Monday, October 04, 2010

Romano, Carlin. "Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking." CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION September 26, 2010.

In his new book, Hawking, the celebrated author of A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988), declares on the first page that "philosophy is dead" because it "has not kept up" with science, which alone can explain the universe. "It is not necessary to invoke God," the authors write, "to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." Hawking sound-bited the hard stuff for interviewers: "Science makes God unnecessary," he told Good Morning America. Something simply came out of nothing.

If you've followed the science-religion debate in recent times, there's nothing new about such claims. Many scientists take Hawking's side, some do not. Almost everyone agrees that, as Hawking told ABC News, "One can't prove that God doesn't exist." The Templeton Foundation, which specializes in prodding believers and nonbelievers to discuss such things in civilized ways, has published all sorts of booklets, like "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?," in which some eminent scientists answer "Yes" and others answer "No."

Why, then, the uproar? Largely because Hawking has been anointed by the media as possibly "the smartest man in the world" (ABC News) and the "most revered scientist since Einstein" (The New York Times)—a genius, and so on. A genius, presumably, must be right about everything. Especially if he managed to sell nine million copies of a book.

Hawking's latest claims also sparked attention because A Brief History of Time ended with his observation that, if we could achieve a unified theory in physics, we would "know the mind of God." While Hawking's fellow atheists took that coda as a play on Einstein's earlier use of the phrase, many believers chose to read it as open-mindedness toward a possible creator, making this new book a sharp U-turn.

The ironic part of the current media tizzy is that philosophical Cambridge—that lesser-known slice of the university historically eclipsed by the Nobel accomplishments of its physicists—long ago showed why Hawking's orotund pronouncements about God are, to be charitable, simplistic. In fact, it is Cambridge's greatest contributors to 20th-century philosophy—Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and his most trenchant disciple, the Cambridge-trained physicist and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009)—who inoculated us against the naïve view that science shows God does not exist and is irrelevant to cosmology.

Before one gets edgy over Hawking's latest ex cathedra squawk, then, consider a thumbnail version of what Wittgenstein and Toulmin taught us about religion, science, and cosmology. Their message to Hawking? Scientists eager to delete God exceed their job description. . . .

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