its existence contingent on?

If we repeat that it’s soil and water, then the same questions may be asked about them, and then about the things those other things are contingent on – and so forth.

If most things are contingent singly, then they are contingent collectively. Hence the universe itself is contingent – and all the same questions may be asked about it. And even if the universe has no beginning in time, then time itself is contingent, and hence requiring an explanation.

One may add that one proof of the universe’s contingency is the very attempt by Hawkings et al to explain it. He didn’t feel the need to explain why three times two makes six.

The ontological argument had its critics, most prominently Kant. However, Kant got this argument second hand, via Descartes, and was probably unaware of Aquinas’s embellishment.

Both Anselm and Aquinas used their arguments to prove the existence of God. But Aquinas also taught a valuable rhetorical lesson: one must argue with people on their own terms. Otherwise you might as well not bother.

One may ask an atheist where, if there is no God, the universe came from. He’d simply answer he doesn’t know. All he knows is that there is no God. The debate thus ends before it has even started.

It is, however, possible to leave God out of it altogether. Forget theology, let’s stick to philosophy and rhetoric. They are sufficient tools to show that it’s Hawking’s ex nihilo argument that’s full of holes, black or otherwise.

But who needs philosophy? According to Hawking, “Philosophy is dead. Science is the bearer of the torch.”

His foray into alien territory has become too long, and his supply lines get stretched beyond repair. This statement is simply not clever.

First, philosophy is a science too. If he meant ‘natural science’, he should have said so. Otherwise his adage sounds as if science is dead, but nonetheless capable of bearing the torch. And there I was, thinking that natural scientists know how to phrase precisely.

But here’s a question: How is it that Trinity College, Cambridge, has produced 33 Nobel laureates, while the entire Muslim world (1.6 billion people) has managed only 10, six of them winning peace prizes? This though there used to be no shortage of Muslim scholars and mathematicians.

How come that, for all their philosophers and mathematicians of genius, the Hellenic world never managed to advance natural science in any appreciable way? And why did European natural science only get going, at an ever-accelerating pace, after Aquinas baptised Aristotle, fusing the Greek’s philosophy with Christian theology?

The fact is that natural science is a servant to philosophy, contingent on it, if we continue with the same terminology.

It would be impossible to study nature without an epistemology based on the object existing independently from the subject. Similarly, the whole idea of natural laws being rational and universal would never have appeared had it not been activated by arguments in favour of a rational, universal law-giver.

As the philosopher R.G. Collingwood put it (and again I owe this quotation to Peter Mullen’s article): “If they knew a little more about the history of science, they would know that the belief in the possibility of physics is only one part of the belief in God.”

The Renaissance man didn’t outlive the Renaissance or, if he did, not for long. As the amount of information grew, the era of narrow specialisation arrived – people who tighten the screws on the intellectual conveyor belt are no longer capable of hammering the rivets in as well.

Fewer and fewer are real polymaths who can venture into disparate areas without losing their footing. Hence I can’t judge Hawking as a physicist, but he certainly wasn’t a throwback to the likes of Leonardo or, closer to our time, Florensky. I don’t think anyone can be that any longer.

This in no way diminishes my admiration of Prof. Hawking’s courage in overcoming the terrible handicaps he suffered throughout his life. Such a superhuman and unfathomable achievement had to come directly from the grace of God – in whom he didn’t believe.

Stephen Hawking, RIP

8 thoughts on “How does one argue with Hawking?”

  1. Trying to reach the truth seems to be rather like trying to find the end of a rainbow. Once you have determined that it must be (say) at the foot of that tree over there, it disappears or seems to move somewhere else when you attempt to approach it. The arrogance of those in the so-called ‘hard’ sciences of chemistry and physics is the assumption that they know the truth already. I was told at school that ‘chemicals can’t lie, so if you have got an unexpected result, you have made a mistake’. That of course explains the result in terms of the teacher’s expectations of schoolboys but for a serious research level of chemistry it pre-supposes that we can understand everything the chemicals are telling us. Rutherford’s notebooks are notorious for revealing that he kept on repeating various measurements until he got the answer he expected. These he published and the others stayed in the notebook (as fake news presumably). Many physicists are still in that inductive phase today whereas most biological scientists are quite used to finding the unexpected and have adapted their protocols accordingly to take account of the probability of never knowing the right answer

  2. I recommend the three episode mini series “The Mystery of Matter”. It’s currently available for viewing on Amazon Prime video, and also appears periodically in America on PBS. In particular the third episode, “Into the Atom”, which deals with the work of young British scientist Harry Moseley to discover the logical sequence of elements in the periodic table. I am not a scientist, but this series is presented in a way which is easily understandable to the layman. After viewing it, it’s hard to make an argument for randomness in creation. All matter (all the elements) follow a mathematically predictable pattern that Mosely discovered. The work of Mosely and others provides evidence (dare I say proof) of intelligent design (aka God). It’s the strongest argument I’ve seen that science buttresses rather than contradicts the existence of God.

  3. 1. Remarkable Hawking was able to survive as long as he did. 2. Perhaps the greatest contribution Hawking made was being able to mentor several generations of physicists.

  4. I’ve never been convinced by the ontological argument. Yes, by definition, “that than which nothing greater can be thought” must exist, and not only in the mind; if it doesn’t, then one could think of something greater. But all that gives us is a property associated with our notion of God. Logical consistency demands that His existence be included in the notion we have of Him. Still, it seems to me that, ironically, that notion remains a theoretical construct. If it didn’t, it would be sufficient to deem anything “perfect” in order to bring it into actual existence. The perfect woman. The perfect scientist. The perfect writer. Or even, say, the perfect gold ball. All would spring from mind into reality.

    1. I agree. The Judaeo-Christian God is something more than ‘that which no greater thing exists’, but the proof works because it defines ‘God’ that way. To me it seems to be more a tautology than a proof, or a way to define infinity or, as you say, perfection.

  5. The truth seems to be this: A lot of these famous scientists like to wax lyrical about their supposed ‘love’ for the universe (multiverse) and their love for knowledge in general. But if one watches their lectures on YouTube, one very quickly realises that their quest for information is not their primary objective, no, their primary objective is attacking the belief in God, by hook or by crook, their hatred for God or at least for the idea of Him is what drives them. I come away from these lectures feeling disturbed and hardly enlightened. A good thing however, is that the Anti-Theists challenge theists like no one has ever done in history, sparking the creation of a new wave of inspiring theology.

  6. “the belief in the possibility of physics is only one part of the belief in God.”

    Isaac Newton believed in witches and witchcraft.

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