Stephen Hawking Says Heaven Fairy Story

Stephen Hawking“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.

32 Comments

  1. Pretty much sums up my opinion on the man’s statements, just more eloquently. I posted a comment on the CNN version of the article, which was basically this: People are driven by the possibility of uncovering the unknown, that is, we delight in the unknown, because it is a mystery. Hawking, having now “solved” the greatest questions in life, must now be absolutely bored to tears with himself, because he has no more mysteries to solve! As for the rest of us, I’ll quote the great science officer Mr. Spock: “Having is not so great a thing as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

  2. “. To solve metaphysical problems will always require philosophy, not science. ” Thats a bit presumptuous

  3. Actually, it is presumptuous as you have not given reasons why the metaphysics ought to be effectively argued about with philosophy. Why is it true?

  4. RE: “To solve metaphysical problems will always require philosophy, not science. ”

    COMMENT: That is or isn’t true depending on what one means by the terms used.

    CONSIDER A FOLLOW-UP STATEMENT: ““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.”

    COMMENT: That is a typical blending of vague terms, concepts & meanings. It starts out ok, factual & objective…then veers off course into comfortable vagueness by invoking “assumptions and rules” and then asserting that “faith…the knowledge which comes before evidence” is needed. THAT is patently false — this so-called “faith” is, in science, referred to as “theory/ies” and/or “hypothesis” upon which objective studies are based, but upon which little is accepted as fact until some, or much, supporting evidence is found. (“faith” have been those metaphysical constructs built, throughout history, where scientific explanations fail and uncertainty prevails and something was needed to fill the gap between knowns & inexplicable observations. This is partly why religion is under such “attack” and there’s a backlash [primarily in the USA] for extreme Christian fundamentalism characterized by literal Biblical truth as evidenced by creationism/intelligent design, etc. — science has chiseled away at fundamental uncertainties to the point that a need for the religious tenets to fill those gaps has been nearly chiseled away. But I digress).

    In other words, this little essay is displaying some common logical flaws. Nearly imperceptible digressions from selective & vague jargon aside, this is trying to build a logical case against another person’s logical conclusions for not believing something that is, by definition, unprovable and a matter of faith. The essay is fundamentally illogical as it is a variation of fallacy of demanding proof that something for which no objective evidence exists does not in fact exist. The only logical case one could make is to argue for the existence of something in such circumstances.

    Or, in the case of religion — and in this case Christianity (likely some form of Episcopal) is clearly the one that applies most in this specific example — one can evaluate the existing reference material for its credibility, logical consistency, or lack thereof and draw conclusions accordingly.

    But to attack a lack of one’s belief in something for which there is no objective evidence based on the application of, or dispute with, that person’s rationale is fundamentally flawed.

    Matters of faith are ultimately & solely dependent on faith.

    Proof (e.g. the need for a literal interpretation of genesis) is a manipulation searching for proofs — proof is for doubters.

  5. Actually, given his conditions and the stated conditions of the interview, even though Hawking is alive how do we know that he’s the one actually answering the questions. Bit like seeing the Delphic Oracle, what?

  6. Anon, Ken,

    One cannot expect an essay on the essentials of metaphysics and also a criticism of Hawking, all under 750 words. For now, examine the word and see that its construction implies something beyond the physical. A quick proof (my favorite): axiom in mathematics (employed by Hawking, and all scientists): true metaphysical statements for which there is no empirical evidence.

  7. Briggs, I see your point(s)…but wonder why even bother with things metaphysical such as religion.

    But if you really want to stir things up, delve into any number of logical inconsistencies & contradictions in a source document(s) — THAT will stir things up…ultimately stirring things up without resolving anything, though.

  8. Thanks, Matt, for the post and it’s clarity. I originally rolled my eyes at the “science predicts…” misstatement, too, and once again felt pity for poor Stephen – not for his infirmities and associated limitations, but for the cruel hoax his over-arching brilliance played on his intellect. One more example of being “too sure” of one’s conclusions.

