Monday, 6 September 2010

Stephen Hawking and God

The two main stories I missed during my week off (excluding the ridiculous Hague saga and the Pakistan cricket scandal, not to mention the return of the News of the World phonetapping business - I certainly picked a lively week to be away from the keyboar) involved Tony Blair and God. In both cases, there was a book being plugged: one by the Dear Ex-Leader himself, another by a scientist best known for his mechanically rendered voice. In both cases, too, entirely expected nuggets of information were treated as if they were startling revelations.

Tony Blair didn't get on all that well with Gordon Brown, likes to take the credit for other people's achievements and remains deeply convinced that he is Right about Absolutely Everything, ever - that's Tony for you. As for Stephen Hawking - his famous soundbite about "knowing the mind of God" was never intended as an expression of theistic belief, so his claim that a super-theory of everything (such as his current favourite, "M theory")would eliminate the need for a divine Creator isn't just nothing new, it's entirely tautological. Coming up with theories that explain the world without resorting to the supernatural - which includes God, obviously - is almost the definition of science. A theory that only worked if you factored in an entirely arbitrary role for a Supreme Being, who just "is", would be an incomplete theory. Eliminating the need for God - as Darwin did with natural selection, as cosmologists try to do with their ideas about the origins of th universe - isn't even an anti-religous stance. Only "creation scientists" and other jokers actually look for evidence of a Designer (or, indeed, for evidence against one) while doing "science". Science is agnostic. Scientists are quite often believers, after all.

Richard Dawkins denying the existence of God is not news, obviously. Stephen Hawking appearing to do so (even while promoting a speculative hypothesis which may, but probably won't, herald the big breakthrough) was, however, huge. But why should it matter that a reasonably respected physicist, one whose creative years were forty years ago and, even then, not a Nobel laureate, is late in life excited by someone else's brainchild? Hawking now has the public status once accorded to Albert Einstein, but enjoyed by no other physicist, not even Richard Feynman. His unavoidably gnomic pronouncements are automatically imagined profound, such that an unsurprising comment in a forthcoming book (which may well prove as difficult to the general reader as A Brief History of Time, but will no doubt sell) sparks a major debate about Science and Religion.

Presumably it's the wheelchair and the voice. Without his disabling condition, Hawking might have more genuine scientific achievements to his name, but he would probably not have become world-famous or a bestselling author. As it is, he has acquired an heroic status, as though surviving for decades with a degenerative disease that normally kills within a few years, or simply being profoundly disabled, somehow made him a more complete scientist and oracle. It is not as a scientist, indeed, that he seems to speak, but as Science itself. His wheelchair functions as a kind of papal throne, while his artificial voice, forcing him to employ slow and concise phrases, cannot converse, only pronounce. There's no arguing with Hawking because it is literally impossible to do so. Instead his sentences, like the utterances of a Zen master, are objects of contemplation.

Hawking is a wholly benign figure, yet he takes his place in an ambiguous tradition of wheelchair-bound scientists among whom one must mention Dr Strangelove, Professor Xavier of the X-men and Davros, evil creator of the Daleks. In all these cases, anxieties about science are expressed in the semi-mechanical (and thus not fully human) body of the scientist. The over-developed brain of the genius has its counterpart in his deficient body, just as science is often accused of privileging "cold" logic and reason over warmer, more human and harder to pin-down emotions or beliefs. At the same time, it is the triumph of science to gain understanding and control over the world through reason alone. Hawking's physical predicament renders him something very close to a disembodied mind, capable only of thought and articulation, and thus in a sense the semiotically perfect scientist.

Hawking's status, though, is only made possible because of how science has, unwillingly and inappropriately, taken on some of the trappings of religion.

Science isn't really a religion, of course. The thing itself is based on evidence, not faith, after all. That, though, only applies to the scientists. Everyone else has to take their work, and their words, on trust. Belief in science as an enterprise may have a rational basis, but when it comes to particular scientific facts only the prestige of science, or of particular scientists, carries weight. We believe that they must have good evidence for what they are claiming, because we're sure that other scientists would refute them if they didn't. But in truth it's a faith position. Thoughtful and conscientious people used to believe, for very similar reasons, that theologians knew what they were talking about when they all agreed that the world was created six thousand years ago.

Nowadays, religious leaders protest that while science can tell us the "how" of things, only religion can tell us the "why". That may of course be true, if only because there is no "why" - at least, not an ultimate, cosmic "why", as opposed to the whys that emerge naturally in human life. But it was't so long ago that people looked to religion to supply the "how", as fundamentalist believers still do. Now it's the other way around - hence the increasing appeals to science in matters of public or even private morality. Science merely describes the world, but by doing so it fuels a public need to do more, to answer those old questions that religion always saw as particularly its province. Religion, meanwhile, having failed to provide an accurate picture of the universe, has a credibility problem. Giving ultimate answers is after all supposed to be its job.

Science has a problem too, though, because it is fundamentally ill-equipped to do what people deep down yearn for it to do, which is to provide guidance and truth in the way religion has traditionally done. It is too argumentative; it changes; its answers are always tentative. Hence the appeal of the mirage of an ultimate theory - and mirage it is, because if M theory, or some other, were proved to give an adequate explanation of the structure of the universe it would merely open up new and unanticipated lines of enquiry. That, after all, is what all previous "ultimate" theories have done. Hence, too, the odd phenomenon of scientist as prophet, a role now occupied by Stephen Hawking. The attention paid to his views on the role of God in creation (or lack thereof) has little to do with actual science, and much more to do with desire for ultimate authority. It is in the end a religious impulse, not a scientific one, that leads people to pay attention to Stephen Hawking and to buy his books.