Sep 05 2010

God and the scientist

Recently I observed that Stephen Hawking* had introduced God into his book “The Grand Design” as a way of gaining sales. Last weeks story on Hawking and God irritated me for two reasons. Firstly, the idea that a new idea that Stephen Hawking has introduced in his forthcoming book either proves or disproves the existence of God is fatuous nonsense. Secondly, revealing some intellectual snobbery on my part, this is a popular science book – such an important idea would have been published in peer-reviewed literature first – most likely Nature! On the first point Mary Warnock covers the philosophical side of this well in a short article in The Observer this week, in summary: proof / not proof of the existence of God is a hoary old chestnut.

As an atheist and scientist, I’m quite clear that my demand for evidence for the existence of God is what makes me an atheist. You don’t need evidence if you have faith. Although many scientists are atheists, this is by no means a pre-requisite. Many scientists in the past have been professed strong religious beliefs, no doubt in large part because of the spirit of the time they lived in. It’s only for particular variants of theism and particular topics that the two things are in direct collision: Creationism and the study of evolutionary biology are not happy bedfellows. The degree of cognitive dissonance required to accommodate a religious view of the world and a scientific view is really rather minor. Many scientists in the past have seen their scientific work as revealing the mechanism that God has created.

A further element to this is the degree to which modern cosmology requires a degree of faith. As an experimental soft condensed matter physicist the world of cosmologists is very far away. The things I study are essentially testable in the lab, you can put your hands on them, prod and poke them. Modern cosmology has a large degree of internal logical consistency and mathematical beauty, but it has close to zero contact with observations. At times it feels like any experimental test is wilfully pushed into timescales, or size scales that are simply impossible to observe (and not just impossible in practice, but impossible in principle). This is not to say they are wrong, but simply that their correctness must be taken on faith.

*Pointless name dropping/anecdotage: I had dinner with Stephen Hawking at Gonville and Caius College, he’s not very dynamic.

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