Another ungodly squabble
Sep 5th 2010, 15:19 by J.P. | LONDON
WHEN a prominent man (or woman) of faith asserts the existence of God, nobody takes notice. But whenever a prominent scientist raises the opposite prospect, all hell is sure to break loose. The latest furore was provoked by Stephen Hawking, one of Britain's best known scientists and a likely future recipient of the Nobel prize in physics (if, as expected, his 1974 theory that black holes emit radiation despite their notorious all-engulfing gravitational pull is confirmed by experiments at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN). On September 2nd The Times, a British daily, published an extensive excerpt (this and other Times links behind a pay wall) from "The Grand Design", Dr Hawking's first major book in nearly a decade, which will hit the shelves on September 9th (reviewed here in the Financial Times by Roger Penrose, another big name in British physics, and here by The Economist).
Never mind the niceties of string theory and its implications for physics. What really got everybody aflutter was his contention that the Big Bang is an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, so that "it is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper." The jury is still out on whether current theories really are enough to explain the origins of the universe. And the scientific method, with its laborious procedures and peer review, ensures we won't know for certain in the foreseeable future. But the proposition elicited an immediate if predictable response from another quarter.
Clerics representing the Abrahamic faiths (supported by a handful of religiously-minded physicists) weighed in, rehearsing all the tired arguments about science providing explanations and religion offering interpretations, science being concerned with "is" where faith is concerned with "ought", etc. On cue, militant atheists trotted out their own hoary lines: vacuity of the god of the gaps, meaninglessness of the questions about the meaning of it all, and so on.
What made Dr Hawking's revelation so jarring to the religious establishment, and so mellifluous to its ideological opponents, was that until now he was regarded as an ally of faith. In "A Brief History of Time", the hugely popular 1988 book that cemented his fame outside academic circles, Dr Hawking seemed to acknowledge God's involvement in the creation of the universe. This made him something of a church darling.
Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and arguably the world's most famous atheist, welcomed Dr Hawking's apparent apostasy, telling the Times that "Darwinism kicked God out of biology but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the coup de grace." He quickly added that construing the physicist's past proclamations as anything more than a handy metaphor was indulging in "wishful thinking".
The row will peter out soon, no doubt, though not before saving Dr Hawking a pretty penny in advertising costs for his book. The broader debate, meanwhile, will rage on. After all, an important piece of knowledge is at stake. As Dr Dawkins is ever keen to stress, a reality inhabited by a sentient supernatural being is very different from a reality that isn't. In fact, they are mutually exclusive. We either live in one or the other; we can't have it both ways. Opinions vary on whether or not this is ultimately knowable, but there is little doubt that "the truth is out there". This Babbage would love to find out what it is, though he isn't holding his breath.
However, another fascinating question, hitherto absent from the current palaver, may prove more tractable. It concerns not how to explain creation without God, but how to account for the persistence of human religious belief without invoking its object. Evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists and neurologists are hard at work trying to figure this out. Watch this space.