Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Clever Man Says Interesting Thing, Shock

Earlier this year the New Statesman (a magazine) asked a group of famous people who believed in God why they believed in God. Later on they asked a group of famous people who didn't believe in God why they didn't believe in God. It turned out that the people who believed in God believed in God for all the usual reasons, and the people who didn't believe in God didn't believe in God for all the usual reasons. I give Ben Goodacre points for saying that he thought there should be a word for people who weren't interested one way or the other. The atheists were on the whole shriller than the theists. Richard Dawkins started off sounding calm and reasonable, explaining that he didn't believe in God because he didn't see any reason to believe in God, but ended up saying that "theology" was "the exact equivalent" of reading tea-leaves.

I was a lot more interested in the comments of one Steven Hawking. He was the fella, you remember, who said that when we'd filled in the last bit of physics we would "know the mind of God".

The Dawk is probably right to say that when Hawking says "God" he doesn't actually mean "God": it's just a flowery way of saying "we will know everything." I do wonder if Hawking was deliberately playing up to his own mythology. A very clever man who happens to be severely disabled fits in nicely with Gnostic ideas about Bodies being things that Minds have annoyingly got trapped in, and that we should let those bodies shrivel away so that minds can expand and ascend and get back in touch with the mind of God. That's why the most brilliant fictional scientists (Prof. X, Davros, the Mekon) are always represented as wheelchair users.

Biologists are often accused of "playing God" by people who don't understand biology, or for that matter, God. It's hard to see why "fixing the plumbing" so childless couples can make babies is necessarily more hubristic than, say, giving aspirins to people who God has decided ought to have headaches. But Physicists seem to positively like using the G-word. They pretend that Mr Higgs-Boson is the God Particle or that a grand unified theory is the Mind of God or that Quantum Physics reveals that the Creator is a big fan of Yahtzee. 

Christians have a bad habit of pretending that this means that the scientists in question believed in God even when they obviously didn't. Christians have a bad habit of pretending that all sorts of famous people believed in God when they obviously didn't. Atheists have got an equally bad habit of claiming that famous people didn't believe in God when they obviously did. ("Oh, they may have said that they did, but that was the kind of thing you had to say in the olden days. If they lived today, they would have agreed with me.") Einstein, who was a scientist, didn't believe in God, and said so, although he also said that the didn't think much of atheists and was a big fan of Jesus.

I think that the tendency of some physicists to talk about their science in theological language does imply that they think that their science is the sort of thing which it is worth using theological language to talk about. I think that they use words like "God" because they like to think of themselves as discoverers of some ultimate, or indeed, Ultimate, truth, or indeed Truth. Unlike those poor benighted chemists who just mix things up in their test tubes. I think that they use the G-word because they believe in some kind of Platonic reality – that there are things that are true and would have been true even if there had been no minds to observe them being true. Unlike those people on the other side of the quad who think that everything is contingent, cultural determined, subjective, post-modern, deconstructable.

More recently, Mr Hawking has claimed that the gaps which he perceived when he wrote a Brief History of Time have indeed been filled in: "the scientific account is complete and theology is unnecessary". This works very well if God is primarily an explanation for the bits of the Universe we don't quite understand. When we knew hardly anything, there was lots of stuff for God to do; now we know everything, we can retire him. (I've always felt that this can't be quite right. So little of the Bible and the Koran and the Book of Mormon seem to be involved in saying "Why do elephants have long noses? Because God said so, that's why." So much of it seems to be about temples and taboos and morals and miracles and stuff.)

But the bombshell that Hawking drops on the New Statesman goes like this:

"I am not claiming that there is no God. The scientific account is complete but it does not predict human behaviour because there are too many equations to solve. One therefore uses a different model which can include free will and God." 

Go back and read that again.

Now go back and read it again.

Now, we know well enough how the rest of this argument pans out. Like a high level chess game, the moves are planned out in advance. Some Christians are, right now, typing that God exists because the most famous scientist of his generation says that God exists, or at any rate, that God doesn't definitely not exist. Some atheists are, right now, typing "Oh, I suppose just because humans are complicated I have to start circumcising lambs on bronze alters, do I?" All the cute little Dawkinistas are typing that by "God", Hawking doesn't mean "God" and even if he does, he's got a diseased mind and can be ignored. Five comments in someone will use the phrase "sky fairy" and the discussion will come to an end.

But it is still very interesting.

Clearly, Hawking hasn't suddenly converted to anything, and isn't even necessarily talking about the "God" of religion. He may not be saying anything more than that "God" can be a useful tool of thought. That was the line taken by Phillip Pullman before he became boring: God doesn't "exist" but she's still worth thinking about, because she allows us to think of things we couldn't think of without her. (There is no such number as the square root of minus one, but calculations involving the square root of minus one have useful real world applications.) It was also the line taken by Terry Pratchett: maybe it is good to teach children to believe in things that don't exist, like the tooth fairy, because they are going to need to believe in other things that don't exist, like "love" and "freedom".

It isn't quite clear what Hawking means by "model". He may mean "It could sometimes be useful to pretend that there is a God in the same way that it is sometimes useful (when you are trying to find your way home without a compass, say) to pretend that the earth is the center of the universe and the sun moves round it." Or he may mean: "When we are talking about the human mind, and how it interacts with the universe, and whether it makes real choices, it is perfectly valid to construct hypothesis which includes God. At some point in the future, we may think of a way of testing those hypotheses." 

He seems, very interestingly, to grok the idea that "God" is not, and never way, primarily a very inefficient way of explaining why elephants have trunks; but is, and always was, a way of thinking about how us minds go about existing and interacting with other minds which also seem to be embodied in this physical universe thing. 

Since he has (so far as I know) no particular religious axe to grind it will not be possible for the atheists to reply "Oh, look at the contortions which these Christians will go to to salvage some part of their nasty barbaric bronze age did I mention Fred Phelps stoning apostates sky fairy sky fairy sky fairy." This doesn't mean that they won't say it. And if he is serious (about not claiming that God does not exist) it will suddenly become awfully hard to maintain the imaginary line between science (which is always atheistic) and faith (which is always anti-scientific.) Which doesn't mean that people won't carry on saying it.

Science has explained everything; but human minds and their apparent ability to make choices are not really part of the "everything" which science has explained. We may need to think of them in some other way. Some way that may include "God". 

Excuse me: but wasn't that exactly the territory over which C.S Lewis and G.E.M Anscombe had their celebrated theological spat in 1948?