Hawking and the Mind of God

There’s a new book out about Stephen Hawking which has triggered a certain amount of reaction (see, e.g., here) so I thought I’d mention a book I wrote, largely in response to the pseudo-religious nature of some of Hawking’s later writings.

I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the “cult” that surrounds Stephen Hawking. I think a number of my colleagues have found some of my comments disrespectful and/or churlish. I do nevertheless stand by everything I’ve said. I have enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and fortitude, and have never said otherwise. I don’t, however, agree that Hawking is in the same category of revolutionary thinkers as Newton or Einstein, which is how he is often portrayed.

In fact a poll of 100 theoretical physicists in 1999 came to exactly the same conclusion. The top ten in that list were:

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Isaac Newton
  3. James Clerk Maxwell
  4. Niels Bohr
  5. Werner Heisenberg
  6. Galileo Galilei
  7. Richard Feynman
  8. Paul Dirac
  9. Erwin Schrödinger
  10. Ernest Rutherford

The idea of a league table like this is of course a bit silly, but it does at least give some insight into the way physicists regard prominent figures in their subject. Hawking came way down the list, in fact, in 300th (equal) place. I don’t think it is disrespectful to Hawking to point this out. I’m not saying he isn’t a brilliant physicist. I’m just saying that there are a great many other brilliant physicists that no one outside physics has ever heard of.

It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if the list had been restricted to living physicists. I’d guess Hawking would be in the top ten, but I’m not at all sure where…

And before I get accused of jealousy about Stephen Hawking’s fame, let me make it absolutely clear that if Hawking was like a top Premiership footballer (which I think is an appropriate analogy), then I am definitely like someone kicking a ball around for a pub team on a Sunday morning (with a hangover). This gulf does not make me envious; it just makes me admire his ability all the more, just as trying to play football makes one realise exactly how good the top players really are.

I am not myself religious but I do think that there are many things that science does not – and probably will never – explain, such as why there is something rather than nothing. I also believe that science and religious belief are not in principle incompatible – although whether there is a conflict in practice does depend of course on the form of religious belief and how it is observed. God and physics are in my view pretty much orthogonal. To put it another way, if I were religious, there’s nothing in theoretical physics that would change make me want to change my mind. However, I’ll leave it to those many physicists who are learned in matters of theology to take up the (metaphorical) cudgels with Professor Hawking.

Anyway, this is the book I wrote:.

And here is the jacket blurb:

Stephen Hawking has achieved a unique position in contemporary culture, combining eminence in the rarefied world of theoretical physics with the popular fame usually reserved for film stars and rock musicians. Yet Hawking’s technical work is so challenging, both in its conceptual scope and in its mathematical detail, that proper understanding of its significance lies beyond the grasp of all but a few specialists. How, then, did Hawking-the-scientist become Hawking-the-icon? Hawking’s theories often take him into the intellectual territory that has traditionally been the province of religion rather than science. He acknowledges this explicitly in the closing sentence of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time , where he says that his ultimate aim is to know the Mind of God . Hawking and the Mind of God examines the pseudo-religious connotations of some of the key themes in Hawking’s work, and how these shed light not only on the Hawking cult itself, but also on the wider issue of how scientists represent themselves in the media.

I’m sure you’ll understand that there isn’t a hint of opportunism in the way I’m drawing this to your attention because my book is long out of print so you can’t buy it unless you get a copy second-hand…

20 Responses to “Hawking and the Mind of God”

  1. I think that the consensus is that Hawking was an atheist by any useful definition (IIRC that played a role in the breakup of his first marriage), but often referred to the Mind of God metaphorically, much as Einstein did, where it was clearly just another term for Nature.

    At the 1993 Saas-Fee lectures, Malcolm Longair showed a COBE map, quoted Hawking invoking the Mind of God in that context, then pointed out that all one can actually see on the map is instrumental noise.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, your “(See eg here)” is not currently lit up as a link.

    • telescoper Says:

      Oops! Should be there now!

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Blimey, Philip Ball doesn’t like him!

        Hostile biographies are irresistible reading, of course; the question is whether they are accurate. I’m in no position to say. I will add that further information is in Jane Hawking’s autobiography, although I never understood why that book was published.

      • telescoper Says:

        The link probably explains why I took the Mind of God angle for the blog post.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        There was also Roger Highfield’s hostile biography of Einstein. It seemed ridiculous to me that Einstein’s opinion was sought on multiple matters outside physics. But GR was a staggering intellectual achievement.

