Hawking upsets a sophisticated rabbi

As predicted, Stephen Hawking’s comments about the nonexistence of heaven have ticked off people.  Like Mooney, Hawking regularly “strikes a nerve”—except that Hawking is right.  This was particularly grating:

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.

Out of the woodwork came Rabbi David Wolpe, identified by The Washington Post thusly: “named the No.1 Pulpit Rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine, Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and currently teaches at UCLA”. You may remember Wolpe from the Rabbi Smackdown Debate, where he and rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson debated Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.  If you saw that debate, you might remember that Wolpe didn’t seem to believe in heaven.   But he backtracks on this issue in his latest piece at the Post’s “On Faith” site, “Stephen Hawking can imagine there’s no heaven.

I’m once again ashamed that a rabbi—supposedly a liberal, Number-One rabbi—can write stuff like this.  The pattern is familiar.  First Wolpe denigrates science by showing that its “truths” are ephemeral:

One of the remarkable realities of scientific progress is that in every age its commonplaces have proven to be false in the eyes of later generations. We cannot possibly know which platitude of science will seem as silly now as phlogiston does today. Yet some scientists proclaim with thunderous certainty equal to the most blinkered religionist what is or is not true based on nothing more developed than distaste. Richard Dawkins does not like religion, so it cannot be true. Stephen Hawking has an aversion to theology, so theology is merely wish fulfillment. The careful parsing of possibilities that is so integral to science itself suddenly disappears when the issue is faith. Recently in a debate I had with Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens it became clear that the only truly unscientific approach is to repudiate the very possibility that human beings live on. To deny for its own sake — now that’s dogma.

I think it’s much more likely that in two hundred years water will still be seen to have two hydrogens and one oxygen than that we’ll have evidence for God.  Throughout his piece, Wolpe doesn’t seem to realize that scientific “truths” (even those that are later discredited) are based on evidence, while his belief is based on no evidence at all.  To wit:

Can science and religion coexist? Of course they can if each side is willing to practice a little epistemological humility. Science is a tool for discovering truths about physical reality. As our most powerful tool, it is a natural — though mistaken — leap of logic to suppose that the things to which this tool applies are the only things that really exist. Since science cannot investigate an afterlife, there must not be one.

Talk about epistemological arrogance: how about asserting in the absence of any evidence that there’s a sky father that doesn’t want you to eat bacon!  And science doesn’t rule out an afterlife because we can’t investigate it; we rule it out because there’s no evidence for it.  (There could be, of course—seances or past-life accounts could give us verifiable and unique information about the past or future).  I had thought that Wolpe was a more modern and sophisticated rabbi, but he obviously thinks that “arrogant scientists”, convinced as they are by evidence, as far worse than arrogant theists:

Are many believers also incapable of self-doubt? Without question. It is just more piquant to hear the apostles of doubt and reason and evidence pound the university lectern like a fire and brimstone preacher and cast all careful empirical weighing out the window when religious claims are concerned.

Who, exactly, has “pounded the lectern”? I didn’t see any lectern pounding in Wolpe’s debate with Hitchens and Harris: just four civil people sitting in chairs, cracking jokes and, on the side of the rabbis, refusing to make tangible statements about what they believe.  And who’s casting “careful empirical weighing” out the window when it comes to faith?  The rabbis, of course: they don’t think a lack of evidence means anything when it comes to “religious claims.”

Curiously, although Wolpe, like many Jews, wouldn’t sign on to the existence of an afterlife or Heaven in the debate, he seems to do so here, and says that he, rather than Hawking, is eminently qualified to say it exists:

Stephen Hawking is an estimable scientist and no doubt an admirable man but he has no more competence to pronounce on heaven than any other thoughtful adult. Galileo made the distinction centuries ago that faith was about how to go to heaven and not about how the heavens go. I fully acknowledge Hawking’s expertise in the second half of that sentence. In the first — which we may think of as how to live as sacred life, a life in service to something greater than oneself, a life in which the non-physical is as real as the flesh in which we are encased , or even more real — when it comes to that, I would not choose Stephen Hawking as my guide. Master scientist though he may be, I’ll turn to a still higher authority.

