Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

Please excuse the inactivity of the last few weeks. I was busy with extensive travel and work, but am now back to posting on a regular basis. The biggest story to emerge while I was away concerned Stephen Hawking’s comments about the non-existence of heaven and the nature of the human brain. I asked Surak to write a response to this, since he has a particular interest in the monist vs. dualist argument. – Ed.

** Written by “Surak” **

As a human being who often struggles with relatively trivial difficulties in life, I have long felt admiration for Stephen Hawking’s courage and determination to continue working in spite of a highly-debilitating disease. As a physics enthusiast, I have the greatest respect for his accomplishments. But now, as a result of an article published in The Guardian two weeks ago, I also feel embarrassment for, and disappointment in, Hawking. The article reported his views on religion and metaphysics — they were unoriginal, ill-informed, biased, insensitive, and even arrogant.

The article was entitled, “Stephen Hawking: ‘There is no heaven; it’s a fairy story’.” I don’t believe Hawking is capable of such an inane statement, so I attribute this bit of silliness to the reporter’s desire for an attention grabbing headline. It’s just another example of why no one can trust reporters. Unfortunately the rest of the silliness that follows is undoubtedly Hawking’s.

For example, Hawking believes the human brain is like a computer that will stop working when its components fail. This is an old and discredited view of the human mind. The brain is not like any known computer. For one thing, computers process serially, while the brain has the wonderful ability to process things in parallel. Hawking simply has the metaphor backwards, as any computer engineer struggling to make computers more like the human brain can tell you.

This simplistic view of humans can also be faulted for his apparent ignorance of the related problems of consciousness and mind/body dualism. Consciousness is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe, and there are no conscious computers except in movies. Since Hawking doesn’t say anything new about consciousness, his statements about the human condition are pretentious.

The dualist/monist debate about whether or not the mind and brain are the same thing has been raging for about 2,500 years. The best philosophers in the world have failed to resolve the question, something of which Hawking seems unaware, since he takes the monist side and simply dismisses the dualist view without argument. When it comes to philosophical arguments, scientists — even great scientists — need to understand that they have no special privileges.

Hawking was also reported to have said, “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” From an uninspired and misleading analogy he leaps into metaphysics with an arrogant disregard for the limitations of science. Science is the study of our material universe, and as such it can have nothing to say about heaven or the afterlife. It is destructive of science for one its best to loudly proclaim scientifically unsupportable and irresponsible conclusions.

Hawking certainly has as much right as any other person to speculate on the great questions of human existence. But, honest inquiry and open communication do not appear to be his intent. Hawking does not acknowledge his lack of expertise in these matters nor does he invite the rest of us to discuss heaven or the after-life as his equals. Instead he engages in a condescending and mean-spirited condemnation of deeply-held religious beliefs. There is no empathy for those who fear the darkness of an existence devoid of genuine love, objective moral truths, and the hope of eternal purpose. His message seems to be ‘here is the way smart people think, and if you think differently, you’re a pathetic dimwit.’

Hawking is blind to the wrong he is doing science. He reportedly told Diane Sawyer that “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.” There are three parts to this statement, all of which are wrong:

  1. There are at least three relevant definitions of the word ‘authority.’ Hawking is using the word in the following sense:

