The news that doctors in Switzerland asked Stephen Hawking's then wife Jane to consider allowing them to turn off his life support when he was seriously ill with pneumonia in 1985, before he had completed his most famous book, A Brief History of Time set me thinking.
Apart from depriving us of one of the best-known popular physics books of all time and one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time, what else would Stephen Hawking's death have cost humanity?
Hawking is quick to point out how, like Newton some 250 years earlier, if he could see farther than other men it was because he was 'standing on the shoulders of giants'. Like Newton, Hawking's theories were developed out of discoveries made by earlier people. For example, the singularity theorems he developed with Roger Penrose were an application of Einstein's General Relativity, which was in turn a development of Galileo's relativity principle and the Michelson-Morley discovery of the constant speed of light. And how much more difficult would all this have been if Hindu scholars had not discovered zero as a mathematical concept and Islamic scholars had not developed algebra?
But do individuals affect the extent of human progress in the longer term?
The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.Science is a voyage of discovery. Methods and techniques can be invented, though a purist might say they are merely discovered, yet the facts which science discovers, and by which theories are either validated or proved false, already exist. No scientist ever invented a fact of nature.
Certainly the pace of progress of science can be affected by the occasional genius like Hawking or Einstein who make strides across the landscape and then wait for the rest to catch up, but the rest are still moving forward, (occasionally backwards and sometimes sideways or in circles) but the general progress is forward towards an ever closer understanding of the truth.
In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.The truth is out there waiting to be discovered. The whole history of science tells us this, as does the technology which applies these discoveries.
And that really is the great strength of science. It works even without the occasional giant strides of geniuses. Even the untimely death of one of our greats like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein would not have delayed our progress by more than a generation or two because there would still be giants on whose shoulders we can stand and the same truths would still have been there to be discovered.
You do not need to be a giant to stand on the shoulders of one.
One thing Stephen Hawking did give us though was a good laugh at the expense of desperate theists groping for something to apply their confirmation bias to. Referring to the hypothecated 'Grand Unified Theory' which will integrate Quantum Mechanics with Relativity, he ended the main section of A Brief History of Time with the paragraph:
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would know the mind of God [My emphasis]
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time; 1988, p. 175
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.This sent theological apologist quote miners into a feeding frenzy. You will still find them quoting it as 'proof' (how they love that word) that the 'cleverest man alive' believes in God. I remember thinking at the time, when someone (I forget who now) proclaimed A Brief History of Time as a 'profoundly religious book' - she had gone on to claim it vindicated her church of course - "Huh! What is she talking about? Has she really read it?". The answer was, of course, that, if she had read it and not just that final paragraph, she had read it to find just the vindication she craved. She had been looking for something to apply her confirmation bias too. She hadn't read it; she had trawled it.
John F. Kennedy
Of course those of us who value truth and honesty recognised immediately that the 'God' Hawking was talking about was the God of Einstein and Spinoza - nature. It was almost certainly the god the 'Age of Reason' rationalists like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin would have believed in ,if only they had been able to stand on Darwin's shoulders. They couldn't, of course, because we had not progressed to that level of understanding for another eighty years. Instead, Darwin stood on their shoulders and so saw further that they could.
Had these eager quote miners been honest enough they would have read that paragraph in context. They only had to look to the previous page, the one which lies opposite their favourite one to find the clue to Hawking's meaning. He had said:
But if the universe is completely self-contained, with no singularity or boundaries, and completely described by a unified theory, that has profound implications for the role of God as a Creator.
Einstein once asked the question: "How much choice did God have in constructing the universe?" If the no boundary proposal is correct, he had no freedom at all to choose initial conditions. he would, of course, still have had the freedom to choose the laws that the universe obeyed. This, however, may not really have been all that much of a choice; there may well be only one, or a small number, of complete unified theories, such as the heterotic string theory, that are self-consistent and allow the existence of structures as complicated as human beings who can investigate the laws of the universe and ask about the nature of GOD
... why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effects on the universe? And who created him? [My emphasis]
ibid; p 174
Heaven is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark.It is quite clear to anyone that Hawking is pouring cold water on the notion of a creator god, even pointing out in that last sentence that the god hypothesis doesn't actually answer anything; it simply ducks the question by moving it back one. The ontological argument is one of the few 'theories' which not only fails to answer the question it is designed to answer but needs to be promptly abandoned as an argument the moment it is subject to cursory analysis, yet theologists find it compelling.
This says a great deal about theologist.
Later on, of course, having enjoyed the joke on theologists for twenty-two years, he made fools of them all with a few short sentences in The Grand Design where he simply said:
Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing... Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.Strangely, you never see those same religious apologists who rushed to proclaim that Stephen Hawking agrees with them now telling people how the 'cleverest man alive' says they are talking ignorant nonsense. Obviously, in religious apologetics, having your favourite argument utterly refuted does not mean it can't now be used anymore. If the audience will still swallow it the truth or falsity of the argument is an irrelevance. Religious apologists are not seekers after truth so much as seekers after money.
Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design; 2010, p. 180
Contrast the progressive nature of science to that of religion. With science individuals, and individual geniuses can only affect the pace of progress but never it's ultimate direction, because it is a voyage of discovery and the truth it discovers exists just as much before we have discovered it as afterwards. We can be wrong, and frequently are and always allow for that possibility but the truth is true regardless.
Reason in no way contributes to faith. [...] For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things.With religion, all the facts are pre-known and nothing need be done to discover or verify them. They all 'exist' by fiat with a complete disconnect from any real-world reality. They are there because someone a long time ago declared that they are. Those 'revealed' truths are sacred and must never be questioned. Indeed, to doubt or disbelieve them is to leave the 'faith'. With some faiths doubt or disbelief are terminal conditions. They would be with many others if only they could get away with it.
No amount of real-world evidence can have any relevance to religious 'facts' because they have been declared immune to reason. You are not permitted to stand on religion's giants shoulders in case you see their mistakes. All you can do is admire the view they claimed they could see. All the 'great' books of religion were written on their foundation and may never be revised; all the great books of science are yet to be written.
- 'Whatever the Bible says is so; whatever man says may or may not be so,' is the only [position] a Christian can take..."
- If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.
- Christians must disregard [scientific hypotheses or theories] that contradict the Bible.
Preface to Biology for Christian Schools,
William S. Pinkston, John A. Graham, Greg Kuzmic and Carla Vogt;
Bob Jones University Press
William S. Pinkston, John A. Graham, Greg Kuzmic and Carla Vogt;
Bob Jones University Press
For this reason, whilst science always converges on a single answer regardless of the starting point because it always converges on the same pre-existing truth, religions always tend to diverge and fragment because there is no real truth for them to converge on and no mechanism for verifying it is permitted (or possible). The 'truths' that religions hold fast to are the 'truths' which their founders found it convenient for their followers to believe, like the 'truths' religious con-men, theologians and clerics find it convenient to sell to their hapless and gullible customers.
For this reason the fundamentalist religious purists all subscribe to a view of science which was held by the people who wrote their religious books and must never revise or update their knowledge when new information is discovered. Instead, those most admired are those most inventive in their ways to dismiss evidence. The moderates - those who find it hard to ignore scientific progress, often because they earn their living with it - must devise convoluted mental strategies for holding mutually contradictory views simultaneously and coping with the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance they experience.