Heaven and god are “more real” than human bodies?  And Wolpe’s idea that faith can tell us how to live a moral life is not only contravened by the evidence, but bespeaks a willful ignorance of the millennia of secular reason and philosophy concerning how one lives the “good life.”

On the site, six other people weigh in on Hawking’s statement; two of them (Tom Flynn and Herb Silverman) are atheists.  You’ll be amused by Anglican bishop Nicholas Wright’s argument that “Hawking is working with a very low-grade and sub-biblical view of ‘going to heaven.’”

107 Comments

  1. Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    It’s amazing the criticism he gets – especially when he gets called arrogant from people who just as arrogantly assert their myths as fact.

    http://furtherthoughtsfortheday.blogspot.com/2011/05/heavens-above.html

    • Sajanas
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

      I think that since Hawking used deist language way back when, and has a very heartwarming story of intellect triumphing somewhat over a debilitating medical condition, religious people unconsciously put him up on a pedestal. The world’s smartest man may not believe in *my* god, but he does believe in a God, or something like it.

      So, when Hawking starts settling accounts, and thoroughly dismisses their preconceived notions, they were very, very pissed. Because religious people would *love* to have a story like Hawking’s on their side… he’s worth 20 shark bitten surfer girls. And his dismissal of religion must sting too… as much as the On Faith people try to rationalize it, he’s a very smart man, and not having him believe in God says way more about the proof for God than about his intelligence.

      • Marta
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        Agreed.

        In the long run, Hawking, I think, will be as well-remembered for putting a pin in religion as he is for his work in cosmology.

      • YourName's notBruce?
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        Shark Bitten Surfer Girls

        Great band name. Genre; Beach Boys arranged for Death Metal…

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        I think Hawking should, like Hitchens, leave some last message putting paid to any idea that he will have had a deathbed conversion.

        • ritebrother
          Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          I suspect he already has something in place for that eventuality.

          • Posted May 20, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

            It still won’t stop the relgionists from claiming they did change their minds at the last possible moment

  2. matt
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    it’s a shame that a grown man makes such poorly framed arguments against science. color me unimpressed.

  3. AR
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    ‘You’ll be amused by Anglican bishop Nicholas Wright’s argument that “Hawking is working with a very low-grade and sub-biblical view of ‘going to heaven.’”’

    What the crap does this even mean?* Be nice to see Eric MacDonald take this one on.

    *I suppose it’s just another “Oh, well, that’s not the kind of heaven *I* believe in. Therefore [critic of anything theological/Biblical] is clearly not talking about anything that *anyone* even believes in. Therefore God. And Heaven.” But, dang it, sub-Biblical?!

    • Sajanas
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:41 am | Permalink

      I read his article… its totally the “he needs to read sophisticated theology in order to pass judgement on a fairy tale” argument.

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:58 am | Permalink

        Went back and read it after I posted. I take back the not-so-subtle hint to EM. His “argument” is deserving of little more than an eye-roll. I wonder if/when this kind of argument will die…

    • yesmyliege
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Considering that Heaven was officially mapped by the ecclesiastical authorities as a multi-level set of realms, with the lowest lever located just above the clouds, what wonders what the heck the Bishop means by “…very low-grade and sub-biblical view of ‘going to heaven”. A limbo dance?

    • MadScientist
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

      Well obviously Hawkings received his insight when he mistook a bible for a hat. It’s yet another example of sub-biblical divine revelation.

      • AR
        Posted May 19, 2011 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        Ha! Thanks for the laugh — this made my day. 🙂

  4. Dominic
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Attacking Phlogiston? A theory in the early years of science when people were grappling against the garbage ideas of religion (which really show us how the world works?!) and discarded 250 years ago? Wolpe is struggling here.

    • Dominic
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      Sorry – I cannot do the italics thing!

      • Donovan
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

        Thank you for this comment. I agree with you, but also had not heard of phlogiston before. I knew of the idea, but no specifics. So thanks for schooling me by making your post and piquing my curiosity.

