Stephen Hawking (8 January 1942–14 March 2018)
Probably the most famous physicist of our time, Stephen Hawking, recently died, coincidentally on the 139th anniversary of the birth of the most famous physicist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)—and Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of another great physicist, Galileo Galilei (15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642). Indeed, both Hawking and Einstein were 76 when they died (and Galileo only a year older). This is particularly astounding for Hawking, living a fairly normal modern lifespan, although he was diagnosed with the degenerative Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease back in 1963, and was told that he had only two years to live.
But it slowly paralyzed him, so he was well known for being dependent on a motorized wheelchair and voice synthesizer. The latter has an American accent, different from the Oxford English accent he had naturally. But even later he decided to keep the former accent for newer synthesizers because it had become so well known.
His greatest work in physics was showing that black holes would slowly evaporate. But he has become known in the popular world for his popular books that delve into philosophy and religion. In an earlier paper, Hawking atheopathy: Famous physicist goes beyond the evidence, I provided more biographical details and critiques of his claims, so there is no need to rehash them here.
Hawking is no longer an atheist
From a human perspective, it’s sad to see anyone go into a Christless eternity, and indeed God Himself has “no pleasure” in it (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). But we can’t escape the truth: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment …” (Hebrews 9:27).
While living to 76 might seem like a decent lifespan, death in reality is “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). This is true no matter how long this was postponed—even the prodigiously long lifespans of our ancestors recorded in the chronogenealogy of Genesis 5 couldn’t change that fact. Indeed, after the lifespan of every patriarch (except Enoch who escaped death), we are reminded over and over, “and he died”.
However, atheists naively regard death as a natural part of the evolutionary process. Indeed, Hawking himself gave a defiant interview to the leftist British newspaper, the Guardian, back in 2011.1 He was reported as claiming:
The belief that heaven or an afterlife awaits us is a ‘fairy story’ for people afraid of death.
you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he came to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism”.
In Hawking’s case, he tries to explain away why (he thinks) people believe in an afterlife before demonstrating that this belief is wrong. However, similar arguments can always be turned back on their user, which is one reason this is a silly mode of argumentation. I.e. “The belief that no afterlife awaits us is a ‘fairy story’ for those afraid that there really might be a God who is also a righteous Judge.” Also, Hawking’s account is demonstrably wrong for many people, e.g. C.S. Lewis again:
I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.
A computer running down?
Anyway, Hawking’s attempt at justification for his own belief system was:
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.
This is a similar statement to that from the late cognitive scientist and atheist Marvin Minsky (1927–2016), who asserted more earthily, “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”
Well, many people think with some justification that the brain is a computer. But this understates the complexity of the brain, and the large differences between them, as neuroscientist Peter Line explains:
For instance, if you knock out a portion of a computer’s circuitry, the whole thing malfunctions. But the brain has a lot of built-in redundancy—if part of it is damaged, other parts can usually take over some of the function. It’s hard to even begin to comprehend the incredible complexity of the brain.
Actually, never mind the human brain—even an insect brain is extremely complex. E.g. the advanced tracking system of the dragonfly operates in a pinhead-sized brain, while human designers trying to copy this needed very bulky systems.
Also, no one has ever built a computer by time, chance, and natural selection. A fortiori, how less credible it is that those processes could have built the far more complex brain? Dr Line explains:
In the real world, such accidental DNA changes cause defects, they don’t build things up. A defect can give a local survival advantage, like a beetle born without wings on a windy island having less chance of being blown out to sea. But mutations in the brain cause brain defects, not bigger and better brains.
To continue, while a computer will indeed stop working if critical parts fail, this doesn’t logically imply no afterlife. All this argument could prove is that the brain also stops working. But his argument begs the question about whether the human being is no more than his body.
Certainly, in living humans, the mind rides on the brain, which explains why brain damage can affect the way people think. But this doesn’t entail that the mind is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of the brain. Former leading atheistic philosopher Antony Flew (1923–2010), who turned to theism a few years before he died, pointed out:
Although certain areas of the brain are associated with consciousness, they do not produce consciousness—a certain area of a person’s brain may show activity when thinking about a certain idea, but a neurologist cannot tell from that person’s MRI what he is thinking about. Consciousness is correlated with certain regions of the brain, but when the same systems of neurons are present in the brain stem there is no ‘production’ of consciousness.2
Previously, he had illustrated this point as follows:
Let us begin with a parable. Imagine that a satellite phone is washed ashore on a remote island inhabited by a tribe that has never had contact with modern civilization. The natives play with the numbers on the dial pad and hear different voices upon hitting certain sequences.
They assume first that it’s the device that makes these noises. Some of the cleverer natives, the scientists of the tribe, assemble an exact replica and hit the numbers again. They hear the voices again.
The conclusion seems obvious to them. This particular combination of crystals and metals and chemicals produces what seems like human voices, and this means that the voices are simply properties of this device.
But the tribal sage summons the scientists for a discussion. He has thought long and hard on the matter and has reached the following conclusion: the voices coming through the instrument must be coming from people like themselves, people who are living and conscious although speaking in another language. Instead of assuming that the voices are simply properties of the handset, they should investigate the possibility that through some mysterious communication network they are ‘in touch’ with other humans. Perhaps further study along these lines could lead to a greater understanding of the world beyond their island. But the scientists simply laugh at the sage and say, ‘Look, when we damage the instrument, the voices stop coming. So they’re obviously nothing more than sounds produced by a unique combination of lithium and printed circuit boards and light-emitting diodes.’
In this parable we see how easy it is to let preconceived theories shape the way we view evidence instead of letting the evidence shape our theories … And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of dogmatic atheism.3
Hawking’s last stand
Hawking claimed to know what happened before the big bang—according to a report, Hawking said:
that time was present in a bent state amid the nearly infinitely small quantum foam of the singularity before the Big Bang. Time was distorted along another dimension, it was always reaching closer to nothing but didn’t become nothing.
In short, according to Hawking, there was never a Big Bang that produced something from nothing. It just seemed that way from mankind’s point of perspective.4
But he also admits that this view is incapable of observational verification:
Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them.5
But if they are incapable of observational verification, then how is it real science, as opposed to a quasi-religious belief? Hawking makes this clear as he continues:
This kind of beginning to the universe, and of time itself, is very different to the beginnings that had been considered earlier. These had to be imposed on the universe by some external agency. There is no dynamical reason why the motion of bodies in the solar system cannot be extrapolated back in time, far beyond 4004 BC, the date for the creation of the universe, according to the book of Genesis [sic]. Thus it would require the direct intervention of God, if the universe began at that date. By contrast, the Big Bang is a beginning that is required by the dynamical laws that govern the universe. It is therefore intrinsic to the universe, and is not imposed on it from outside.
Re-featured on homepage: 14 March 2023
References and notes
- Sample, I., Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’, theguardian.com, 15 May 2011. Return to text.
- Flew, A., with Varghese, R.A., There is a God, p. 174, 2007. See review by Cosner, L., J. Creation 22(3):21–24, 2008. Return to text.
- Flew and Varghese, Ref. 2, pp. 85–86. Return to text.
- Dastidar, S., Stephen Hawking claims to know what happened before the big bang, techtimes.com, 3 March 2018. Return to text.
- Hawking, S., The Beginning of Time (lecture), hawking.org.uk, accessed 16 March 2018. Return to text.