Stephen Hawking was interviewed by the Guardian last Sunday concerning his views of the afterlife and, to no one’s surprise, he denied the existence of the afterlife. His reasoning, however, is shockingly bad. This is because Hawking makes two completely contradictory claims: On the one hand he says that Heaven is merely wishful thinking, but on the other hand he says that our brains are like computers. How can a computer – something that lacks free will – have wishful thinking – something that requires free will?
A computer, by definition, can only know what has been programmed into it. Even computers that learn still lack free will proper because they’re stuck with the programming they have. If you program a computer, say Hal 2000, to murder everyone on a space ship, then Hal 2000 will murder everyone on that ship. It might learn new and creative ways to murder the people, like sucking them into the vacuum of space, but ultimately its sole purpose is to murder everyone on the ship. Thus, the computer is stuck with its programming. I will deal with that later, but first let us look at Hawking’s belief in Heaven directly.
If this is true for humans, then where is the moral responsibility? More importantly, how does Heaven become wishful thinking if we are programmed with knowledge? Ultimately, while Hawking’s religion is science, his reasoning forces us to believe that Hawking is ultimately irrational in his beliefs.
If Hawking is correct and Heaven is wishful thinking, then where did a belief in Heaven come from? Some might say a coping device, others as a means to control people, but none of these escape the irrationality of the belief. Allow me to demonstrate. Let us assume that Heaven is a fairytale, one that has no factual element to it, but a belief in Heaven aids in survival (or some segments of a species benefit from believing in Heaven and such a belief leads to further propagation). If this is the case, then natural selection has guided a vast multitude of the human population (including those currently alive and all humans who have ever existed) into believing a falsehood for the sake of its survival. Thus, natural selection is more concerned about what helps us survive rather than discovering the truth. If this is the case, then we cannot trust our cognitive abilities.
If our cognitive abilities can rationalize any belief and the majority of humans can believe in the belief, but the belief is false, yet a survival trait, then how can we trust our reasoning on anything? For all we know we are simply being deceived by our current noetic environment in order to aid in our survival, but later on as we evolve we could lose the necessity for the specific false belief. Yet, there’s no reason to believe that one false belief couldn’t be replaced by another. The end result is we can never trust that we have knowledge; if Heaven is both a false belief and a survival trait, then then all beliefs are irrational.
Alternatively, if Hawking would contend that Heaven is both a false belief and has no survival benefit, then we must ask how a belief in Heaven developed in the first place. Arguing that it’s a coping mechanism or an explanatory filter simply begs the question and uses the conclusion to justify the premises. For the very question I’m asking is how could the material imagine the immaterial, something it has (supposedly) never come into contact with? In a purely material world, our minds would be causally determined. All material is in a determinant cycle of cause and effect, so if our minds were a part of this cycle then all of our thoughts, actions, and beliefs would be part of this cause and effect. The question, of course, is how can the immaterial arise out of a purely physical cycle of cause and effect? I am not here to offer any answers, but simply to point out that science must offer a non-circular answer to this challenge, something that has yet to be done (and possibly never will).
More importantly, however, is if our minds are simply computers then we lack free will, which also proves the irrationality of Hawking’s belief! Turning to St. John of Damascus’ defense of free will, we read:
Now, if man is not an effective principle of action, to which of these causes are we to attribute human actions? It is definitely wrong ever to ascribe immoral and unjust actions to God; neither can they be ascribed to necessity, for they are not the actions of things which are always the same; nor can they be ascribed to fate, for they declare that the things decreed by fate are not contingent but necessary; nor to nature, for the works of nature are animals and plants; nor to chance, for human actions are not unusual and unexpected; nor yet to spontaneity, for they say that that is spontaneous which befalls inanimate things or brute beasts. Indeed, nothing remains but the fact that man himself is acting and doing is the principle of his own works and is free.