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        The italics thing worked fine. It seems that stopping the italics thing is where you failed 😉

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      I know, right? He also ignores that scientists and the scientific method/process are what showed phlogiston theories to be wrong and got us to the truth here.

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

        He also ignores that phlogiston – flawed as it was – was still more useful than “magic man done it”.

        • AR
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

          That too. Among other things, it was reasonably successful at predicting. IIRC phlogiston theory actually comes up as a problem for some theories of truth because they can’t account for it’s partial truth. In any case, dude couldn’t have demonstrated his ignorance of the history of science, how scientific theories, methods, etc. work than he did here.

          Science: 145, 675, 983, 001 / Religion: 0. Not that we’re counting.

          • AR
            Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

            *sigh*

            “its” without the apostrophe…

        • Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

          Yes, Phlogiston worked, after a fashion, as a kind of “anti-oxygen”. But oxygen works better – mot so many negative properties.

          I think non-scientists sneer at Phlogiston and its believers because it’s got a funny 18th-century kind of name as much as anything.

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      (attempt to stop the runaway italics by adding a </i>)

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        Geez, will you people CONTROL YOUR ITALICS????

        I haz fixed it.

        • Marta
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

          made me laugh

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted May 19, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

            I haz italics control.

    • Tim Martin
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      If I post a comment with an end italics tag here, will it save the thread? Might as well try it.

      • Tim Martin
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        Deen and I both failed at exactly the same time.

        High five.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Attacking Phlogiston?

      Exactly my thought upon reading that excerpt.

      Regarding the WEIT/Italics situation–is it possible that none of us has ever screwed up a different html closing tag, or does WP have some weird hang-up w/ italics? (May someone else do the experiment…)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 19, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        It is possible that we need an edit facility…

  5. Donovan
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    On the subject of science always being “wrong” in the next generation, Asimov’s “Relativity of Wrong” (http://chem.tufts.edu/AnswersInScience/RelativityofWrong.htm) should be required reading.

    Scientists are often wrong. To a degree, scientists are always wrong. But science never has been. Science has grown and changed, but it’s never really disproven any of its claims. As this essay says, the model of a flat earth was wrong, but the flatness was the “scientist’s” error, not science’s. The observations made and the calculations still hold true, just as Newton’s measurements are as true today as they were in the 1600’s, and long before Newton, they were true a billion years before our sun formed, but further knowledge tweaked the flat earth model.

    People who claim science is always changing, and therefor is unreliable, should probably stop driving a car, since every time they turn the key the car will head toward a different destination. Cars are obviously terrible ways to travel. Science is meant to change as it grows. Like a car, science was built with an engine, a system of driving knowledge forward. The fact that the next generation will refine our knowledge is a sign that science is working superbly, not that it’s somehow broken.

    Theology, on the other hand, has changed, and in doing so necessarily nullified the previous “truth.” There is no collection of observations, measurements, or hard data that remains with which to reformulate an explanation, because it’s all just made up, er, sorry, “revealed to” some person on the spot. The Bible, of course, isn’t data or observation; it’s the explanation of possible, but uncorroborated and unsupported observations. To justify natural selection, we don’t use “On the Origin of Species,” we use Darwin’s (and others’) notebooks and data.

    • BradW
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Good summary!

      When I run into (far too often) a person who is absolutely religiously negative about science,I ask them why they live in the houses they do; why they drive the cars they do; why they ride a bicycle; why they flew on an airplane the last vacation they took; ad nauseam.

      Of course then I get, “Oh no; that’s not what I mean — that’s different.”

      Go figure.

      • AR
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        Oi vey.

        I wonder when they’ll realize that, with all the goal-post moving, they’ve succeeded in arranging things so that almost everything they say pretty much counts as an “own goal”…

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        Surely the online anti-science people are the funniest?

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Thank you for that Asimov link.

      Yes, the accumulation of evidence, through experimentation, through observation and through prediction allow our theories to develop and give us greater insight into the workings of the universe. Science has found no evidence at all for gods; in fact science increasingly finds not only no evidence for gods but also no need for gods. The universe appears exactly as it should appear if there were no gods.