  9. I usually don’t comment on articles that I didn’t enjoy because I despise trolling. But I’m going to agree with Ken on a lot. You seem to be attacking Hawking unfairly. Yes, out of anyone’s quotes you can pick them apart and find flaws if you want, but maybe you should allow Hawkings to defend his claims?
    One major flaw that bothered me is when you say that there are no values in science. Science is void and valueless in itself if it relies on merely truth seeking. It is humanity that places value post-hoc discovery. So say we find out there is no God through a scientific experiment (hypothetically of course), then does that mean the world is devoid of morals? Or does it mean we need another reason to find value and reason in our existence? Science may not have the answer for how to act based on findings, but that isn’t the nature or responsibility of seeking the truth to the world. What we do with that truth and what we value is our own so don’t undermine Hawkings for asserting that we need to find value in our own actions if we don’t believe in God. There are things beyond the reward and punishment aspect of heaven and hell that a christian ought to consider if they already don’t. After all, if we act based of fear of punishment or hope for reward, we do not really seek the welfare of others only our own which is a dangerous and pathetic world view to have.

  10. You have Hawking confused with Witten. Hawking doesn’t understand M-theory. Nobody does. Basically, what Hawking is saying in The Grand Design is: “It’s turtles all the way down”. That’s a bit ironic, since he helped popularize the expression.

    For those who don’t know what I’m talking about: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

  11. Maths isn’t “Metaphysics”. Maths is an abstract tool. In the same category as “hammers”. “Hammers” aren’t metaphysical either.

    Metaphysics is just an invented category so that otherwise unemployable useless diatribe-laden people can pretend to have meaningful ivory towers, worthy of envy and admiration.

    Let Metaphysics die in peace. God is dead, and so is all non-empirical reality.

    Also, saying that “Heaven is a fairy tale” is a very precise and non untrue statement. You can’t ever say that “fairy tales” do not “exist” ever and ever, but you can be pretty sure that they are invented stories. And so is heaven. So it is a good description.

    Nobody does. Basically, what Hawking is saying in The Grand Design is: “It’s turtles all the way down”

    Now I’d like a development of the idea that mr Hawking is really saying this. There is a difference between saying that science will never end, or that the world is *really* turtles all the way down. Since Hawking is a positivist, I really doubt he is saying the latter.

  12. Luis Dias,
    “Turtles all the way down” is not about “science will never end”, but about the importance Hawking attaches to “model-dependent realism” to understand the universe in connection with his interpretation of M-theory as a family of theories where one can always find the theory that fits one’s particular, if limited, requirements.

  13. Derek, Luis,

    It false to say the foundations of mathematic, logic, philosophy is not metaphysics. They are demonstrably so. I invite you to read the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on the a priori.

    Belief in or against God is a metaphysical belief. That is, both theism and atheism are metaphysical. Both require arguments from intuition and not the empirical. It’s strange, is it not, that theists readily admit this but atheists do not. Why?

    The logical mistake Hawking (and some other scientists) make is to assume that because you know a lot about the empirical, you can dismiss the metaphysical. This can’t be done. I mean, it logically cannot be done.

    Derek,

    Your argument is that I should not “attack” Hawking because of his public words. That I should not find and expose flaws in his reasoning? Should you be doing the same to me?

  14. Well, all I know is that I’m excited about the new Rumsfeldian school of philosophy. I have a marble bust of him on my desk.

  15. Briggs,

    Slightly OT: Please explain the difference between a priori Truth and Definition. Perhaps another blog post? Your link trots out: a bachelor is an unmarried male as an example. Is that a Truth or a Definition? Or just a bad example? The Euclidean “Planar parallel lines never meet” is a Truth or the Definition of parallel?

