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Stephen Hawking's God: A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion

Homo sapiens has enjoyed singular success at tweaking the environment because of the unique psycho-social wiring of the human mind ( Pagel ). Hearkening back to the nature-nurture debate, the human mind is a multi-dimensional intellectual construct that emerges from the complex combination of human biology (id), psychology (ego), and sociology (superego).  The human mind, and sense of self does not emerge purely in response to the growth of an operational brain. It takes healthy, well-functioning gray matter and long term, psycho-social training, learning, nurturing and emotional cultivation in order to create a context in which “the light can switch on” in a human mind. In situations where children with healthy gray matter have been undersocialized, their capacity to develop a self, mind and identity has been severely impaired. So it would seem that, in addition to being a product of the atoms that constitute the human body (nature), the mind is an emergent, “extra” phenomenon that can only coalesce as a result of a long term social-psychological care and interaction (nurture).

Hard determinists are highly skeptical of the idea that the human mind can consist of anything but–or is not reducible to–the activity of the atoms and energy (nature) that constitute the human animal. Once again, Hawking and Mlodinow emphasize their “exclusively nature” position by asserting that the human experience is entirely reducible to, and determined by the physical properties of the human animal’s constituent elements:

It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion (Hawking and Mlodinow).

It is worth pointing out that Hawking and Modlinow base their assertion on an assumption, “…if our behavior is determined by physical law…” that they fail to demonstrate. While they “concede” that “human behavior is determined by human nature,” they also concede that they cannot validate their hypothesis:

…it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. For that one would need a knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations. (Hawking and Mlodinow).

The above statement is only “reasonable” for those who embrace a faith-based, superstitious commitment to determinism. Again, the most fundamental and unvarying truth that quantum science teaches is the unavoidable conundrum of quantum uncertainty ( God does play dice with the universe ). It doesn’t matter how big one’s computer is, or how many billions of years it might take to calculate, there is simply no way to determine, “the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body.” It boggles the mind that two eminent physicists would be so unwilling to embrace the full implications of quantum uncertainty. With apologies to Einstein, quantum science has revealed the inescapable truth that determinism is naught but a stubbornly persistent illusion. Unfortunately, the desire to sustain a superstitious conviction in a deterministic universe is so powerful that even the most sophisticated thinkers have occasionally fallen prey to an “exclusively nature” reductionism:

…all ordinary phenomena can be explained by the actions and motions of particles. For example, life itself is supposedly understandable in principle from the movements of atoms, and those atoms are made out of neutrons, protons and electrons. I must immediately say that when we state that we understand it in principle, we only mean that we think that, if we could figure everything out, we would find that there is nothing new in physics which needs to be discovered in order to understand the phenomena of life (Richard Feynman).

Whenever scientists make omniscience (i.e., “if we could figure everything out”) a precondition for their conjectures, they are, to put it mildly, on the wrong track. Scientists have no business dreaming of a time when they “will know everything” because nothing of the sort will ever happen. Again, the first lesson of quantum mechanics is that it is impossible to know everything about anything–not even a single quantum particle! Omniscience is therefore an unscientific, illogical, erroneous presumption, and no one should have been more aware of that fact than Richard Feynman . As soon as scientists get the idea that they ever can, or ever will know everything, then the scientific truth-seeking process will grind to a screeching halt.

About Timothy McGettigan


  1. You are engaging quotes from 10,000 feet and drawing strong conclusions using generic premises, but it’s not clear to me that you actually understand the physics or Hawking’s position. Why not address, for example, Adequate Determinism itself?:

    Adequate determinism is the idea that quantum indeterminacy can be ignored for most macroscopic events. This is because of quantum decoherence. Random quantum events “average out” in the limit of large numbers of particles (where the laws of quantum mechanics asymptotically approach the laws of classical mechanics).[23] Stephen Hawking explains a similar idea: he says that the microscopic world of quantum mechanics is one of determined probabilities. That is, quantum effects rarely alter the predictions of classical mechanics, which are quite accurate (albeit still not perfectly certain) at larger scales.[24] Something as large as an animal cell, then, would be “adequately determined” (even in light of quantum indeterminacy).

  2. “Also, using Wikipedia as a source impugns your argument. Better luck next time.”

    There are sources in Wikipedia for what he quoted and what’s the difference if he had the idea or someone else had the idea for the argument? The argument still exists, why is it meaningless to engage in a discussion about it?

    I’m not sure what the objective of your article is, in particular the last paragraph. Are you saying science can never fully understand everything, so there is no point in trying? Personally, I think scientists have the business of dreaming about anything and everything, including a vision of the understanding of knowing all things, absolutely! And even if we acknowledge the possibility of an ever-eluding truth of any particular subject, certainly that is no reason to stop the journey even to take a breath (otherwise, what’s the point of sociology??). Maybe you could clear that up for me.

    Perhaps I am reading into what you are trying to say completely incorrectly, and by no means do I mean any disrespect, as all ideas and points of view are valuable in a social, scientific and complex world, I am merely engaging in some sort of dialogue between writer and reader.

    While nature and nurture both play important roles in determining the shape of what a mind will become, isn’t the “nurture” aspect just a product of the “nature” aspect? The feelings and thoughts associated with caring, learning, extrapolating, etc., can all be showed to be products of biological functions and/or exist for evolutionary reasons.

    I will not even get into the debate between free will and determinism. There is simply too much we do not currently know, though I am glad people are propelled to explore either theories and schools of thought!

    I’d personally say everything is determined and must happen, but only because of the things that have happened and are happening (including us choosing to do things). Of course, I could always change my mind…

    All interesting thoughts to explore.

    Thanks for writing, Tim!

  3. Does that qualify as a substantive rebuttal in sociology? I ask because physics requires evidence, not merely the repeated assertions and conjecture which you provide.

    The universe is manifestly more complex than you are willing to allow, including both apparent determinism and non-determinism. The fact that you cannot conceive of that or it makes you uncomfortable does not justify ignoring reality.

    Yet undeterred by reality, you assume your preferred conclusion and then try to explain away your boggled mind about the divergent belief among eminent physicists using your hammer of psych and sociology. Alas, sociology is not a substitute for physics.

    Your hammer would be more fruitful applied to your own writing, beginning with your arrogance, insulting style, unfounded assertions, and logical flaws.

    Is Wikipedia incorrect in my quote? Are its references invalid? Or is it simply your habit to attack the source instead of the argument?

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