Science, God and our understanding.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said in an interview published in theU.K.’s Guardian newspaper that he rejects the notion of heaven. In Hawking’s interview with the Guardian, he “emphasized the need to fulfill our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives.”

Here’s a little more insight from the Q and A with the famed physicist:

You’ve said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touch paper. Is our existence all down to luck? Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

So here we are. What should we do?  We should seek the greatest value of our action.

You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?  I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

The above interview and its publication has aroused a controversy in the news media. There are those that support the physicist and those who decry the above statements as heresy. In our view, such controversy is the result of misunderstanding of a few basic words and their meaning from both sides. Here are a few examples:

Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

Science provides the capacity to predict within the limits of our observation, our analysis of such data leading to our understanding of the laws of nature at play. The certainty of such predictions is high, when the context or subject matter is limited or well defined. As an example one can predict with reasonable certainty whether an iron rod will or will not break under certain load or under what conditions an iron rod will or will not rust. One can predict with certainty if oil or water will wet the floor and why? Greater our capacity to observe, quantify and analyze the evidences, and arrive at the inherent causality (laws of nature), higher the capacity for prediction and their accuracy. Despite large volumes of data, science finds its limits to “predict”. This is why we can not pin point each tornado or earthquake ahead of time. We do our best and in the end accept the outcome as determined by the “laws of nature”! It is interesting to note that Stephen Hawking uses the words “prediction” and “matter of chance” in the above statement almost immediately after each other!

Every one – the scientists, philosophers and the theologians – all agree with the existence of the laws of nature. It is the description of nature and its laws by each that is different. Scientists accept the laws of nature as unique and pertinent to each set of problem or observations. Even among scientists there are those – the pre-eminent ones like Stephen Hawking – who seek an unified understanding of many of the laws of nature. Philosophers describe the summum bonum of all laws of nature as the Consciousness or the Brahman. Theologians describe the laws of nature as the “invisible hands of God”.

Each of us is a Scientist (governed by our observations and their rational analysis) and a Philosopher (governed by reflection, analysis and inferences of common themes across seemingly different and divided subjects) and a Theologian (governed by a deep and infallible sense of faith in a larger order or the God). Hence our statements from any one of these points of view should not be treated as a “be all and end all”. This would be like the right hand fighting with the left hand. If the right eye and the left eye do not see the object in a coordinated manner we call it a “Vision problem”. Perceived discrepancies between the scientific, philosophic and theological points of view have to be understood and accommodated for a holistic vision of life and nature at large.

We should seek the greatest value of our action.

Science is the process of rational analysis of observations. It sets no values and certainly no ordering of values such as high and low or great and small. Theology sets values based on morals and codes of conduct. Philosophy provides coherence between the cognitive world of Science and the theological world of faith.

Each of us as humans live in the material or cognitive world – the world of action and reaction. This starts with our body functions (in all that we can relate to) in a tangible and inferential manner. Science provides a frame work for such cognitive world. We also live in a world of emotions. Are emotions unique to humans? This is a question still being studied by the scientists! This is a world of hope and fear, a world of love, compassion, generosity, caring, etc. Theology provides a logical frame work and value systems to steer through this world of emotions. We also live in a world of thoughts, ideas, and contemplation – the intellectual world. This is the realm of philosophy. In common parlance these three worlds are described as the realm of body, heart and mind. This might be an over simplification, but serves to identify the three spheres of human existence. Can you imagine any one normal that functions as a human with out the body functions or emotions or thoughts of some kind?  So, when Stephen Hawking states that “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail” he is describing the brain purely in terms of its body functions. We all know well that for many people, long before the failure of the kind he describes, the brain fails when it acts in an emotionless and cruel manner, unless it is coached and mentored by theologians on the right and wrong, on the moral values of life. In other words the brain as a computer may fail due to software glitches long before the hardware fails! We also know of instances when the brain  and its body functions perform well, but its thoughts) are so out of whack (as if it has been hacked by a virus!) that it is drawn to ideology that are destructive to that person as well as for large communities of people. This is the failure of the brain, when it does not grapple with the right and wrong from the philosophic point of view. This is like the computer that crashes and the only way to get it to work again properly is to shut it down and re-boot it!

