As Sean Carroll has noted over at Cosmic Variance, he was part of a 20-minute panel discussion, moderated by David Gregory, following the Discovery Channel show on Stephen Hawking and his views of God and physics. The other participants were theologian John Haught and cosmologist/believer Paul Davies (a Templeton Prize winner). I’ll put up both parts of the conversation, followed by my take.
Besides the three discussants, there were brief statements by three other people: science popularizer Michio Kaku, astrophysicist and Christian Jennifer Wiseman, and Father William Stoeger. These people added nothing to the dialogue and I found Kaku annoying in his faux-enthusiastic accommodationism (he suggested, for instance, that God could have created multiverses and string theory).
This is hardly an unbiased judgment, but of the three I found Sean Carroll refreshingly forthright and honest. He refused, for example, to admit that the question of God is completely beyond scientific ken. Here are two of his statements:
“If one of your roles for God is creating the universe. . . .then modern cosmology has removed that.”
“I agree that there are questions that science doesn’t answer. Science tells us what happens in the world and how it happens. That’s a little bit different from questions of purpose and meaning. But when we get to questions of purpose and meaning, I think it’s very important to base that discussion on reality—on how the world really does work.”
Carroll then emphasized that if you believe in a theistic god, one who intervenes in the world, then that assertion can be judged scientifically, while deism, of course, is outside the bailiwick of science. When asked about the Big Questions, that is, “questions of purpose and meaning,” Carroll responded that the answers must come from within ourselves, and that we must always base our values of meaning and purpose on reality. (The implication, of course, is that we shouldn’t impute them to god.)
John Haught‘s positions were pretty much in line with what I’ve read by him. He wants to accept the findings of modern cosmology, but deems them irrelevant to what he sees as the important religious question, “is there a basis for hope?” He emphasized repeatedly that science isn’t wired to answer the Big Questions—questions of value, purpose and meaning.
Haught took Hawking to task for trespassing on theological ground, asserting that Hawking “dramatically redefined what science is capable of”, i.e., dismissing the possibility of God. I think that Haught, though, missed the major point of Hawking’s program, which is the Laplace-ian idea that the idea of a god is simply unnecessary to explain the origin of the universe. If that’s true, then cosmologists can certainly assert that they don’t need the God hypothesis
Carroll asked Haught an excellent queestion: “If God didn’t exist, would the universe be different in any way?” Haught responded with the only answer he could give: without God, “the universe would not exist.” But for a theist that is an untestable and unverifiable claim, particularly if the universe could really have originated from the “vacuum state” of quantum physics, which for all practical purposes is creation ex nihilo.
After asserting that a universe-creating God could very well bring the dead to life (read Jesus), Haught backed off of issues about heaven and the afterlife, saying that the question of the afterlife coincides with whether “there is a meaningful outcome to this whole wonderful story that we call the universe.” That is a weaselly theological answer. We either live on after death or not, not whether or not (as Haught has emphasized in his writings) everything is getting better.
Finally, Haught made his usual assertion that evidence for God resides in the very fact that that the universe is scientifically intelligible, and that this intelligibility is the big contribution theology makes to science. He and other science-savvy theologians like to argue that without God there could be no mathematical laws of physics, and no understanding of the universe. I found Haught rather haughty in his assertion that he’s trying to “save science” by “leaving out the big questions.” That is, scientists overstep their bounds and lose credibility when, like Hawking, they make science-based statements about the nonexistence of God. He really does think—and I read this just last night in one of his books—that theology makes a meaningful contribution to science, and that contribution is the demonstration that science works.
Paul Davies pretty much hewed to Haught’s line, although he shied away from direct statements about God. He agreed with Haught that the big mystery of physics—presumably the one that points to God—is this: “Where do the laws of physics come from?” (I guess these folks aren’t satisfied with the answer that “they are just there—the ineluctable properties of matter.”) For the life of me I don’t see how the lawfulness of physics (which, after all, is required for us to be observing it in the first place, since we could not exist as organisms without such laws) point to a deity.
Davies stayed away from his personal beliefs, but asserted that the question of an afterlife is not meaningful to him. He also argued that “miracles are horrible concepts”, but also claimed that religion, despite its truthfulness or lack thereof, does cause people to lead better lives. He finished by arguing, as did Haught, that science looks bad when scientists (presumably those like Hawking) appear too arrogant. We should lace our arguments with “humility.”
My overall impression: “sophisticated theologians” are backing off of the Big Bang as evidence for god, and perhaps from the anthropic principle as well. What they now bang on about are the origins of order, the intelligibility of the universe, and the regularity of the laws of physics, which they see as evidence for God. They are being pushed back into a corner, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed they would if they tied their belief in God to the findings of science.