Even great science tells us nothing about God

September 3, 2010
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Article published in The Times on 3rd September 2010

What would we do for entertainment without scientists telling us, with breathless excitement, that “God did not create the universe,” as if they were the first to discover this astonishing proposition? Stephen Hawking is the latest, but certainly not the first. When Napoleon asked Laplace, two hundred years ago, where was God in his scientific system, the mathematician replied, Je n’ais besoin de cette hypothese. “I do not need God to explain the universe.” We never did. That is what scientists do not understand.

There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. They are different intellectual enterprises. They even occupy different hemispheres of the brain. Science – linear, atomistic, analytical – is a typical left-brain activity. Religion – integrative, holistic, relational – is supremely a work of the right-brain.

It is important for us to understand the mistake Professor Hawking has made, because the mutual hostility between religion and science is one of the curses of our age, and it is damaging to religion and science in equal measure.

The best way of approaching it is through the autobiography of Charles Darwin. Darwin tells us that as a young man he had been impressed with the case for God as set out by William Paley in his Natural Theology of 1802. Paley updated the classic “argument from design” to the state of scientific knowledge as it existed in his day.

Find a stone on a heath, says Paley, and you won’t ask who designed it. It doesn’t look as if it was designed. But find a watch and you will think differently. A watch looks as if it was designed. Therefore it had a designer. The universe looks more like a watch than a stone. It is intricate, interlocking, complex. Therefore, it too had a designer, whose name is God.

Darwin, in a simple yet world-transforming idea, showed how the appearance of design does not require a designer at all. It can emerge over a long period of time by, as we would put it today, an iterated process of genetic mutation and natural selection. So the universe is not like a watch, or if it is, the watchmaker was blind. Q.E.D.

But whoever thought the universe was like a watch in the first place? The scientists and philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Newton. Leibniz. Laplace. Auguste Comte. What was wrong about Paley’s argument was not the theology but the science on which it was based. Good science refutes bad science. It tells us nothing at all about God.

Professor Hawking has done something very similar, except that this time he plays both parts. He is both Paley and Darwin, and with great legerdemain and panache, Hawking II, the good scientist, has brilliantly refuted Hawking I, the poor theologian.

Hawking I was the person who wrote, at the end of A Brief History of Time, that if we found science’s holy grail, a theory-of-everything, we would know “why it is that we and the universe exist.” We would “know the mind of God.”

This is so elementary a fallacy that it is hard to believe that Professor Hawking meant it. We would know how we and the universe came into being, not why. Nor, in any but the most trivial sense, would we “know the mind of God.” The Bible simply isn’t interested in how the universe came into being. It devotes a mere 34 verses to the subject. It takes fifteen times as much space to describing how the Israelites constructed a sanctuary in the desert.

The Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science. It is interested in other questions entirely. Who are we? Why are we here? How then shall we live? It is to answer those questions, not scientific ones, that we seek to know the mind of God.

Hawking II has now refuted Hawking I. The universe, according to the new theory, created itself. (This reminds me of a joke I heard as an undergraduate about a smug business tycoon: “He is a self-made man, thereby relieving God of a grave responsibility”).  Should you reply that the universe must be astonishingly intelligent to have fined-tuned itself so precisely for the emergence of stars, planets, life and us, all of which are massively improbable, then the answer is that there is an infinity of universes in which all the possibilities and permutations are played out. We struck lucky. We found the universe that contained us.

I first heard this theory from that brilliant and wise scientist, Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society. He too, as he explains in his book Just Six Numbers, was puzzled by the precision of the six mathematical constants that define the shape of the universe.  So unlikely is it that the universe just happened, by chance, to fit those parameters that he too was forced to suggest the parallel universes hypothesis. If you hold an infinity of lottery tickets, one of them is going to win.

That is true, but not elegant. The principle of Ockham’s Razor says: don’t multiply unnecessary entities. Given a choice between a single intelligent creator and an infinity of self-creating universes, the former wins hands down.

But let us hail a scientific genius. Professor Hawking is one of the truly great minds of our time. Two thousand years ago the rabbis coined a blessing – you can find it in any Jewish prayer book – on seeing a great scientist, regardless of his or her religious beliefs. That seems to me the right attitude of religion to science: admiration and thankfulness.

But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science. I will continue to believe that God who created one or an infinity of universes in love and forgiveness continues to ask us to create, to love and to forgive.