Friday, November 26, 2010

Hawking's Self-Refutation

Regular readers will know by now that one of my favorite things is identifying when someone goes on record making a claim that is self-referentially absurd, or self-refuting. We have seen that scientism suffers from this fatal fallacy, we have had fun discussing the self-refuting claims of postmodernism, and we have dismissed the biblicism of young-earth creationism on the same grounds.

And now we find arguably the most brilliant mind of our lifetimes wallowing in self-refuting claims, and thereby making what may be his final book a testimony to the absurdity that results when one sets out to deny God.

I'm referring, of course, to Stephen Hawking, the iconic mathematician whose Brief History of Time was the best-selling science book of its era. His latest, coauthored by physicist Leonard Mlodinow, is titled The Grand Design, and was released in September. Its central claim--that the universe and its laws can be explained without reference to God--is indeed sweeping and grand, but the foundation required to buttress that claim is riddled with self-refuting arguments. Let's look at a couple of them.
Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.
I'm sure that some of you see the problem here (even though Hawking, his coauthor, and his editors must have missed it): these and all related claims are not scientific claims but philosophical ones. And I'm not cherry-picking an isolated logical mistake here; fully a third of the book (and arguably a whole lot more) is a rambling, philosophical discourse, one that will cause any good philosopher to wince, laugh, or cry, depending upon his mood while reading. We scientists are notoriously poor philosophers, and if it does nothing else, Hawking's book serves as a stark reminder of this fact.

But scientific naturalists have even more reason for dismay. For many who would deny God's existence, Hawking offered the best hope, as he years ago devoted his brilliant mind to discovering a 'theory of everything.' This book would seem to be the culmination of that search, and yet it winds up dissolving into postmodern nonsense.

Hawking and Mlodinow devote a chapter to the question "What Is Reality?" And the conclusion to which they arrive is that
there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality... our perception is not direct, but rather shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains. [Therefore, no model of reality] can be said to be more real than any other.
What are we to do with such? If no view of reality can be said to be real, why bother interacting with Hawking's view of reality? If there is no theory-independent concept of reality, then this concept isn't. Like all self-refuting claims, these epistemological ones are necessarily false.

So where we expect to find piercing scientific argumentation, we are treated instead to sloppy, self-refuting philosophy (after first being told that philosophy is dead).

Others of the main claims of Hawking's new book likewise disqualify themselves, but perhaps I'll save those for another time. The bottom line is this... the Christian need not fear the fallacious arguments either of the scientific naturalist or the postmodernist (or, as in this case, someone who mixes both in bizarre ways). Even the most brilliant mind will end up stunningly in error, if he begins his search for truth with a denial of the Author of all truth.


Ron Krumpos said...

In "The Grand Design" Hawking says that we are somewhat like goldfish in a curved fishbowl. Our perceptions are limited and warped by the kind of lenses we see through, “the interpretive structure of our human brains.” Albert Einstein rejected this subjective approach, common to much of quantum mechanics, but did admit that our view of reality is distorted.

Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity has the surprising consequences that “the same event, when viewed from inertial systems in motion with respect to each other, will seem to occur at different times, bodies will measure out at different lengths, and clocks will run at different speeds.” Light does travel in a curve, due to the gravity of matter, thereby distorting views from each perspective in this Universe. Similarly, mystics’ experience in divine oneness, which might be considered the same "eternal" event, viewed from various historical, cultural and personal perspectives, have occurred with different frequencies, degrees of realization and durations. This might help to explain the diversity in the expressions or reports of that spiritual awareness. What is seen is the same; it is the "seeing" which differs.

In some sciences, all existence is described as matter or energy. In some of mysticism, only consciousness exists. Dark matter is 25%, and dark energy about 70%, of the critical density of this Universe. Divine essence, also not visible, emanates and sustains universal matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and cosmic consciousness (f(x) raised to its greatest power). During suprarational consciousness, and beyond, mystics share in that essence to varying extents. [quoted from my e-book on comparative mysticism]

Mark said...

Great post Rick.

I am currently reading the book There Is No/A God by the renowned atheist Anthony Flew,a very interesting read.I think you spoke about it in class last year.His turn around came from the realization that philosophy as found in good theology makes a whole lot of sense.Very cool to read about a very smart man like Flew that can't deny the truth anymore and embrace the God that he fought so hard against all his life.

It's almost as if Hawking is going further away from the truth as he gets older.

A verse that came to mind:

Eph 4:18 They are darkened in their understanding,being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts.

Rick Gerhardt said...

Hi Mark: I'm glad you are reading Flew. The truly rare thing about him is not his great intellect but that his great intellect was balanced with such humility. How many other great men can you name who were humble enough to admit that they had allowed the evidence to eventually convince them that the truth claim that they had defended their whole life, the claim for which they were famous, was wrong?

Ron: Thanks for reading. Yes, Hawking's "fishbowl" illustration is yet another example of self-refutation. It says, in effect, that "everyone's perception of reality is distorted and flawed." But (by putting this in writing and asking us to pay to read it) he seems to hope that we will suspend belief in that claim long enough to accept HIS perception of reality--which includes that claim--as somehow above or outside that distortion.

In the end, he devolves to a view of science shared by Thomas Kuhn (The Nature of Scientific Revolutions) but rejected by most philosophers of science (and certainly by most scientists). That view is that scientific advance cannot be said to cause our understanding to be closer to truth or reality, but only to be different (than the formerly-held scientific theory) for reasons having to do with pragmatism, simplicity, or other values. On that view (to overstate it a bit), the heliocentric view of our solar system is more simple and elegant than the geocentric theory, but not necessarily closer to reality.

And Hawking's reason for sliding toward this relativism and away from scientific empiricism seems to be theological. His motivation to deny God outweighs his commitment to scientific integrity. (This problem has characterized the last couple of decades of Hawking's pronouncements.)

Of course, Einstein was very much opposed to calling his theories "relativistic." He, apparently, was a good enough philosopher (logician) to anticipate the epistemological confusion that would arise through misapplication and misunderstanding of his conclusions. Those conclusions (included in your quote) had to do with a very particular thing. That is, the perceived movement of heavenly bodies as those bodies near the speed of light is different relative to the location of various observers. (This, as you know, represented a refinement of Newtonian physics, whereas the latter is still plenty accurate for use in putting men on the moon and spacecraft into Jupiter's orbit.) Einstein seemed to be aware in advance that some folks would be tempted to make the illegitimate extrapolation (particularly if his conclusions were dubbed 'relativistic') to other things, including (as in Hawking's sad case) science itself and even truth itself.

Again, thanks for reading.

Edgar Andrews said...

Rick; excellent critique of the Grand Design. Your readers may be interested to know that (as a physicist) I have written a full-length review of the book which reaches similar conclusions but goes into more detail. Interestingly, my own book "Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything", published just 12 months before Hawking's new book, anticipates and refutes most of the arguments employed by Hawking! See review and book on:

Ron Krumpos said...

Rick, I was introduced to mysticism in 1959 by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Nobel astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. Chandra once said "God is man's greatest creation." We each seem to shape God to our preferred image.