Hawking on Heaven
Published: 21 July 2011 (GMT+10)
World-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has made major news again. No, this isn’t the revelation of some new theory about the formation of the cosmos or the discovery of a phenomenon that supposedly proves the Big Bang. This time, he throws his hat into the theological ring. In an exclusive interview in The Guardian (UK) in May 2011, he said, “There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story.”1 This comes as no surprise given what he wrote in his 2010 book, The Grand Design, where he said that there is no need for a creator to explain the existence of the universe (see our refutation). In the interview, Hawking shared his thoughts on the non-existence of the afterlife, our purpose as humans, and why we exist.
It always surprises me when professed atheists try to tell Christians what we should believe. Hawking, like fellow atheist Richard Dawkins, is way out of his depth when it comes to theology. To give an analogy, I know nothing about fixing cars. Now, let’s suppose that my car breaks down and I have it towed to my local mechanic. When trying to diagnose the problem, he hears me say something like, “I think the main problem lies in the catalytic converter.” Since I know nothing about cars, should the mechanic take my word for it and attempt to fix the catalytic converter? Of course not. My words will likely, and should, go in one ear and out the other. Similarly, when atheists talk about theology, should we as Christians listen to them and take their word for it? Not at all. That makes as much sense as the mechanic listening to my diagnosis of the car. Hawking is a physicist, not a theologian. He has as much business talking about heaven as Billy Graham does about quantum mechanics.
Science: the all-powerful force?
Hawking was first asked, “What is the value in knowing ‘Why are we here?’” He responded:
“The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.”
Hawking’s answer makes science the authoritative all-powerful force in the universe. However he is committing a very common logical fallacy most commonly referred to as reification. Science, since it is abstract and not a concrete entity, cannot govern anything. We as creationists would rather argue that the universe is upheld by the power of God. Science is an abstract tool that can be used suitably or unsuitably. The laws of science describe the phenomena that we observe, just as a map describes the coastline. The laws of science don’t prescribe anything, so saying that science tells us that we can solve equations is logically fallacious (see for example Is evolution allowed by scientific laws?).
Hawking goes on to say that we need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection. Hawking presumes that evolution is a fact, and was driven by natural selection. But this is impossible. Natural selection cannot be the driving mechanism behind particles-to-professors evolution, as it culls genes rather than creating them (see Muddy Waters: Clarifying the confusion about natural selection). Typical evolutionary scenarios need a huge increase in genetic information in order to get from a single-celled organism to a complex creature such as a horse or human. But almost all examples of evolution in action involve sorting or loss of information—see How information is lost when creatures adapt to their environment. This includes antibiotic and pesticide resistance, sickle cell anemia conferring resistance to malaria, wingless beetles on windswept islands and blind fish in caves. If evolution were true, we should see numerous examples of information going uphill, but instead we have only a tiny number of highly debatable cases, such as bacteria that digest nylon, citrate or xylitol (see the hyperlinked articles for why they likely have nothing to do with increase of information).
Multiverses and why science works
Hawking was then asked, “You’ve said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?”1 to which he replied, “Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.” The first part of this question refers back to what Hawking wrote in, The Grand Design, where he stated that there is no need for a creator to explain the existence of the universe.
Hawking has always been at odds with the concept of religion as noted in an interview he did with Diane Sawyer in June of 2010 where he said:
“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works.”2
This ignores the fact that Christianity is also based on observed events: the disciples were witnesses to what they saw—Jesus’ ministry, miracles, and ultimately His death, resurrection, and ascension. All of the central claims of Christianity rest on these claims, and they were made within the lifetime of people who could have contradicted them if their claims weren’t true.
An underlying question could be asked here. Why does science work? Science works because of the uniformity of nature and the reliability of our senses to observe and analyze the results of the scientific method. Why, in an atheistic universe, should we trust our senses if they’re merely random chemical reactions in our brain? Why should nature be uniform? Where exactly, in the atheistic worldview, does reason come from anyway? We know that the laws of logic are immaterial, universal, abstract entities. So how can an atheistic worldview account for these things which he takes for granted? Ultimately, atheists have no way of explaining the origins of the laws of logic.
Also, in this answer Hawking states that many universes will spontaneously be created out of nothing. Where is the observational evidence for this claim? Have we ever encountered another universe? Have we ever seen anything created out of nothing? Again, Hawking brings a lot to the table with no clear evidence in sight. He then goes on to say that we’re here just because of chance; a lucky roll of the dice. So, every part of our existence is just the product of chance. All of our morality is just chance. The love we express to our children is just chance. I could go on, but the point Hawking is making here is very clear. Everything is chance and no one is special.