    The power or right to control, judge, or prohibit the actions of others.This would be a generally accepted definition of religious authority. Hawking certainly has in mind the atheist myth that Christian leaders have over the centuries prohibited scientists in significant ways. The false allegation of Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church is a notable example1. The undeniable historic truth is that Christian faith and beliefs were the necessary foundation of modern science.Hawking should keep in mind two other important definitions of authority:An expert in a particular field.The ability to influence or control others.Hawking, as a renowned expert in physics, has significant influence over others — he is a scientific authority. When he uses this sort of authority to make pronouncements that go far beyond the scope of legitimate science, Hawking is the one abusing authority.
  2. I wholeheartedly agree with Hawking that science is largely based on observation and reason. So, what has Hawking observed to lead him to the conclusion there is no afterlife or heaven? Has he teleported to the far reaches of the universe? Has he managed to visit the other seven dimensions that string theory posits to exist? Has he somehow escaped the confines of our universe to see what is outside? Has he at least had a near-death experience? If his beliefs are not based on direct observation, then what exactly does Hawking’s reason tell him that has eluded so many other great thinkers before him?
  3. In what way does science work better than religion? Science gives knowledge of one kind, but it cannot give humankind a viable ethics to live by2or explain the meaning or purpose of life. The Bible does these important things for billions of people. Even for non-Christians, the dominant moral system in the world today has its roots in Christianity, which is the major reason the world has never been safer or more prosperous than it is now.Furthermore, the Bible is arguably superior to science as a source of truth about our universe. Is Hawking aware that the Bible states that the universe had a beginning3, that it was created out of nothing4, and that time in our universe is relative5? Scientists didn’t figure any of this out until the 20th century. Genesis 1 alone makes at least 26 scientifically testable statements about the creation of the universe and the origins of life. All 26 are consistent with current scientific understanding and in the correct order. The inconvenient truth for atheists is that the Bible somehow beat science to important truths by about 3,000 years.

    Science works in an important but very narrow sense — it assists humankind in understanding and controlling much of the natural world. But it also gives people tremendous destructive power. Without religion to give people direction in the choices they make about using that power, humankind could end up destroying itself.Finally, if you compare societies around the world in regard to which works best, science or religion, one fact of supreme importance will jump out at you. Generally speaking, non-religious peoples are not reproducing themselves while religious ones are. This single aspect of a society overrules all others; if a nation doesn’t reproduce itself, it is irrelevant how many other wonderful qualities it may have because they won’t be projected into the future. In the long run, atheist or secular humanist societies, no matter how scientific, don’t work because they lack the power to continue.

Hawking goes on to say that the concept of religion is in constant conflict with his life’s work — science, and understanding the most basic ways in which the universe works — and it’s almost impossible to reconcile the two. The first part of this statement is an old atheist lie: there is no inherent conflict between Christianity and science. Hawking either ignores or is ignorant of the historical fact that the Christian faith and beliefs made science possible in the first place. If you doubt this, take a look at when and where modern science developed and flourished, along with the religious beliefs of the great scientists who laid the foundations of science.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been conflict between science and religion, but it’s not the fault of Christianity. From at least the time of Darwin, secular humanists such as Thomas Huxley have misused science and misrepresented Christian beliefs in an effort to undermine the influence of Christian faith. The truth is that some scientists are in constant conflict with religion because of their atheist beliefs, and they betray science as a result.

The report reminds the public of Hawking’s position that it is “not necessary to invoke God … to get the universe going.” He has maintained this position since very early in his career, telling German news-magazine Der Speigel in 1988 that “what I have done is to show that it is possible for the way the universe began to be determined by the laws of science. In that case, it would not be necessary to appeal to God to decide how the universe began.”

He’s not saying that he knows the cause of the Big Bang. He is saying that he has constructed a mathematical model of a possible explanation. To say something is possible is meaningless and useless. It’s possible that somewhere in the universe, blue gooses lay gold coins with Hawking’s likeness on them. Like Hawking’s statement, it’s not scientific, because no one can prove it’s not true. The other weakness of his argument against the necessity of God is that it requires the laws of nature to be eternal. They would have had to ‘predate’ the universe in some manner that can never be scientifically proved, such as the emerging atheist myth of the multiverse.

Hawking continues, “This doesn’t prove that there is no God, only that God is not necessary.” Hawking is at least aware that science cannot be used to prove that God does not exist. Instead, he engages in the weasel argument that there is effectively no God since anything that is not necessary can be ignored or discarded. It’s like a child denying the necessity of parents. Child to parent: “I’m not saying you don’t exist, you just aren’t necessary. I can live without you, so just give me the keys to the house and the car along with your credit card, and go away and leave me alone.”

Scientists such as Hawking and Richard Dawkins start from a bias against God and then play in a child-like way with concepts to justify their prejudice. Just as a child cobbles together some rough approximation of an airplane out of Lego, Hawking imagines that he has constructed a viable worldview that doesn’t rest on the notion of God. But he has explained nothing and ignored almost everything of significance. He has his mathematical model of a godless universe; don’t bother him with the mysteries of what came before the Big Bang, the origins of life, the sudden Cambrian explosion of animal life, the nearly universal human need for spiritual beliefs, or the greatest mystery of all, the origin and meaning of human consciousness. He has his toy and wants to show it off.