      The holy books of the Abrahamic religions, Tanakh, Bible and Quran, have some good passages within them but they are mostly full of absurdity, injustice, cruelty, intolerance and contradictions; clearly the product of Man and with no evidence for divinity. See:

      http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/

      Science gives us the best methodology to learn and understand the universe. And the holy books mentioned above are wretched both as a form of knowledge and as a source of morality.

      Rabbi Wolpe can indulge himself with as much word-play as he wishes but what he says has no weight if he cannot provide evidence. And I’m afraid that Wolpe has none.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 19, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Science has found no evidence at all for gods; in fact science increasingly finds not only no evidence for gods but also no need for gods.

        And in fact science has gone on to find evidence against gods.

        For what is the repeated failure of miracles, creations, prayers, and dualism (souls) to show or explain but evidence, not only for failure but against the assumptions?* In as much as religion suggests anything about the world it is a fruitless area, which has shrunken.

        If supernatural ideas was a science area we would have rejected it long since.

        * Not that I suggest inductionism mind, but accumulated failure weighs in as a data point of sorts.

  6. Sigmund
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    “But I wonder if he has ever even stopped to look properly, with his high-octane intellect, at the evidence for Jesus and the resurrection? I doubt it — most people in England haven’t.”
    I’m afraid the bishop has got me there.
    I admit it. I haven’t looked at this evidence either!
    I presume he means something specific, not the third hand contradictory stories written by Greek converts, fifty years after the supposed event.
    What has he got?
    DNA from the cross? Security camera tapes from the tomb? Signed statement from Jesus (and witnessed by Thomas)?
    It must be something unquestionable for the bishop to appear so sure.

    • Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      Actually, there is evidence. Overwhelming piles of evidence. Not just volumes of evidence, but entire libraries of evidence.

      The contemporary record is quite thorough, what with the Dead Sea Scrolls and Philo and Pliny Sr. and the Satirists and all the rest.

      And they are all unanimous in not even breathing a hint that the greatest story ever told was unfolding right under their noses as they wrote.

      If you consider the front page of today’s New York Times as evidence that no flying saucer landed in Times Square last night — and I certainly do — then the evidence is incontrovertible: the Jesus story is 100% fiction. None of it happened. Not a single bit of it.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • BradW
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

        Yeah: and they didn’t have any bicycles to ride.

      • Dave Ricks
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

        Well, if the flying saucer was tiny…

  7. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers

    Oh yeah?
    Computer History Museum

    • Donovan
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      Thank you. =*( I could not live in a universe that did not have an afterlife for my iPod.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      That’s a retirement home, not an afterlife.

      • simbol
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        more precisely, a cemetery.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        I’m betting some of those babies needed to be resurrected.

  8. Sajanas
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Ah, the arguments in the comments of this week’s On Faith have been keeping my awake through a very quiet week at work. I wonder if Rabbi Wolpe and that Anglican are disappointed that the comments with complete sentences are almost entirely from atheists, while the face rolling people (some of whom are convinced that they have *personally* met God and the Devil) are all supporting them.

  9. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:45 am | Permalink

    Galileo made the distinction centuries ago that faith was about how to go to heaven and not about how the heavens go… In the first — which we may think of as how to live as sacred life, a life in service to something greater than oneself, a life in which the non-physical is as real as the flesh in which we are encased , or even more real — when it comes to that, I would not choose Stephen Hawking as my guide. Master scientist though he may be, I’ll turn to a still higher authority.

    Whom does he posit as a “higher authority” on the topic of Heaven? And based on what evidence or qualifications?

    • Bryan
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      When he says “higher authority”, I think he means “god”. I’m not sure whether he means that he will literally “turn” to face “god” and ask him about heaven or whether this is some sort of more “sophisticated” theology.

  10. Bernard J. Ortcutt
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Wolpe isn’t the only upset Rabbi. Brad Hirschfield wrote this at PuffHo.