Then why all the controversy about the statements by Stephen Hawking?

There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Being an eminent physicist Prof. Stephen Hawking is well qualified to speak about the world of physics – the cognitive world. But when he makes partial statements about the brain and its functions (only from a scientific frame work about a broken down computer) then it leaves room for others who also look at their world from their limited quarters to disagree with him.

When his statement includes terms of emotion such as “fairy story for people afraid of the dark” he invites criticism from theologians who would claim better knowledge about fairy and ghosts and people’s fear (even with well functioning computer/brain) and methods to address them.

Science, Philosophy and Theology are not mutually exclusive realm for an ordinary person. They may appear to be exclusive of each other for experts in these three fields.

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3 Responses to Science, God and our understanding.

  1. G says:

    Long time reader… first time commentor. While I appreciate your goal this morning to bridge the divide between Stephen Hawking and the religious fundamentalists, I might articulate it in a slightly different way.

    Fundamentally, this is an argument between rational analysis and faith-based analysis. These are necessarily mutually exclusive. To fit within your framework, philosophy is rational analysis of many subjects. Science is a branch of philosophy, the rational analysis of nature. Theology is analysis based on faith. While both philosophy and theology are looking to answer the same questions, the former is dealing with observations and rational conclusions while the foundation of the latter is one grounded in the irrational.

    Hawking is stating that a rational mind can not conclude that heaven or God exists. The penultimate philosopher/scientist, Hawking sees no need for the mental creation of these structures because truth is his ultimate goal. Without fear of death, his “computer” doesn’t need “software” related to faith. Rationally, there is no reason to be afraid of the dark, as scientists and philosophers would analyze that it is merely a state without light. A less rational mind might fear dark because of the potential for lurking boogymonsters or devils. In emotionally heightened states, structures of God are needed reliefs.

    If the ultimate goal is truth, Hawking’s points can’t be dismissed. Science and philosophy, based in rational analysis, have consistently produced greater gains in the pursuit of truth than theology.

    If the ultimate goal is happiness, then the theologians can’t be dismissed. Studies have shown that religious people are generally happier than those without belief. The reasons for the increased happiness can be attributed to non-supernatural reasons (increased social interaction, feeling of belonging to a group, etc). However, the fact remains that religious practice is one method of increasing one’s happiness.

    Conflicts arise because the human mind seems to desire some combination of ‘truth’ and ‘happiness’. Hawking is at one extreme, dismissing all notions that stray from truth. Religious beliefs that claim the workings of God as reality are in direct opposition with the rational pursuit of truth, creating cognitive dissonance.

    Theologians, on the other hand, create their own version of truth, versions that make their followers happy. Their structures depend on suspending belief in truths derived by rational analysis. Cognitive dissonance arises when people like Hawking inject doses of rational truth into their lives. If heaven and God don’t exist, then the structures upon which they have derived happiness begin to crumble.

    We all seem to want happiness, but only if our happiness is ‘true’ happiness. Just as we don’t want to achieve happiness through mind-altering drugs, we wouldn’t want to be deluded into believing false notions of the universe in the pursuit of happiness. Only when ‘our’ reality is the (only) ‘true’ reality, are we satisfied.

    Ultimately, we only have to live in the truth, rational or irrational, we mentally create for ourselves and we seem ready to fight to defend our own versions of truth to the bitter end…


  2. Rajesh S. Raghavan says:

    Hello Sipractice,
    Unfortunately, Stephen Hawking is not speaking of the same God you are speaking of. The same is true of Richard Dawkins, the atheist zoologist who authored “The Selfish Gene.” When they say “God does not exist”, they refer to to the theological God . That God has a physical form separate from the Universe which He creates. The Brahman of Hinduism is pantheistic. In this case, God and the Universe are one and the same. In fact, when presented with the Pantheistic argument, Richard Dawkins is actually inclined to “accept” it as “glorified atheism.” The atheists of the West would likely agree with the pantheistic view that “God is the Universe”; “Nature is God”.


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