Then Hawking says something that gives an important insight into the workings of the atheist mind. The report continues, “And it’s his work that keeps him going — even if there isn’t a heaven.” “I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.” This statement illustrates the most telling and annoying aspect of atheism: atheists seem incapable of taking any of their beliefs and reasoning to necessary and obvious conclusions. They dismiss God and the afterlife, argue that the material world is all that exists, assert that man is the measure of all things, and conclude that people can free themselves of religious restrictions and do whatever they want. If you ask them to continue with this train of thought, they usually make some kind of vague statement about a life in the service of humankind and the possibility of a kind of immortality in the sense that society will remember a person’s good deeds ‘forever.’

The problem, of course, is that it is delusional nonsense. What any good scientist should know is that our material universe is very likely heading toward what is called heat death, a state in which energy no longer exists in a form that can support life. But even before this occurs, the human species will have become extinct anyway. What is the point of doing anything in this life when you will be annihilated in the blink of a cosmic eye followed in short order by the rest of humankind? If atheists really believed this, they would either commit suicide or become Buddhist monks. But the vast majority of them continue to act as if human existence has some kind of meaning greater than that of their material state. If Hawking is right about God and the afterlife, every trace of humanity will be destroyed, all of Hawking’s work will be lost, and every effort he makes will be futile.

What he is really means when he says he is in no hurry to die is that he values his existence and he wants to keep on existing. He feels he has purpose, but he does not wonder where that purpose could possibly come from. He’s not thinking his own position to its logical end, which is that without God his existence is pathetically finite and ultimately meaningless. He says there is no God, but acts as if there is.

Interestingly, Hawking has also made headlines in recent years over his views about the existence of aliens, and what interactions between our races would be like. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” he said.

Here we detect the pessimism that will always be a result of atheism (as well as a lack of imagination based on what little he thinks he knows about the past). Without God and the hope for the redemption of humankind, he has no reason for optimism, no belief that things will work out better in the future than in the past. Christians believe this because they believe that good is stronger than evil, that by following God’s direction people can always triumph over evil, and that good therefore must be the future of humankind. That’s why, for instance, evangelical Christians, not atheists, put an end to the worldwide slave trade; that’s why Christians, not atheists, marched into horrendous Civil War battles singing, “He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” and ended slavery in America.

In spite of all this, I still believe Stephen Hawking is a hero. He has persevered with a debilitating disease and done tremendous work in theoretical physics. But what do you do when a hero lets you down? There’s a line from the Gordon Lightfoot song, “If You Could Read My Mind,” that goes “The hero would be me. But heroes often fail …” That’s what I think about Stephen Hawking. When it comes to religion and metaphysics, he has failed, but he is still a hero in a way that does not diminish the meaning of the word.

I came to believe in God because of what I learned about the universe. I had the good fortune not to go to Oxford and be saturated with humanist bias against the “God hypothesis.” When I look at the structure of the universe and life on Earth, I see evidence of a great mind at work. I am sorry for Hawking that he can’t.


[1] Dinesh D’Souza provides a succinct reopening of “the Galileo Case” in Chapter 10 of What’s So Great About Christianity.

[2] Not that atheists haven’t tried. See Vox Day’s review of The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.

[3] Genesis 1:1.

[4] Genesis 1:1. See Gerald Schroeder’s explanation of the significance of the word “create” in The Science of God (pp 143-144).

[5] Psalms 90:4.

One thought on “Heroes sometimes fail: Why Stephen Hawking is wrong

  1. Well said!

    I’m always amazed that otherwise smart people keep thinking their limited scope of knowledge, no matter how deep, somehow applies directly to areas well out of their expertise and grants them authority to speak on those matters.

    Hawking is a brilliant theoretical physicist, but from these statements, he utterly ignorant of the past 3000+ years history of philosophy and religion.

    Providing the hows of a theoretical universe does not make it equal to the territory nor does it address the First Cause.

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