    In denying the existence of heaven, Hawking definitely commits a sin — that of speaking badly about others. Hawking’s sin, in Jewish tradition, is called lashon ha’rah, and interestingly it is not limited to speaking falsely. Rather then being defined by the factuality of the utterance (there are other categories of transgression to cover that), lashon ha’ra is defined by the callousness, mean-spiritedness or insensitivity of the utterance, even if it is true. There is no question that Hawking crossed that line and for that he should be held accountable.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-brad-hirschfield/stephen-hawking-heaven_b_862532.html

    So, Hawking is evidently guilty of Tone Sin. I don’t know what sort of accountability Hirschfield is looking for. Criminal penalties, civil ones, spankings, mass tuttings?

    • embertine
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:57 am | Permalink

      That’s very interesting. Bit illogical though:
      “You have expressed disbelief in my preferred mythology so I will hold you to the laws of that mythology… that you don’t believe in. Er.”

      I like the idea of mass tuttings.

      • Bernard J. Ortcutt
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:40 am | Permalink

        He knows he can’t rebut what Hawking is saying so he’s trying to marginalize him instead. It’s reassurance to the faithful that it’s OK for them to ignore Hawking because he’s a sinner who hurt the fe-fees of the poor believers.

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

      That is really pathetic. What is next, A Brief History of Time book burning? Hawking stepped in it big time, and I am really glad he did. The more these fools yap about their fairy friends, the more people will be turned off to theism.

  11. Tulse
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why a Jewish Rabbi wants to go to bat for the Christian notion of heaven — it’s like Billy Graham defending the notion of Buraq by saying that flying horses could totally be real.

    • Bernard J. Ortcutt
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Religious figures always circle the wagons against atheist criticism. They’re all in essentially the same business, and if criticism of one religion is allowed, then they’re all in trouble.

  12. Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    The careful parsing of possibilities that is so integral to science itself suddenly disappears when the issue is faith.

    Wolpe has it completely backwards. It’s not science that suddenly stops the “careful parsing of possibilities” when it runs into faith. It’s faith itself that stops the “careful parsing of possibilities” when it runs into anything at all.

  13. daveau
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    “I’m once again ashamed that a rabbi—supposedly a liberal, Number-One rabbi—can write stuff like this.”

    I’ve given up worrying about and apologizing for stupid statements by members of groups that I otherwise identify with. Wolpe’s kind of nit-wittery can, and does, come from anyone, in any religion, in any state or country, or from any walk of life. The only point to be made is that even the most liberal person in the most innocuous religion still gets this wrong. Religion is superstition and needs to stop pretending it’s not, or go away.

    • BradW
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Ahhh; but that’s the whole gnish isn’t it?

  14. Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Dawkins does not dislike religion and therefore says it is not true. He decided it was untrue and therefore dislikes it. Hitch would probably dislike it either way.

    I love the way that Bishop Wright says that Hawkings opinions on religion are worthless because he has not looked at the evidence for Jesus and the Resurrection, without having the least clue as to whether he has or not. What arrogance! This is what Dawkins is on about: religion gets you in the habit of declaring as facts things for which you have no evidence at all.

    Then Wright goes on to build a strawman, that Hawkings is regurgitating Epicureanism. And even though he freely admits to not understanding the physics that Hawkings espouses, claims that since what Hawkings says is Epicureanism, and Epicureanism is a worldview without evidence that has many sophisticated philosophic arguments against it, Hawkings needs to study those arguments. A two-fer! Assume that the Hawkings position is Epicureanism and assume that he doesn’t know anything about Epicureanism. Wow.

    And Wolpe is just as bad. There is an implicit consequence to the statement that science cannot know about the afterlife, namely that Theologians cannot either. Every time a theologian or philosopher or clergyman says that science cannot have an opinion on the supernatural because there is no evidence for it to analyze, they just highlight that they themselves also have no evidence, meaning that their thoughts on the subject are simply their own opinions. Sometimes they point to all the others that share it as if it were evidence (“we can’t all be wrong”), and sometimes they point to the fact that it is theirs alone (“that’s not *my* religion you are talking about”).

