“There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story,” said Stephen Hawking to The Guardian. And since the wheelchair-bound physicist is famous, and known to be clever (despite bedevilment by disease), his comments were reported widely.
Hawking is brilliant. If you have a hankering to discover how black holes, objects which allow no escape, nay, not even to light, can nevertheless wither and die, he is just the man to see. What to know why the “M” in M-theory? Then hasten to Hawking and hearken unto him.
But for guidance on the metaphysical, Hawking is no more to be trusted than the gentleman on the next barstool. This will be evident after reviewing the Guardian’s questions and Hawking’s answers below.
What is the value in knowing “Why are we here?”
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.
The universe isn’t governed by “science”, which is a man-made creation, a tool to examine empirical existence. This tool can never tell us why what is so fundamentally is not otherwise. That is, empiricism takes you near the ground but it can’t land you. To solve metaphysical problems will always require philosophy, not science.
To the extent (here, near infinitesimal) that his comment on the Darwinian selection of society makes sense, it is frightening.
You’ve said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?
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.
“Science” predicts no such thing: men do. That is, given certain assumptions and rules, we predict that universes occasionally spontaneously erupt. Why these assumptions and rules and not others? To answer that, we need faith, the a priori, the knowledge which comes before evidence.
Even if we do learn why this or that particular rule or assumption, we have merely pushed the problem deeper, because in so learning we must have made other assumptions or accepted other rules. There is no escaping this regress: philosophy must be invoked.
So here we are. What should we do?
We should seek the greatest value of our action.
Okay, Hawking, old boy, define “value.” And then tell me how those values arose. Then explain why the values you picked are superior to its contenders.
After all that, show me how your Benthamite calculus handles unknowns. I mean Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns,” the unknowns we don’t know except that they almost always arise. You cannot plan fully what is best when you cannot know all possible ends. You can, however, rely on morals to guide your actions. And that means philosophy has crept back in.
You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?
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.
I’ll accept that you fear death not—just as those who believe in heaven do not—but I do not agree with your crude metaphor that our brains are computers, a metaphor Searle has shown is unreliable, misleading, and one which readily leads to falsity. Better to say that our brains are meat machines, a fact which nobody disputes.
It is a gross fallacy to say that since our brains are meat machines then there is no heaven. It is the ripest non-sequitur, only convincing to those who have faith in the conclusion, which is to say, for those who want to believe in the conclusion. For there is no empirical observation (short of the miraculous) that will prove or disprove the existence of heaven. Believe of disbelieve: it’s faith either way.
What are the things you find most beautiful in 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.
Here, we agree. There is plenty that is pretty in physics. But there’s a lot of ugliness, too. And even more that is mundane. Plus, it is all brutal, unrelenting, often unrewarding, bloody hard work.