Science and faith

As Frank Sinatra sang: “Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention”.

Well OK, I’ll mention just one.  In the early Nineties I was working in Seoul, Korea, and I was invited to attend a lecture in Seoul by Stephen Hawking.  I was desperately keen to go, but I had a meeting booked at the same time with the MD of a key customer.  Torn both ways, I finally decided to do the decent thing, go to my meeting and miss the Hawking lecture.  I’ve regretted it ever since.  I couldn’t remember, today, the name of the Korean customer, or why it was important to see him.  But I can remember Stephen Hawking, and I may never have another chance to hear him.

Of course I read mathematics at Cambridge (1962/65), and Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – a Chair once held by Isaac Newton – which adds to my interest.  Nevertheless, I think Hawking is wrong to argue that new discoveries in mathematics or astrophysics can disprove the existence of God, however much Richard Dawkins may relish the idea.

I don’t pretend for a moment to follow Hawking’s abstruse mathematics.  But I find it simply not credible that the Universe should emerge from nothing, which seems to me, at least, to suppose that an effect can be its own cause (and if the Universe can spring from nothing all by itself, then presumably God – or anything else – could do the same, and the whole scientific structure of cause and effect would be lost).  Hawking may well have understood, better than anyone else, how the Universe came into being, but no amount of physics will answer the metaphysical question “Why?” (Though our ability to ask a question does not mean necessarily that any meaningful or satisfactory answer exists).

I always like to recall the Mediæval cartographers, who recognised the limits to their knowledge, but rather than leave boring gaps in the corners of their maps, chose instead to populate the unknown areas with mythical beasts, dragons or improbable marine creatures.  My view is that despite all the amazing advances in science, it is asking too much for our species, on a rather ordinary planet orbiting a rather ordinary star in an odd corner of a fairly ordinary galaxy, to expect to understand everything in the Universe, to comprehend all knowledge.  The amount that is unknown is presumably infinite.  But no matter how much we know, our body of knowledge remains finite, so no matter how much information we acquire, no matter how much science we do, the unknown remains infinite.

Some people choose to define God in terms of the gaps.  He is out there in the unknown, along with the Mediæval cartographers’ mythical beasts.  Others choose to define him in terms of the “Why?” question, rather than the “How?” question which is (or may be) the preserve of physics.  But that comes down to faith – either you believe it, because it seems plausible and the arguments persuade you, or (like Dawkins) you are happy to recognise the great unknown, but see no reason to populate it with speculative life forms, whether God or dragons.

My point is that physics and faith are essentially different things, dealing in different questions, and you cannot use ideas from one field to prove or disprove anything in the other.  Physics cannot disprove religion, any more than religion can disprove physics.  Not even Stephen Hawking.

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5 Responses to Science and faith

  1. Hawking, for all his claimed modernity, is following the well-worn path of the 17th century deist (the belief that God set the whole show on the road and then absents Himself) towards atheism.

  2. John Switzer says:

    Probably one of the most considered and well-written pieces I have read, since Hawkins’ comments made it on to the front (and the middle and the back!) pages of the national press.

    For me science answers the how, but rarely can answer the why. Professor Hawkings and others can most probably provide a perfectly agreeable explanation of why I’m typing this response; But none of them will be able explain why I’m typing it.

    All too often, science and religion are cast as mortal enemies. Vast swathes of the media seem to believe they are mutually exclusive. This ignores the reality that the modern scientific movement emerged from religion as part of a desire to better understand God’s creation. Today, there are many scientists who hold Christian beliefs and find no conflict between their Christian and their scientific principles. There are still more scientists, who adhere to other religious principles and beliefs and again they find no conflict.

    I think we also need to realise that science, theology and philosophy are fluid subjects, that are continually evolving. Just as Professor Hawkings has corrected some of his previous theories and beliefs in his most recent book, no doubt in the future he will correct some of his current beliefs and theories too.

    Antony Flew was a man who spent the greater part of his life in the last century denying the existence of a creator, only in this century to conclude there was actually a God – albeit a God that Flew say as being very different to the Christian God or indeed, the God of Islam. We could all do well to follow Flew’s example and heed Socrates’ advice, by ‘following the argument to wherever it leads’.

  3. Nice to see a politician stand up and be specific between science and faith, putting forward a good case for why we SHOULD be comfortable with both.

  4. Hugh Davis says:

    “God did not create the universe” claims Stephen Hawking, “because our universe followed inevitably from the laws of nature”.
    Not exactly a logical conclusion from such a brilliant mind, as it leads one immediately to ask “Well where did the laws of nature come from?” The latter question is not addressed by Mr Hawking at all, so his claim to have abolished God is premature to say the least. Richard Dawkins enters into a similar blind alley when he claims that the laws of evolution make God unnecessary.
    Mankind’s experience is of a universe governed entirely by cause and effect, and anything outside that experience makes no sense, so science will never be able to eliminate God any more than a theologian or philosopher will be able to answer questions such as “Who made God?”

  5. Harry Taylor says:

    I get most frustrated by articles about ‘God’. Who is the real god, Allah, JC, Buddah? But when all the praying, to whoever, is done, when has there been just one documented incident of devine intervention?.
    Harry Taylor

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