Why should we seek the ‘greatest value’?
The interviewer continues:
“Hawking rejected the notion of life beyond death and emphasised the need to fulfil our potential on Earth by making good use of our lives. In answer to a question on how we should live, he said, simply: ‘We should seek the greatest value of our action.’”
This seems completely contradictory to his previous answer. Why should we seek the greatest value of our action? If we’re all just rearranged pond scum here by chance, why does doing good or evil matter? And by what standard do we judge the value of our actions? If “making good use of our lives” is nothing more than chance chemical reactions in our brain, or as the interviewer calls it, “brain flickers,”1 what is good or evil? In the atheistic view, there is no way to consistently argue a moral difference between genocide and mowing the grass. Ultimately there is no problem of evil in an atheist’s universe because there is no evil in an atheistic worldview. Since there is no God, there is no absolute moral standard and therefore nothing is wrong. This is not to say that all actions by atheists are immoral. Deep down in their heart of hearts they do know the God of the Bible from what has been made (Romans 1) and from their conscience (Romans 2).3
Heaven: a fairy story?
Next, the interviewer pries a bit deeper, asking, in the context of a 2009 health scare, what if anything Hawking fears about death. Hawking replied:
“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.”
Regarding the brain as something as simple as a computer is a huge mistake. With most computers, we can install different operating systems on them and they function just fine. However, our brains are not quite like that. No computer has ever been built that can equal the processing power and capability that compares to our brains. Additionally, computers are not capable of having conscious, moral, and decision making thought. A computer cannot be given a moral choice to make and it end up choosing the best option unless it is preprogrammed to make a specific moral choice by a programmer. Furthermore, nothing Hawking said proves his dogma that that the mind is entirely an epiphenomenon of the brain; the evidence is consistent also with a non-material mind using the brain. The late philosopher and former atheist Antony Flew argued against such materialist dogma. He compared it to people on a remote island who find a transmitter with voices coming from it, and think because they’ve figured out the workings of the transmitter, they’ve disproved the existence of the people whose voices are transmitted. See The “God spot”: Does it prove that God is all in our heads?
Hawking is also calling those of us who believe in heaven and an afterlife as believers of fairy tales. This is just another fact-free tirade intended to persuade believers into taking his side or simply engage in name calling. Apparently, Hawking isn’t afraid of the dark either. This might seem to be a nonsensical statement on the surface, but I think it may have an underlying meaning in this case. John 3:19 states that men love the darkness rather than the light. Is it really so surprising to hear someone outside of the Christian faith make such a statement?
Beauty in science
Finally, the interview ends with this question, “What are the things you find most beautiful in science?” Hawking finally answers a question with observational science. “Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.” Indeed, science is a wonderful thing that God has blessed us with in order to discover the intricacies of the universe that He created for us. In fact, science would not be possible but for God upholding the universe by His sustaining power. Without the uniformity of nature, science would be impossible—but science can’t prove uniformity; rather it is an axiom underlying science. In a “matter of chance” universe as Hawking puts it, we would have no reason whatsoever to expect the physical laws of the universe to be consistent, like the law of gravity.
It seems clear that Hawking did not put much thought into the answers he gave to The Guardian regarding our existence, death and purpose in life. For an atheist, Hawking has a lot of faith in things that have never been proven; string theory, the Big Bang and particles-to-professor evolution. The answers given by Hawking make a clear statement about the stability of his foundation atheistic evolutionary thinking. Having a foundation based on theories that do not require the intervention and presence of God are much like the man who built his house upon the sand. On the other hand, having a firm foundation on God’s Word and the Christian worldview is like the man who built his house upon the rock. When the waves of science truth bring these two opposing worldviews to light, the only one that will remain standing is the one built on the foundation of scripture.
- Sample, I., Stephen Hawking:‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’, Guardian, 15 May 2011, 15 May 2011. Return to text.
- Physicist Stephen Hawking Says There Is No Heaven, 16 May 2011 Return to text.
- Bahnsen, G. vs. Stein, G., “The Great Debate: Does God Exist?” Debate held at the University of California, 1985: transcript available at http://www.bellevuechristian.org/faculty/dribera/htdocs/PDFs/Apol_Bahnsen_Stein_Debate_Transcript.pdf, last accessed 25 May 2011, p. 35. Return to text.