Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Physicist Stephen Hawking shouldn't quit is day job

It is always dangerous for someone to speak outside their field. This is particularly true when it comes to scientists who try to engage in philosophy. Here is renowned physicist Stephen Hawking in an ABC interview with Diane Sawyer on the issue of God:
"What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God,” Hawking told Sawyer. “They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.”
Well, let's hope he's not going to give up his day job. This is a classic example of a confusion of philosophical categories. What in the world does the physical size of the universe have to do with the metaphysical significance of human beings?

We go now to G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, refuting this silly bit of reasoning over 100 years ago:
Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.
The idea that the sheer physical size of a thing philosophically dwarfs anything physically smaller Chesterton addresses again in his short story, "The Blue Cross." Father Brown is conversing with the famous criminal Flambaeu, who is posing as a priest:

The first he heard was the tail of one of Father Brown's sentences, which ended: "... what they really meant in the Middle Ages by the heavens being incorruptible."

The taller priest nodded his bowed head and said:

"Ah, yes, these modern infidels appeal to their reason; but who can look at those millions of worlds and not feel that there may well be wonderful universes above us where reason is utterly unreasonable?"

"No," said the other priest; "reason is always reasonable, even in the last limbo, in the lost borderland of things. I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God himself is bound by reason."

The other priest raised his austere face to the spangled sky and said:

"Yet who knows if in that infinite universe--?"

"Only infinite physically," said the little priest, turning sharply in his seat, "not infinite in the sense of escaping from the laws of truth."

Valentin behind his tree was tearing his fingernails with silent fury. He seemed almost to hear the sniggers of the English detectives whom he had brought so far on a fantastic guess only to listen to the metaphysical gossip of two mild old parsons. In his impatience he lost the equally elaborate answer of the tall cleric, and when he listened again it was again Father Brown who was speaking:

"Reason and justice grip the remotest and the loneliest star. Look at those stars. Don't they look as if they were single diamonds and sapphires? Well, you can imagine any mad botany or geology you please. Think of forests of adamant with leaves of brilliants. Think the moon is a blue moon, a single elephantine sapphire. But don't fancy that all that frantic astronomy would make the smallest difference to the reason and justice of conduct. On plains of opal, under cliffs cut out of pearl, you would still find a notice-board, `Thou shalt not steal.'"

Now that universities like Middlesex are canceling their philosophy programs, look for more sloppy philosophical thinking like Hawking's.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I'm overweight, and it's good to know that, in Hawking's cosmology, the added weight just makes me more significant. Maybe not by much, relative to the size of the universe, but every little bit helps.