Friday, September 10, 2010

physics vs. theology: friday night smackdown

A lot of column inches, real and virtual, have been devoted to the entirely unremarkable story of Stephen Hawking and his pretty bland assertion that you don't have to invoke God as some sort of Prime Mover in order to explain the origin of our universe, though clearly you can if you really want to, something I thought was already pretty well understood by everybody. But, wearyingly, it seems to have been the catalyst for a spectacular outbreak of inane drivel from a variety of sources.

Actually, to be fair, this Independent article is pretty good, and makes the obvious point that even if you do hold to the need for a Prime Mover in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, all this gives you is a sort of non-interventionist Deism, and therefore the detailed claims of specific regular real-world intervention by God which underpin every organised religion cannot be true. So in other words it doesn't get you very far, and really if you're saying that God basically only "exists" in the sense of having any influence over anything in the first 10-43 seconds or so of the universe's existence, you really want to consider cutting the cord and abandoning the idea altogether.

Sadly it's downhill from then on; this Daily Mail article is basically your standard Prime Mover argument, which as ever falls down either on requiring some special pleading for God as an "uncaused cause", or on disappearing up its own arse in an infinite regression of things causing other things, this one in the Independent is basically some stereotypically woolly Anglican waffle about how complicated everything is, and how nice churches and village fĂȘtes are, and what a lovely cake the vicar's wife made for Harvest Festival. Note the textbook association of atheists with stridency, arrogance, fanaticism, etc. throughout as well. Finally, oh fuck, it's Baroness Greenfield.

Part of the reason for the hysteria seems to be that Hawking mentioned God a couple of times in A Brief History Of Time (which I should disclose at this point that I've never read all the way through) without specifically denying his existence. It seems pretty clear that Hawking's God is very much like Einstein's, though, i.e. some slightly woolly "spirit of the universe" pantheistic thing.

My only complaint with the Julian Baggini article, now I think about it, is the oft-trumpeted assertion that because some scientists profess a belief in God, science and religion must therefore be compatible:
If top scientists such as John Polkinghorne and Bernard d'Espagnat believe in God, that challenges the simplistic claim that science and religion are completely incompatible. 
Of course it does nothing of the sort; it merely shows that the human brain has a remarkable capacity for compartmentalisation that allows it to believe incompatible things at the same time. That's fascinating in itself but is in no way proof that religion and science are compatible, because they clearly are not - unless your religion is of the aforementioned undetectable Deism variety, in which case you should consider taking Occam's Razor to it.

I suggest we let MC Hawking have the last word.


The Black Rabbit said...

Cobalt Stargazer gives you REAL GODDAM evidence of a Prime Mover, mo-fo.

electrichalibut said...

That thought did occur to me while I was writing the post, but then I forgot about it. Great song, but I think the fact that they were intentionally a bit ironic and piss-taking (the lead singer was a rock journalist) loses them some rock points. This, however....

The Black Rabbit said...

I'm pretty sure you meant THIS
Of course you did.

electrichalibut said...

No, I meant this.

The Black Rabbit said...