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Oct 15 2009

On quoting scientists-4: God as metaphor

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

If one looks at the quotes of scientists used by religious believers, one sees that they fall into a familiar pattern. One is to take the metaphorical use of the word god by some scientists and imply that these imply belief in a real god. One of the most common examples is the popularity amongst religious people of a statement in Stephen Hawking’s best-selling book A Brief History of Time that is often quoted this way: “[I]f we discover a complete theory…then we should know the mind of God”. It has been seized upon by religious people to imply that Hawking believes in god, and is a prime example of this practice of ‘quote mining’.

But Hawking, like Albert Einstein, is using god as a metaphor for complete knowledge, as can be seen in the full passage from which the quote is taken:

If we discover a complete theory, it should be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God. (my emphasis)

In a BBC interview, he was asked to further clarify his statement that we might one day know the mind of god and his answer clearly indicates that his idea of god is nothing like the god that religious people believe in.

It seems that the universe is governed by a set of scientific laws. One might say that these laws were the work of god but it would be an impersonal god who did not intervene in the universe apart from setting the laws. What I meant when I said we would know the mind of god was that if we discovered the complete set of laws and understood why the universe existed we would be in the position of god… One could define god as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as god. They mean a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible. (my emphasis)

Einstein was someone else who loved to use god as a metaphor in the same way as Hawking, and people have similarly seized on those quotes as evidence for at least a Slacker God. But Einstein viewed belief in god as a “childish superstition”. In a letter written just a year before his death, he said:

The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this… For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.

Some scientists throw in god into their statements because it is a sure-fire way of drawing media interest. Physicists in particular seem to be prone to gratuitously using god as a metaphor. Leon Lederman gave his 1994 book the title The God Particle, which was his idea of a cute name for the Higgs boson, a particle that is predicted to play a crucial role in the standard model of particle physics but has not been detected as yet. Then there was this statement last week by two physicists speculating about why the Higgs boson (which is what the newly constructed massive Large Hadron Collider is designed to create) has been so hard to detect.

“It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” Dr. Nielsen said in an e-mail message. In an unpublished essay, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.” It is their guess, he went on, “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.”

One can be sure that some religious people will seize on this statement as evidence for those scientists’ belief in god.

But what Hawking or Einstein or Darwin or Dawkins or whomever believes about god is ultimately irrelevant. Unlike some religious people who unquestioningly accept what the Pope or other religious people or the authors of their religious texts say, atheists reject belief in god because there is no evidence for it and not because of any authority. That’s it. Nothing more. If Richard Dawkins were to suddenly announce that he had had a vision of god and become a Christian, that would no doubt cause considerable surprise, shock even, but would not change anything about the existential status of god unless Dawkins could provide evidence that what he had experienced was not just a delusion or a psychotic episode but really was credible evidence of god’s existence.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert on Democratic opponents of the public option

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