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Every time a theologian or philosopher or clergyman says that science cannot have an opinion on the supernatural because there is no evidence for it to analyze, they just highlight that they themselves also have no evidence…</blockquote)

      Perfect.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      Like.

  15. Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    It is just more piquant to hear the apostles of doubt and reason and evidence pound the university lectern like a fire and brimstone preacher

    I’m having a little difficulty picturing Stephen Hawking pounding a lectern. Is it just me, or should Wolpe have thought this metaphor through a little more?

    • Bryan
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      Good point.

  16. jose
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    “(There could be, of course—seances or past-life accounts could give us verifiable and unique information about the past or future)”

    I think there couldn’t be. Imagine some guy says he has lived another life in the past and tells you a story. You go and find it’s true, that story really happened. Should you assume he has lived a past-life? Couldn’t he have read it, the same way you did?

    A more extreme example: a guy says he has sold his soul to the devil, and he successfully predicts sport scores with exact precision. He never fails. Should we abandon science and accept his story, or should we admit we don’t know how he does it and thus more research is needed to figure it out?

    Science and magic, the afterlife, reincarnation, etc. are inherently incompatible. Science can’t abandon materialism.

    • Sajanas
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      Some of the experiments people tried were making codes, broken with a word only known to the dead person, and trying to get the code word for the mediums. Or the location of a hidden box, or the like.
      Of course, even this is highly susceptible to fraud, but it could be done in principal.

      • Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

        I can’t be arsed to look it up right now, but there’s an ER surgeon who, after hearing so many NDEs that involved the patient floating up, observing his own body from above, and continuing on upwards…well, he put something umnistrakable on top of the lights that a person undergoing that journey couldn’t possibly miss.

        Not a single person afterwards who had that kind of an NDE ever mentioned the object or could identify it when asked about it.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Sajanas
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

          Yeah, I recall Mary Roach mentioning that experiment in Spook. Simple experiment, with a pretty definitive ‘nope’.

        • embertine
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

          I know that Parnia and Sartori did a series of experiments at Swansea University Hospital, which came back resoundingly in the negative.

          Alas, I fear that both of them have since veered slightly towards the side of woo despite their results. *sigh*

        • Marta
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

          That is extremely disappointing. I was counting on the fact that, because I’ve had an NDE, the whole death thing didn’t apply to me.

        • Marella
          Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

          I’ve had such strange experiences under anaesthetic that I would never credit anything anyone claimed for what happened to them in those circumstances. That’s some weird shit man.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry, but these are poor arguments:

      Imagine some guy

      Anecdote. What you reach for is something statistically observable like NDEs.

      Science can’t abandon materialism.

      Oh, but it could. It wouldn’t work as well if miracles would be common enough, or if dualism would affect every other object. But we could still, in principle at least, sort out what laws pertain to some objects, and what laws or random agency to others.

      It would still be materialistic (works with nature) but not materialist (works with all of nature).

      Now I would turn this around and claim that the often voiced idea that a single phenomena would be enough to decide on such matters (say, the above NDEs for realz, or “godlike beings” of scifi/philosophy fame) is wrong.

      All of science use uncertainty. As long as such observations are rare enough they wouldn’t topple materialism at large, which is allowed uncertainty as well (or it isn’t about empiricism).

      • jose
        Posted May 20, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        The anecdotes are examples to get my point across. Parables. Don’t look at the finger, man, I’m pointing at the moon.

        Science can’t investigate something and conclude “this phenomenom/effect/thing doesn’t belong to the natural world”. Just can’t do it. It’s really that simple.

  17. Sajanas
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    What annoys me even more about Rabbi Wolpe is that he has been embroiled in a controversy over trying to teach that Exodus never happened, as is known from historical and archaeological evidence. Yet, in spite of seeing how religious people defend nonsense because its a tradition, he is willing to lash out at Hawking as being unsophisticated, even though there is no more evidence of his God than there is for Exodus.

  18. Dean Buchanan
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    ???

  19. Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    “… equal to the most blinkered religionist.”