    I only ask because a century or so ago we discussed this and you claimed that axioms are Truths. I still maintain they are Definitions in the same way F=ma is a Definition in physics.

  16. DAV,

    As you say, worthy of a separate post. F = ma is not a definition, however, but a derivation from simpler premises (which themselves arose from simpler premises, all the way back to the a priori).

  17. It false to say the foundations of mathematic, logic, philosophy is not metaphysics. They are demonstrably so. I invite you to read the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on the a priori.

    The “a priori” is a type of thinking. We also have “a posteriori” which is another type of thinking. This is utterly irrelevant to the issue we are discussing. They are both other type of hammers. You say that maths, logic, etc., is metaphysics ‘coz the dictionary says so. Not impressed by that argument, nor should you be. Shame on you!

    All these things stem from the empirical. All these things had feedback from the empirical world for us to see if these hammers are actually useful or not.

    Some of these hammers are neither useful nor do they output lies. They are, in all its iterations, mental homeopathic diatribes. And you can fit much of what is said to be “only philosophical” in that garbage bin.

    Belief in or against God is a metaphysical belief. That is, both theism and atheism are metaphysical. Both require arguments from intuition and not the empirical. It’s strange, is it not, that theists readily admit this but atheists do not. Why?

    Because stubborn atheists do not define themselves as you define them. Of course, whenever an analyser tries to fudge the data into their own pet theory, it always fails when feedbacks do not confirm their theory, except if they keep on fudging new data.

    In this particular issue, atheists do not define themselves as saying that “God DEFINITELY does not exist”. If pressed, they will *always* confess their own technical agnosticism. We don’t know. More so, we [i]can’t[/i] know. And it’s because we can’t know, that all faith in any specific “metaphysics” is in all probabilities complete shenanigan, given that gazillions of other choices are “equally” possible. Better to state that we don’t believe in any of these fairy tales. Which we do. And then we get to say that “God does not exist”, which is not a logical statement, it is a punch in the table, as if saying “Your metaphysical stories are ridiculous and no one should take them seriously”.

    Your inability to see this particular trait in real atheists, and instead focus in dictionary atheists, is the base of your mistakes. Don’t mind too much though, your apologies are accepted.

    The logical mistake Hawking (and some other scientists) make is to assume that because you know a lot about the empirical, you can dismiss the metaphysical. This can’t be done. I mean, it logically cannot be done.

    Of course you can’t point out where he blurted this strange and fallacious sentence. What atheists say is that the knowledge of the empirical is what actually got us through from the cave man age to our civilization, and that the metaphysical hasn’t brought anything of value to this day and age, except for the illusion that it has indeed made so. You don’t need the metaphysical to live, but I dare you to leave the rational and empirical thought behind you for a day and survive it.

  18. “Turtles all the way down” is not about “science will never end”, but about the importance Hawking attaches to “model-dependent realism” to understand the universe in connection with his interpretation of M-theory as a family of theories where one can always find the theory that fits one’s particular, if limited, requirements.

    I don’t understand you very well, sorry.

  19. Rumsfeldian Uncertanty!

    As we know,
    There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns,
    The ones we don’t know
    We don’t know.

  20. Matt is absolutely right: on these matters Hawking is no more authoritative than anyone else. Going a bit further, Hawking’s brilliance has failed to manifested significantly in physics beyond the excellent work on black hole radiation. But his affliction and the general lore about him have created a media icon, but who is little more profound than the average vapid Hollywood twit. And like the Hollywood type, his personal behavior is not necessarily one we would want to emulate.

  21. Briggs, et. al.,

    Consider (Briggs reply to Derek, Luis): “The logical mistake Hawking (and some other scientists) make is to assume that because you know a lot about the empirical, you can dismiss the metaphysical. This can’t be done. I mean, it logically cannot be done.”

    QUESTION: Okay Briggs, if we cannot dismiss the metaphysical…then…just what is the metaphysical we must accept?

