This blog post by the so-called “humanist chaplain” at Harvard University (is it too much to hope that there’s a Methodist chaplain there, too?), which attempts to defend Stephen Hawking’s musings on religion and philosophy in a controversial interview last week, is so shallow and unreflective, it hardly deserves mention. But it bugs me, so let me briefly call attention to a couple of things.
The author, an atheist, describes a conversation he had with a believer in a bar who asked him the following: “OK, but tell me this, Mr. Atheist: Where did we come from? How did all of this get here?” He wrote:
I answered: “Well, I’m not a scientist,” a line I often offer with a chuckle when I’m confronted with a question I don’t know the answer to, “but to be honest, that question doesn’t matter all that much to me. I’m not especially interested in how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?”
“I’m not a scientist, but…”
I call foul! I strongly disagree with the premise of his answer, but it accurately reflects our modern cultural bias toward “science” as the source of all knowledge. Science at best can only provide a partial answer to the question of “where we came from” and “how we got here.”
What bugs me is, Why doesn’t the author realize this?
I’m sure that if he thought he were qualified to give a scientific answer, he would talk about evolutionary processes, which is fine as far as it goes. But you still haven’t answered the most interesting part of the question “How did we get here?”
I used to say that science answers the “how” questions and religion answers the “why,” but that’s still giving too much credit to science. How did the conditions exist in the first place such that there was a big bang, etc. (I’m not a scientist either, so “big bang, etc.” is shorthand for that part of the answer that is scientific.) How was there something in the first place? Where did that come from? How was there an environment in which conditions existed to cause the evolutionary processes that the author undoubtedly would credit in his answer?
Seriously! Do these questions never cross the author’s mind? Not just this guy… Last year, Hawking himself speculated that the force of gravity (or something) is sufficient to account for the conditions necessary for the beginning of the universe—as if that answers the question! Why would such a force (or anything else) exist in the first place? Why something and not nothing? Unless the scientifically minded atheist answers this basic question of existence, he hasn’t answered the most important how or why questions. Philosophically, the scientific atheist is guilty of a category mistake.
Oh well… Enough of my banging my head against the wall on that particular issue. I hear and read popular atheists today constantly falling into this trap, and no one in the media calls them on it. Why are we so dumb? (Here’s an article from the New York Times last year that irritated me for the same reason.)
Anyway, the piece goes from bad to worse when the author, referring to the Hawking interview, writes,
But in my mind, the most pivotal moment of Hawking’s interview is also the easiest to overlook. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sentence, Hawking offered an imperative call to action:
So here we are. What should we do?We should seek the greatest value of our action.
Given that we are here, what will we do? What is the greatest value of our action? I’m not a scientist, but I believe the answer is as simple as seeking to understand the diverse people who are here with us, and working together to advance equality and justice for all.
“Value”? What does value possibly mean to a philosophical materialist like Hawking or this blogger that isn’t hopelessly relative? What one values, according to their way of understanding the world, is nothing more than a personal preference, like my saying that I value dark chocolate because it tastes good to me. “Value” is nothing more than a meaningless accident. Yet, on the basis of this meaningless accident, atheists can become as sanctimonious as any religious person.
And what about the blogger’s “simple” answer about working together for these concepts called “equality” and “justice”? He cannot be serious! Where does he get that from? If science has all the answers, as he believes, the burden is on him to show that working for equality and justice is scientifically justified.