Monday, May 16, 2011

Stephen Hawking on God, Heaven and the Meaning of Life

My sister graduated from college over the weekend, and on Saturday night after much drinking with the parents, I ended up having a very deep conversation with my father about everything from the meaning of life to relationships to morality to government. As I was waxing poetic, I came to the realization that while my views on all of these things are totally derivative and fully fleshed out, I have yet to find anything written anywhere that fully encapsulates my viewpoint. To me, this is pretty bizarre, because it all seems so obvious, but this is why I felt the need to start this blog. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will flesh out my philosophy in detail, and hopefully some of you will find it interesting.

When I logged into twitter today to change my picture, I saw Stephen Hawking listed as one of the trending topics. My first instinct was to assume that he had died, which would be a very sad day indeed. As luck would have it though, it turns out that he is still definitely alive and kicking, and the reason for his trending was this article in The Guardian. Now, anyone who knows Hawking's work knows that he is firmly entrenched in the atheist camp, but in this article he expressly calls heaven a "fairy story" and everyone seems to be flipping their shit. In any case, the timing was extremely fortuitous, as I had already begun the process of registering and building out this blog. 

Some background: I was baptized Greek Orthodox, which is how my mother self identifies, though my father self identifies as an agnostic. At some point in my early years, I spent some time going to Sunday school on Sundays while my mom attended mass. I remember very little of what we actually talked about in Sunday school, but I do remember reading an illustrated children's bible with my mom, specifically the story of Noah's ark. Yet even then, despite being five or so years old, I never thought of the story of Noah's ark as being history in the way that we look at the story of Julius Caesar or the revolutionary war. To me, Noah's ark always represented a fairy tale, or maybe a fable, not unlike The Tortoise and the Hare. It wasn't until years later that I realized that other people actually believe in this nonsense as fact, and within the last year that I had the realization that these irrational people are largely in charge of our world today.

Now that probably came off as harsh, labeling people who believe in god as irrational, a clearly pejorative word. Truth is, I don't know how else to describe them. Faith is inherently irrational, as it goes beyond the realm of reason into the realm of superstition. In fact, it would seem to me that if you believe in god, being called "irrational" should not be an insult, just as it's not an insult for you to call me an animal killer since I eat meat. I would like to make it clear that I don't necessarily think that people who are religious are bad people, in fact many of them are quite virtuous. I am just saying that something is different about the way they view the world as compared to the way I do, and that viewpoint scares me when it exists in someone who has influence, because it totally misaligns incentives. I will definitely discuss this more in a future post, but I'm getting a little sidetracked here.

I told that story about Sunday school to illustrate that I never chose to not believe in god. From a very young age, it didn't make sense to me. While I am skeptical that any thinking man actually does believe in god since it is so inherently irrational, I am willing to concede that IF someone does believe in god, there is a very good chance that they didn't choose to believe in the same way that I didn't choose to not believe. Beliefs are extremely difficult to change, and I would never ask someone to change theirs. However, a belief in god is no excuse for invoking god in any kind of decisions that can effect change in my life.

Back to Stephen Hawking for a second. In his interview with the Guardian, he states that "we should seek the greatest value for our action" with our short time on earth between birth and death. This idea of seeking value for our action, which is relatively synonymous with "achievement," is an important one, because as you will learn as I continue to flesh out my ideas, it is my belief that for humans, the species that conquered the world through reason, virtue lies in achievement and attempting to achieve (even if you never actually get there). Look for me building this idea out in the future. Also, regardless of whether you share this view of morality/virtue, I think that we can all agree that the United States of America was founded on this definition of virtue, which is why this conception of morality lines up so well with the "American dream." 

Now, I am a cocky bastard. I am open minded enough to change my opinion in the face of new evidence, or even reexamine my opinions in the face of a disagreeing opinion from someone who I respect. At the end of the day though, I value my own mind over that of anyone else, no matter how high his IQ is. Still, it's nice to know that the guy who is at the forefront of theoretical physics is in agreement with regard to heaven and virtue.


  1. I think that the majority of religious people also don't see Noah's ark as literal truth -- or at least they believe that there may have been a great flood and an ark with some animals but that the purpose of that story in its Sunday school context is symbolic/educational in the same way that you or I would think of the Br'er Rabbit story.

    By and large, I think many passionate atheists take religion much more literally than most religious people. I am trying to become a less dogmatic atheist.

  2. I don't think that the data collected from polling Americans would agree with that. You probably don't know too many who take the bible literally, but there are still plenty of people who, at least in public, claim to take the bible at its word. Look at all of the hullabaloo around the May 21st doomsday prediction.

    Regardless... once you believe that there is a magical being in the sky, how far-fetched is the story of Noah's arch really?

    I don't think there is such thing as taking religion too literally. Either you believe that there is a universal set of equations that describe the interaction of all matter and are responsible for all the behavior of everything, or you believe that there is a (or many) mythical being(s) in the sky moving things around at his whimsy. Once you make this leap of irrationality, what's the difference whether you believe in the literal Noah's arch or not?

  3. Geoff you are polarizing religious view because it's convenient to argument. For example, I am a Biochemistry student and Physics hobbyist. I consider the study of universal laws to be, in many respects, truly worshiping the work of a creator. For me, the grace of God is synonymous with the elegance of Its engineering. There are thousands of people just like me, who have their own relationship with their idea of a creator.

    I have been reading Stephen Hawking since I was 10 years old and although I respect his authority on most physics subjects, I find the singular study of one department of science to be limiting. In today's world we understand cephalization but not consciousness (the ONLY lens we have available to interact with our universe) which baffles me because outside of modelling, any knowledge we gain by way of experiment is by way of our senses.

    How can we know that what we understand or experience in this life is not but a sorely limited fragment of a larger, more diverse picture? As a rational person, I think it's irresponsible to put all of our eggs in the brain frequency basket. Much like Plato's cave story, our brains have us seated watching a show. We only know what we can deduce about the nature of the show and what makes it play. We have yet to stand up and walk outside.

    I am not making an argument for or against God, merely noting that I don't believe good scientists/philosophers profess to know what they do not. In this lifetime, we are most likely nowhere near the discovery of the meaning of life or a creator so it makes more sense to believe what makes you most comfortable, rational or not.

  4. "I consider the study of universal laws to be, in many respects, truly worshiping the work of a creator. "

    Do you not see the error of agenticity in this statement? I definitely acknowledge the possibility of a larger picture. For example, I have some pretty bizarre armchair speculations about what enables gravity and magnetism to act at a distance. But it is a far cry from acknowledging that we are severely limited in our perception of reality to saying that some conscious agent deliberately put the world together.

    Agnosticism and atheism are not answers to the same question. Agnosticism is an answer to the question "do you know if god exists?" Atheism is an answer to the question "do you believe god exists?" Self-proclaimed skeptics love to say that they "try not to believe," but the reality is that it is impossible to not form beliefs, because beliefs are not a choice. Do I know if god exists? No. Do I believe god exists? No.