This is the first in a two-part series on Stephen Hawking’s contention that science has resolved the need for God.
Every so often, a renowned scientist captivates a global audience through a combination of brilliance, charisma, and an uncanny ability to communicate complex ideas in simple terms.
Carl Sagan comes immediately to mind. So does Neil deGrasse Tyson. And, of course, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, whose dazzling intellect and sense of humor, despite severe physical limitations, make him a popular author, speaker, and occasional guest star on television sit-coms.
So, when the Discovery Channel launched a mini-series, “Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design,” it captured the attention of millions around the world.
Narrated by English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, the series features numerous sound bites of Hawking, who is wracked by Lou Gehrig’s disease and speaks through a voice synthesizer. Hawking begins episode three, “Did God Create the Universe?” with this statement:
“I have no desire to tell anyone what to believe. But for me, asking if God exists is a valid question for science. After all, it is hard to think of a more important or fundamental mystery than what, or who, created and controls the universe.”
Fair enough. If the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), and if God has revealed Himself to all people through His creation, leaving them with no excuse for rejecting Him (Rom. 1:20), then an exploration of the natural world should lead us to the conclusion that God exists.
But that’s where Hawking goes awry. He insists that the natural world alone has all the answers, and that these naturalistic answers slowly but steadily eliminate the need for God.
In order to keep science and divine revelation completely separate – science, good; faith, obsolete – Hawking and the show’s producers commit several logical fallacies.
The straw man. That’s misrepresenting someone’s argument to make it easier to attack. Hawking consistently – albeit respectfully – suggests that people of faith are seeking answers outside of the natural world. Therefore, superstition and ignorance cloud their thinking.
Equating faith with superstition is a straw man, for genuine faith rises from evidence. People of faith are doing exactly what the apostle Paul describes in Romans 1 – observing the vastness, complexity, and design of the natural world, and, based on the evidence, concluding that there must be a divine designer behind it all.
Begging the question. That’s a circular argument in which the conclusion is included in the premise. Hawking seems to embrace Carl Sagan’s famous line: “The cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”
In other words, those with a naturalistic worldview automatically reject the possibility of God, the supernatural, the soul, or miracles because they cannot be evaluated materialistically. So, Hawking confines the discussion of origins to naturalistic evidence that supports his conclusion.
The Texas sharpshooter. This fallacy employs the cherry-picking of data to suit an argument, or finding a pattern to fit a presumption. Hawking and the program’s producers shine here, concluding that belief in God is, and always has been, little more than a superstitious attempt to explain natural phenomena.
In the past, says Hawking, people believed God or gods created and controlled the natural world. That’s how they explained thunder, lightning, and solar eclipses.
The Vikings even believed that a wolf god, Skoll, caused solar eclipses by covering the sun. They had to chase him away with their loud voices and brash deeds.
Of course, Aristarchus put those beliefs to rest around 300 B.C. through his scientific explanation of eclipses. He also figured out that stars are not holes in the floor of heaven, but other orbs like our own sun.
Another example: Hawking points out that in 1277, Pope John XXI felt so threatened by the laws of nature that he declared them heresy. This did not prevent the laws of gravity from working, when the roof over his head collapsed one night, killing him.
Then, of course, comes the infamous case of Galileo, who posited in 1609 that the sun is at the center of our solar system – a claim for which he was charged with heresy.
These selected anecdotes “prove” that the light of science drives away the darkness of superstitious faith, thus eliminating the need for God.
“Science does not deny religion,” says Hawking, “it just offers a simpler alternative.”
But is it really simpler to deny the possibility of a divine designer than to follow the evidence wherever it leads?
Next: How to make a universe.