    Subsequently, the ontological argument posits no conceivable end to the permutations of the blinkered religionist. We’re dealing with equal-opportunity apophaticism.

  20. Dominic
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Sorry everyone – I have gone red with italic embarrassment…

    • daveau
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      I dunno… I kind of like it. Gives the whole thing flair.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      I have fixed it, but pay attention:

      and , not !!!!!

      • Dominic
        Posted May 18, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        😦 duly chastened…

    • AR
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      I enjoy the occasional promiscuous italic. Makes everything delightfully emphatic.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      On this site I try to be hypercompulsive about proofing italics tags, but every so often I hit “Post comment” hurriedly & then quake in fear for however long it takes…One of these days, italics death will strike all of us…

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:28 am | Permalink

        I can’t wait for the post-italics era.

        You know, when the italics underpinnings of a text is undermined and sacrificed for the larger good. Italics will be abandoned with glee, and yield for detyping. [/oops – Derrida]

  21. Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Wolpe snickers over phlogiston while failing to demonstrate he even has any fire.

  22. DicePlayGod
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Ya gotta love this:

    “Stephen Hawking is an estimable scientist and no doubt an admirable man but he has no more competence to pronounce on heaven than any other thoughtful adult.”

    So why should we listen to you?

  23. Nick B.
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I do take issue with one thing Jerry says in the post. He says we reject the idea of heaven (or an afterlife generally) because there is no evidence for it. For myself, and I think many other people, the absence of evidence for heaven is minor in shaping my views concerning it. I think it is perfectly transparent and obviously made-up/culturally constructed. Further I think biology and psychology help to make ready-sense of delusional belief in immortality. Toss in a dash of philosophy about the incoherency of supernatural existence, minds without working parts, etc. Also, saying we don’t believe in it only because of a lack of evidence for it leaves us wide-open to the ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ retort. I think we should emphasize how reason demolishes the idea of heaven with the absence of evidence for it being lower on the list arguments against it.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Agree.

      It’s rather like comparing the fact that I don’t believe there is a raccoon in my backyard with my not believing there is a sea serpent in Loch Ness. In both cases, there is a lack of evidence, yes. But in the second case, there are additional problems. Those additional problems are more significant than just lacking a clear photo or body.

    • Bryan
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      Agree. The evidence against dualism does it for me. I really like Hawking’s computer metaphor – that’s how I’ve been thinking about my own death for a while now.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      I agree, but ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ is folk science.

      Yes, a famous scientist said it; doesn’t make it true. The retort is a magic formula for religious people, and as such we can avoid it because it is harder to break down. But we can, and so should, work on noting how it doesn’t play up to the science.

      For example, absence of evidence for antimatter is taken as evidence for absence in accord with standard cosmology prediction. It is thus a test for that theory, which wouldn’t yield our universe otherwise (no matter for stars).

  24. MadScientist
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    The rabbi just doesn’t understand science. Science is not a mere collection of ‘facts’ – it is a process by which we work out how and why things work, a process for discovering truths about the world. That is why bad ideas like phlogiston are long phorgotn and why Newton’s excellent work on gravitation and mechanics are superceded by Einstein’s theories of Relativity when necessary; Newton’s gravitational mechanics is not really wrong, it just doesn’t apply in certain circumstances. However, Newtonian mechanics will still be used well into the future.

    • sailor1031
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      seems to me the good rebbe is unable to tell the difference between,shall we say, gravity and a theory of gravity. Hence he does not get the difference between fire (the phenomenon fire)and the phlogiston theory (theory of fire). We abandon theories (eventually) when they are shown to be wrong or do not give us accurate predictions; but the phenomena remain.
      As opposed to theology which is mere hypothesis without corresponding phenomena

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

      Newton’s gravitational mechanics is not really wrong,

      It is really wrong =D, but it isn’t too wrong (which happened to phlogiston as well). So can be used as a convenient model (which didn’t happen for phlogiston, it was abandoned for various reasons).

  25. Graham Martin-Royle
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    “How does Stephen Hawking know about heaven?

