The Limits of Science and the Christian Faith

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, the world famous physicist and cosmologist with motor neurone disease, not unreasonably was given pride of place at the opening ceremony of the recent 2012 Paralympics in London. Last year he was interviewed by The Guardian newspaper and asked the following question:

“You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?”

Hawking’s answer was:

“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.”

Hawking has made a heroic effort to cope with disability. But sadly his current philosophy of life seems to be that of tragic nihilism with no hope. Such a philosophy needs challenging. Even Hawking seemed to want that from what he said in the Olympic Stadium:

“Look up at the stars, and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Such was his advice to the countless millions watching that opening ceremony of the Paralympics on TV.The problem, I suggest, with Stephen Hawking is that he, like many others sharing his world view, has allowed his thinking about the material universe to colour his thinking about the whole life of human beings. But why should men and women (or their essential humanity) be reduced to their brains and then likened to machines (such as modern computers)? There is a danger in too easily assuming that such a comparison will necessarily be helpful. The achievements of science in the non-human worlds of machines (and stars) have led to the application of the same methods of analysis and procedure to human individuals and human society and with some success. But this can then generate, often unwittingly, two assumptions: first, that these methods will always be successful in regard to human life, and secondly, that there is an essential equality between human nature and non-human nature. But common sense says men and women are not like machines or stars. They are very different. Indeed, common sense says such an equation is wrong for there simply is a hierarchy in nature. Men are not stones and men make machines. Thinking and speaking they rule in the natural world.

The success and limits of science

The reason for this success in science is because “nature” (or the universe seen in terms of physical laws) has been easier to understand and control than human nature. It is easier to send men to the moon than to control the warring Muslim sects in Syria and Iraq or street gangs in many of the world’s modern cities. So modern science cannot solve all problems. We need to remember the story of the man in the street at night looking down at the pavement under a lamp-post. “What are you doing?” he was asked. “I’ve lost my front door key,” he replied. “Are you sure you’ve lost it under the lamp-post?” “No!” was the reply. “But this is the only place where I can see.” We must, therefore, be careful before we look for the key to human life exclusively under the lamp of the modern (physical) sciences with their particular procedures and methods of testing hypotheses. We need another lamp and another area and different procedures and other methods of testing hypotheses. The German physicist and philosopher C.F.von Weizäcker put it like this:

“Science cannot select the order in which it wants to treat its subjects according to their importance for human life. The motion of the planets is not relevant to human happiness or salvation. But it turned out to be a comparatively simple problem for mathematical treatment, and thus through the efforts of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton its theory became the keystone of modern science. Human nature is less simple.”

The brain and the mind

Stephen Hawking likens the brain to a computer. But such a model gives no account of the brain in relation to the human “mind”. The mind is so very different to the brain. With chemical preservative you can bottle up a brain. You cannot do that with a mind. The mind has to do with thoughts, feelings, fears, wishes, hopes and beliefs. These cannot be touched, dissected or bottled. Some may not be worried by this. They have the conviction that if only we were to understand more about physical molecular biology a full account of both our thoughts and emotions could eventually be given. But the problem is that non-physical thoughts and emotions so often are the most obvious cause of physical actions and events. The mental certainly can cause the physical: it is not always the other way round.

But why have a mechanistic model like a computer with its simple “inputs” and “outputs” as an explanatory model for the human thinking? Why not take a human model such as a football club? There you have the physical side - the stadium, supporters, players, fixture lists and so on. But on the other hand you have the ethos of the club and the more slippery ideas and moods of the supporters, players and management. It is certainly true that if you affect the physical side of the club, you can affect the ethos. So at Newcastle United painting or putting up the words “Sports Direct Arena” instead of “St James’ Park”, will alienate supporters. But to think that you have explained the cause of this negative mood simply by referring to the physical actions, is self-evidently silly. You must also mention the first cause, the non-physical ideas of Mike Ashley, chairman of Newcastle United and owner of Sports Direct who ordered the change, together with the nostalgia of supporters.

Anthropology and intellectuals

Of course, men and women are neither machines nor clubs. They are human persons. And the Bible teaches that they are double natured – that is, at one and the same time they are body and soul (or brain and mind) equally. This is in contrast to those, like Hawking and many moderns, who give priority to the physical; and ancient Greeks like Plato, who gave priority to the mental and spiritual side of man. The Bible, however, appears to have an “equality in unity”. Genesis 2.7 says “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground [the physical side] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [and rational and moral life, coming from God] and man became a living being.” The “living being” that is man is equally physical and mental/spiritual. Because of his “physicality” science can be very helpful as in modern medicine. But man is more than his chemistry.

Your antecedent doctrine of man (your anthropology) is important. It can affect theories about mind/brain issues and psychology. The psychiatrist J.A.C. Brown once commented:

“Although all schools of psychology dealing with the total personality claim to be wholly scientific and to have based their theories solely on hard facts and the results of experiment or dispassionate observation, this is not in fact true, since they inevitably begin with a belief about man’s essential nature which forms the implicit frame of reference into which their facts and the results of their observations are fitted rather than the reverse, as they would have us believe.”

This should make us cautious with regard to some academics, especially those who through the media and much publicity become known as “public intellectuals”. They are always people of intelligence but not necessarily of wisdom. The danger is that too often they are believed, when they should be contradicted. Also what was said some time ago of John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, by his biographer and fellow economist, Roy Harrod, could be said of many other intellectuals:

“He [Keynes] held forth on a great range of topics, on some of which he was thoroughly expert, but on others of which he may have derived his views from the few pages of a book at which he had happened to glance. The air of authority was the same in both cases.”

This is relevant for when atheistic scientists, such as Hawking now seems, who is a brilliant scientist, talk about heaven and the afterlife or the explanation of all things. They are then no longer talking physics but metaphysics. At that point nihilistic humanism and scientific naturalism will fail. The Christian says that for such metaphysical issues and answers you need God’s wisdom as mediated through the unique history of the Israelites and their prophets and supremely in Jesus Christ and his apostles. This wisdom you discover in the Bible and this the Church should preach.

Personal conclusion

I happened to be a contemporary at college with Stephen Hawking. The last contact I had with him was, before his illness, in a rowing boat – one of the college VIIIs. He was coxing and so looking forward, I was stroking so next to him and looking backward. We were in the inter-college four day bump races where the aim each day was to bump the boat in front and not be bumped from behind. In this one race we were cruising along comfortably. He saw we were catching the boat ahead. However, he did not see (which I could see) that the boat behind was catching us up very fast. I told him to put the rate up (which the stroke can do) but he refused. Of course, we were bumped. What he saw he analysed correctly, namely us catching the boat in front. But he failed to see the other half of the picture and the most important reality, namely that we were being caught from behind.

Sadly this is a parable of what is happening to so many scientists who ignore the eternal God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit (one God in three persons) and the creator and preserver of this amazing universe. They are missing out on more than “half the picture” and the most important of all realities.


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