    Note that earlier in the essay you pounced on Hawking: “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.”

    Values arise from a variety of things (perceptions about reality, the assessed relative payoffs of various trade-offs, etc. etc.). Without delving into it, such a superficial description/summary cannot be disputed….and for this it will do.

    SOOOooooo, if we must–per your (Briggs’ logic) accept the metaphysical, and, values have relative merit depending on how they arose, or at least “merit” or something similar applies (given the challenge to Hawkings noted just above), one source clearly implied [but unstated] is/are the formal religious beliefs of established religion–Christianity thus is one acceptable metaphysical reference point … after all, the vast majority of the USA & Europe are “Christians” — whatever that means.

    “whatever that means” leads, more or less instantly, to the observation that Christianity, founded by one person, has in relatively recent history, splintered into numerous competing, mutually exclusive, irreconcilably different, contradictory, etc. variations. All derived from precisely the same source documents translated inconsistenlty into different refrences (a problem, incidentally, not encountered with Islam because that faith recognizes that only pure understanding can come from the original source language).

    Put another way, Christian-based metaphysical references have become so diverse (thanks to Martin Luther’s initiative) that all variants cannot possibly be true & correct — most must be wrong. Christian diversity is somewhat unique among religions as it is, for most practical purposes, the only “religion” in recorded history to be characterized for a significant part of this existance by internally-directed deadly conflicts (e.g. Catholics & Protestants in Ireland, and much more). These are known to date back to before the New Testament was formalized (although, again, depending on which “flavor” of Christian one is determines which package of source reference documents one accepts & rejects).

    Consider: Roman Catholic doctrine, for example, can accept evolution, an ancient billion-year old universe and modern science taught in the classroom. A sizeable & very influential (e.g. Texas school board) segment of Christians insist on a 6000-10,000 year old Earth–and use that to guide selection of science texts, etc. Very profound societal implications.

    In this blog item a lot is implied by the challenge against atheism as if non-theistic/metaphysical foundations must be, or are necessary for, some logical progression.

    However, even a cursory review of such theistic/metaphysical referents, at least those with dominant influence in US & European society, reveals stunning diversity.

    Which makes the challenge against a particular atheist very peculiar.

    So, as a starting point, please explain what you mean by the necessity for the “metaphysical” we must accept (& by implication build something upon). That quickly leads one to question to which one out of so many under the same umbrella heading…and review of those reveals them to be as squishy & malleable a foundation as any other.

    Or, maybe, that’s your point:

    “There is no escaping this regress: philosophy must be invoked.”

    Then, the only logical next step it seems to me is that if at some point a philosophy must be invoked, no matter how or what it is, someone can find fault with it — no philosophy can be impervious to challenge/be acceptable to all.

    Which, then logically, leads to the next conclusion that debating/arguing about it is ultimately pointless because the only place such debates/arguements will lead is further argument & debate. Thus, the logical outcome is that it is pointless–illogical–to argue the philosophy.

    However, it is not illogical to argue the validity & truthfulness of specfic source material upon which a philosophy or faith is based. For some reason, very few people are willing to do that….

  22. There’s nothing better to hear anonymous people in the internet dissing Hawking’s intelligence and explaining his “fame” due to his disease and the pity people have over them. These types of people kinda define for me some words I will not share with the audience here.

  23. Congratulations on nailing Hawking on semantics in an interview with a newspaper. Perhaps such hair splitting is absolutely necessary to fully answer the questions posed, but. come. on. He gave 2-5 sentence responses for questions that could take up a ream of paper to “properly” answer. I think you could have easily made your point without being so petty about his words given the brevity, context, and audience in which he gave them.

  24. Boy oh boy. You take yourself ever so seriously don’t you fellows. But it goes for Hawking as well. As for me, a simple minded type, my favourite prehistoric physicist Feynman would probably have said ” not my schtick you know”.