    How does Stephen Hawking know ‘there is no heaven’? He has never been there. But the One who has came from Heaven to tell us about it. What’s more, he told us He is the way to get there. I will go with Jesus and not Hawking.
    CAL THOMAS | MAY 17, 2011 8:37 AM”

    That is such a reasoned and well thought out rebuttal I’ve converted…..NOT!

  26. bric
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Another one to enjoy

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/may/17/stephen-hawking-heaven

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      Oh, puke!

    • Ichthyic
      Posted May 19, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      seems like he pretty well got entirely shredded in the comments.

  27. 386sx
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Master scientist though he may be, I’ll turn to a still higher authority.

    Huh? What does Honoré de Balzac have to with it. I thought he was a French novelist and playwright.

  28. Posted May 18, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    As a matter of fact, Nicholas T. Wright usually writes his name N.T. Wright, and goes by ‘Tom’. He was Bishop of Durham until recently, and is an extremely conservative Anglican evangelical, more at home on “100 Huntley St.” than in the Senior Common Room. He’s written a 3 volume (mark that! three!) book about the resurrection. Tom Wright teaches at the University of St. Andrew’s, I think.

    • Sajanas
      Posted May 18, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      I was really surprised by how he claimed that there was good knowledge about the resurrection that Hawking had for not seen, and yet he never actually mentioned what it is. One would assume that all the priests learn about the biblical history and lack of corroborating evidence for Jesus’s life and miracles, and have a little humility when they talk about ‘proof’.

  29. Posted May 18, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    That kind of reasoning is fractally wrong. It’s akin to saying ‘of course science can’t test homoeopathy since science can only test material. Homoeopathy works by immaterial means, something that is beyond science’s epistemic limits. If only scientists would show some humility, because just because science can’t measure it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there!’

    Of course when it comes to homoeopathy, there are tests that can measure whether or not it has an effect irrespective of how it works. Likewise, there is are sciences of the mind and of culture that should show whether or not ideas like afterlifes are coherent prospects. If the ‘self’ is an oganised set of neurons, then surely that is scientific evidence against the idea of an afterlife.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Good point, homeopathy belief is exactly like fairy belief. Yet the absence of homeopathic effects are accepted and the supremacy of medicine. But not absence of fairistic effects and the supremacy of physics.

      Go figure.

  30. Aratina Cage
    Posted May 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Theists have never been able to reconcile dreamless sleep or any other kind of unconsciousness (while still alive) with their theory of an afterlife, either, and that is something that happens every day for most people.

  31. greyhound1405
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Describe the biblical heaven, with references!

  32. godsbelow
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Incidentally,don’t the Jews who attend Sinai Temple know that there’s technically* only one temple in Judaism, the one in Jerusalem beneath the Dome of the Rock? Just asking….

    [*Technically, because there are two other actual temples (rather than synagogues) known to have existed in Late Period and Ptolemaic Egypt.]

  33. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 19, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    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.

    One of the remarkable realities of scientific progress is that in every age its commonplaces have proven to be false in the eyes of later generations. We cannot possibly know which platitude of science will seem as silly now as phlogiston does today. Yet some scientists proclaim with thunderous certainty equal to the most blinkered religionist what is or is not true based on nothing more developed than distaste.

    I find it exceedingly funny that Wolpe would argue that new evidence would help overturn old ideas and make them “seem as silly now as phlogiston does today”.

    Because Hawking is pointing out exactly a point where the advent of computers helps overturn the old idea that there is afterlife and make it seem as silly now as phlogiston does today.

    The cognitive dissonance is strong in this one.


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  1. […] read Hawking upsets a sophisticated rabbi, by Jerry […]

  2. […] Hawking upsets a sophisticated rabbi (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com) God/Prayer, Healing Earth, friendship, Heaven, postaday2011 ← Never Underestimate the Power of the Paw LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  3. […] a rabbi who should have held his tongue. It’s David Wolpe, whom we’ve encountered several times before. Over at HuffPo he writes “In defense of animal sacrifice.” (HuffPo […]

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