      • Ball or Seife? Or both?

        There is certainly some truth to some claims in the review.

        The title is a good pun.

  3. I quite liked the fact that there was one very famous physicist, it brought a lot of public attention to GR, BHs and cosmology etc. But I would be the first to concede that a key difference between Hawking and scientists like Newton and Einstein is that the latter made major contributions to many different fields of physics, indeed kick-started several fields.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    The cult of Hawking was clearly to do with the popular appeal of the enormous disparity between his intellectual and physical capacities.

    I too found some of the cult distasteful, but I never looked into it sufficiently to decide whether this involved inordinate self-promotion on his part or not.

    As I recall, all of this putting of ‘God’ into book titles about theoretical physics for the general reader sprang from the last line of “Brief history of time” about a theory of everything meaning we would “know the mind of God”. A curious phrase for an atheist to use, and one that managed to irritate many theists and atheists alike. Then Paul Davies picked up the phrase with a daft book title of that name, and we got the Higgs being labelled the god particle, etc etc. None of which bears any resemblance to the sort of divinity that theists acknowledge.

    Science and religion orthogonal? They accord insofar as the laws of physics are beautiful (why, if not created that way?) and disagree over miracles.

    • telescoper Says:

      Whether God exists or not he certainly helps to sell books.

    • That might have been part of the reason, though Einstein had a similar status without physical disabilities. But it’s certainly true that that is what catapulted him into the public eye.

      Self-promotion? Certainly, but I don’t think that anyone holds it against him that he appeared in Star Trek.

  5. Re science and religion, I too often think about them as orthogonal (the ‘how’ vs the ‘why’ etc. But there is surely one key clash; devoutly religious people assume they know something they can’t possibly know!

    • Hi Peter, Cormac, Phillip and Anton
      There are evolutionary bases in people’s sense of morality and in their behaviours as well as in their religiousity. You will find a great deal of new understandings in multidisciplinary fields such as sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioural sciences, epigenetics, brain and cognitive sciences, gene-culture coevolution, and many more. . . . .
      There has been no shortage of scientists who are or were religious. Moreover, regardless of the degree to which some scientists are religious or atheistic, it is very unfortunate that too often even those who claim to believe in and adopt the scientific method still cherrypick the data and refuse to examine contrary evidences. They fail to understand and address many valid points, perspectives, domains and dimensions, and hence it is impossible for them to evaluate and change their standpoints, approaches and behaviours. You might have heard of this quote:

      For those who do believe, no proof is necessary.
      For those who don’t, no proof is possible.

      Perhaps some of us could take comfort in the fact that in recent years, the Catholic Church has had to accept evolution, though on a theistic basis.
      For one of the most recent takes on atheism, visit http://www.thesixwaysofatheism.com.
      As for the pitfalls and fallacies of the design argument, visit the following:
      http://www.iep.utm.edu/design/
      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/intelligent-design-trial.html
      It will be nearly or altogether impossible to claim or prove that (the theory of) evolution is wrong or invalid, for it has been estimated that if evolution (both macro and micro) were wrong then more than 99% of all scientific disciplines would be wrong too due to the high degree of cross-collaborations and confluences of data. That is not (just) my claim; and it is from some scientists who have made the interconnections and stocktaking of disciplines and knowledges. When creationists try to debunk certain parts and/or the whole of the findings of evolutionists or evolutionary scientists, they have cited certain problems with some scientific claims and/or techniques which rely on or are founded on mathematics, measurements, instruments, various disciplines and so on in very interconnected ways, and have been reliably used for a long time. For example, many instruments rely on the veracity and reliability of quantum mechanics, electronics and electrical engineering, which in turn rely on other disciplines such as physics, mechanical engineering, optics and so on . . . . It is a very highly interconnected web.
      By “cross-collaborations” (whether by design or by accident, whether independently or co-dependently, and whether concurrently or not), I meant the cumulative results, benefits and synergies from the convergence of evidence from diverse disciplines and researchers who may or may not be collaborating and/or aware of each other’s findings and activities in the first place; and I also meant that research(ers) on/in evolution and evolutionary sciences have relied and benefited, both directly and indirectly, fertilizations, findings, paradigms and techniques from diverse disciplines. Let me quote Michael Shermer from his essay entitled “A skeptic’s journey for truth in science” as further examples:

      To be fair, not all claims are subject to laboratory experiments and statistical tests. Many historical and inferential sciences require nuanced analyses of data and a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that point to an unmistakable conclusion. Just as detectives employ the convergence of evidence technique to deduce who most likely committed a crime, scientists employ the method to determine the likeliest explanation for a particular phenomenon. Cosmologists reconstruct the history of the universe by integrating data from cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, spectroscopy, general relativity and quantum mechanics. Geologists reconstruct the history of Earth through a convergence of evidence from geology, geophysics and geochemistry. Archaeologists piece together the history of a civilization from pollen grains, kitchen middens, potshards, tools, works of art, written sources and other site-specific artifacts. Climate scientists prove anthropogenic global warming from the environmental sciences, planetary geology, geophysics, glaciology, meteorology, chemistry, biology, ecology, among other disciplines. Evolutionary biologists uncover the history of life on Earth from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, genetics, and so on.

    • Hello Peter, Cormac, Phillip and Anton,

      There are evolutionary bases in people’s sense of morality and in their behaviours as well as in their religiousity. You will find a great deal of new understandings in multidisciplinary fields such as sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and behavioural sciences, epigenetics, brain and cognitive sciences, gene-culture coevolution, and many more. . . . .

      There has been no shortage of scientists who are or were religious. Moreover, regardless of the degree to which some scientists are religious or atheistic, it is very unfortunate that too often even those who claim to believe in and adopt the scientific method still cherrypick the data and refuse to examine contrary evidences. They fail to understand and address many valid points, perspectives, domains and dimensions, and hence it is impossible for them to evaluate and change their standpoints, approaches and behaviours. You might have heard of this quote:

      For those who do believe, no proof is necessary.
      For those who don’t, no proof is possible.

      Perhaps some of us could take comfort in the fact that in recent years, the Catholic Church has had to accept evolution, though on a theistic basis.

      For one of the most recent takes on atheism, visit http://www.thesixwaysofatheism.com.

      It will be nearly or altogether impossible to claim or prove that (the theory of) evolution is wrong or invalid, for it has been estimated that if evolution (both macro and micro) were wrong then more than 99% of all scientific disciplines would be wrong too due to the high degree of cross-collaborations and confluences of data. That is not (just) my claim; and it is from some scientists who have made the interconnections and stocktaking of disciplines and knowledges. When creationists try to debunk certain parts and/or the whole of the findings of evolutionists or evolutionary scientists, they have cited certain problems with some scientific claims and/or techniques which rely on or are founded on mathematics, measurements, instruments, various disciplines and so on in very interconnected ways, and have been reliably used for a long time. For example, many instruments rely on the veracity and reliability of quantum mechanics, electronics and electrical engineering, which in turn rely on other disciplines such as physics, mechanical engineering, optics and so on . . . . It is a very highly interconnected web.

      By “cross-collaborations” (whether by design or by accident, whether independently or co-dependently, and whether concurrently or not), I meant the cumulative results, benefits and synergies from the convergence of evidence from diverse disciplines and researchers who may or may not be collaborating and/or aware of each other’s findings and activities in the first place; and I also meant that research(ers) on/in evolution and evolutionary sciences have relied and benefited, both directly and indirectly, fertilizations, findings, paradigms and techniques from diverse disciplines. Let me quote Michael Shermer from his essay entitled “A skeptic’s journey for truth in science” as further examples:

      To be fair, not all claims are subject to laboratory experiments and statistical tests. Many historical and inferential sciences require nuanced analyses of data and a convergence of evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that point to an unmistakable conclusion. Just as detectives employ the convergence of evidence technique to deduce who most likely committed a crime, scientists employ the method to determine the likeliest explanation for a particular phenomenon. Cosmologists reconstruct the history of the universe by integrating data from cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, spectroscopy, general relativity and quantum mechanics. Geologists reconstruct the history of Earth through a convergence of evidence from geology, geophysics and geochemistry. Archaeologists piece together the history of a civilization from pollen grains, kitchen middens, potshards, tools, works of art, written sources and other site-specific artifacts. Climate scientists prove anthropogenic global warming from the environmental sciences, planetary geology, geophysics, glaciology, meteorology, chemistry, biology, ecology, among other disciplines. Evolutionary biologists uncover the history of life on Earth from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, genetics, and so on.

    • Many scientists also assume they know things they don’t. 80% of science is about fixing past mistakes. I am sure. Science is about getting the facts correct. Interpretations are temporary.

  6. Peter, I happened to notice that there is a typo in your phrase “where he says that his ultimate aim is the know the Mind of God”. It should have been “to know the Mind of God”.

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