  25. Agreed on a couple of points: (1) Hawking is not an expert on religion or philosophy, so his opinions on the matter of God are worth no more than anyone else’s; (2) whether or not one believes in God or Heaven is not a strictly empirical question.

    That said, I think the issue of religion is being sidestepped in this post. Just because something is not a strictly empirical question, it doesn’t follow that all beliefs on the matter are equally sensible. And belief in God as it is expressed by the majority of people who profess it is nonsensical.

    Take the matter of Heaven. Belief in Heaven is a lot of things, but one thing it patently isn’t, suggestions in a lot of the comments above to the contrary, is a belief on par with axioms in Geometry. Axioms in Geometry are the foundation of a system of knowledge. They complement each other, and we conclude things on their basis. It is the integrity of Geometry as a field of knowledge that justifies the axioms we assume. In those cases where people have proposed revisions in the axioms, it is because they believed they could demonstrate that such revisions would be the foundation of a system of knowledge with broader coverage.

    No such thing is true of belief in Heaven. The belief is never stated precisely, nothing is concluded on its basis, and no system of knowledge depends on it as an assumption. The only times in my life I have ever heard references to Heaven were either to comfort or to frighten. Perhaps it has uses other than as a crude tool for emotional manipulation, but if so these uses rare to the point of obscurity and certainly not characteristic of the way the overwhelming majority of believers talk about and act on the concept. Hawking may not be an expert on Metaphysics, but neither is he, when he talks about Heaven, addressing a metaphysical issue. He’s rather speaking to the beliefs of the majority of people who profess faith in God, and these beliefs are not motivated by metaphysical concerns. They are, if the behavior and speech of believers are any guide, merely emotional crutches.

  26. I used to say that history has shown that everything we once believe was true had over time been proven wrong and everything we once believed to be untrue has been proven to be true. Given our track record even an expert is probably wrong. Maybe they are only 90% right or 50% right and even 100% wrong. Stephen Hawking may indeed be as smart as he thinks he is or he may not be. He may be right, he may not be. This is true for everyone and even stupid people are right now and then.

  27. “To solve metaphysical problems will always require philosophy, not science.”

    When/if these questions are able to be answered with certainty it will take the scientific method to solve the problem(s)

  28. Belief in or against God is a metaphysical belief. That is, both theism and atheism are metaphysical. Both require arguments from intuition and not the empirical. It’s strange, is it not, that theists readily admit this but atheists do not. Why?

    Beliefs are not meta-physical, theories are. You believe that a meta-physical theory is true. As you believe that a physical theory is true. Which is completely different from having proved that a physical theory is false.

    Atheism is not much of a theory, as atheism itself doesn’t explain or predict anything, apart from predicting that the number of gods is zero. Which is empirically true (AKA a fact), the number of measurable gods is zero.

    So why a theory to explain that something does exist while its non-existence is completely obvious?

    The only theories about gods we need is theories explaining why people believe in god-related theories.

  29. The problem of course with religion in general is that it corrupts philosophy, turning it from a method for probing that which science cannot to a yoke for harnessing people. The search for actual knowledge ends when the “answer” is declared.

    I am an athiest in the sense that I reject “God” and every other human god of every other religion ever created by man. Stephen Roberts put it well: “I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    But I do not discount the argument ex nihilo, because even Hawking’s argument that universes can populate from “nothing” still requires a given set of rules and assumptions.

    Whatever that source is, diety or not, is a question of faith, but it does not require faith to see that the Christian “God”, Vishnu, Gaia, etc and the religions built up around them lacks credibility (to put it kindly).

  30. The value of religion to man (or woman) is that it helps him in some way. There does not have to be a god for the belief in god and prayer to help you. Clearly organized religion is run for the benefit of those who preach it. But belief in something which incourages you to be a better person can be a good thing. I always told my children to act as though their grandmother was watching them. Their grandmother doesn’t actually have to be watching them for this to work.

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