What is more, if man is not a principle of action, then his power of deliberation is superfluous, for to what use would he put his deliberation if he were not master of any action at all? All deliberation is on account of action, and it would furthermore be absurd were the most excellent and noble of the faculties in man to prove useless. Besides, when a man deliberates, he does so on account of action, because all deliberation is on account of and for the sake of action. (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 2, Chapter 25)
Keeping in mind that if our minds are nothing more than computers, which means we have no free will, the Damascene offers up seven reasons why we do in fact have free will:
- God can’t cause evil, meaning we are responsible for our immoral actions – while evoking God won’t do much for a response to Stephen Hawking, the truth does still stand. If we are merely the result of millions of years of programming, then we aren’t responsible for our actions. If we murder it was due to bad programming or proper programming that geared us towards the murder; either way, it’s not our fault. Try as we might, when a computer deletes our essays, our files, or crashes it’s not as though the computer wilfully did these actions; something in the line of cause and effect caused the computer to act that way. The same would be true of humans who committed immoral actions if we were nothing more than a physical mind.
- Necessity begets the same results – if our actions are the result of cause and effect, then the effect necessarily follows the cause. Put a human in a situation and he will act a certain way. Put him in that same situation and it’s likely that he will act differently. In other words, human actions are always different even when placed in extremely similar or same situations. Yet, if you put a leaf in a situation and a different leaf in the same situation, the two will act the same. The reason is they follow from cause and effect, but it would appear that human minds do not.
- We can’t be fated because then everything would be necessary – This argument is more along the lines of theistic fatalism and how it would make God determined, thus it’s not really applicable to the argument at hand. However, one application we can garnish from the argument is that if everything is a result of cause and effect, then everything we see necessarily occurs, which would leave us no recourse to challenge it. The starving child in Africa necessarily occurs; the stars do not hear her cries, the cosmos doesn’t care about her plight, and ultimately we shouldn’t feel good or bad about it happening; it’s simply a necessary occurrence of nature. While this doesn’t disprove what Hawking’s said, it does show that it’s impossible to live logically consistent with the idea that our brains are nothing more than computers.
- Nature produces brutes, not rationality – Turning back to what I said earlier, in a system of cause and effect where false beliefs exist as a survival mechanism, we cannot trust our rationality. The reason is that nature isn’t interested in producing rationality, but instead producing survival traits, even if that forces us to irrationally accept false beliefs.
- We can’t argue for random chance, because to a certain degree humans are predictable – While all humans are unique and will produce different reactions in different circumstances, to a certain degree we’re also predictable. This would rule out any arguments saying that human actions are simply a result of anomalous random acts spurting off from the procession of cause and effect. That humans, to a certain degree, can be predictable (though not determined) would show that the mind isn’t anomalous to any system of cause and effect, thus we must find a way to explain how humans can be different in our reactions, yet predictable (this cannot be done through physical forces).
- Humans are not 100% spontaneous – Our actions don’t happen in a vacuum, thus any arguments saying that our actions are simply spontaneous are also false. While we’re not determined and we are the origin of our actions, our actions happen as a reaction to the causes we experience, rather than a necessary following of those causes. This is the definition of libertarian free will, as opposed to autonomous free will.
- We hold the capacity to reason, but if we are in a cycle of cause and effect then we have no reason to be reasonable – If we have no choice, then why do we deliberate? If I’m predetermined to order the number two at McDonalds, then why do I sit there and try to decide between the number one and number two? Go to a restaurant with an indecisive friend and you’ll quickly discover that we’re not pre-determined or part of cause and effect. If our desires (causes) force us to decide what we will eat (effect), then there should be no need for deliberation. We should simply pick it and go about our way. Thus, if we’re causally determined, then again we’re irrational because we are forced into whatever “choice” we “pick!” So if we’re causally determined then Hawking is left without any rational means to condemning those who do believe in Heaven, for they have no other choice.
I hope it can be seen with relative ease that though Hawking might be a brilliant physicist, he’s a horrible philosopher. His denial of Heaven is implicitly irrational, as is his statement that human minds are just computers. Ironically, his argument for Heaven’s non-existence can only be rational (remember, something can be rational without being true) if Heaven actually exists. For if Heaven exists then God exists, and if God exists then we could argue that free will exists as He created us in His image. It is in this free will that we could invent our own version of Heaven. But of course, it would be no invention as there would necessarily have to be a Heaven. In the end, Hawking must believe in Heaven in order to rationally, though unfactually, declare that Heaven is a fairytale. To hold to his current position is simply irrational.