A Response to Stephen Hawking
by Simon Jester
Copyright 2010

Due to the finite nature of our experience,  the activity called “explaining something,” must, of necessity, involve focusing one's attention upon a limited set of facts. For example, let's say you sneak into a “By Invitation Only” state dinner at the White House. An alert Secret Service agent finally discovers that you lack the proper security clearance to be present at such an event. He apprehends you and, in a demanding tone, asks:  “How did you get here?” It would be ridiculous for you to respond by telling him that one of your father's sperm cells managed to fertilize one of your mother's egg cells and—presto!—that's how you got here! Although undoubtedly true, the facts surrounding your biological conception would not be relevant to the kind of explanation the Secret Service agent needs. To further illustrate the point, imagine that a friend asks you to explain how to make a Bloody Mary. In order for your friend to successfully mix this drink, you don't need to tell him anything about the distillation of Vodka or the agricultural techniques used to grow tomatoes. Even though  distillation and agriculture are indisputably causally antecedent to the alcoholic beverage called a Bloody Mary, your friend doesn't need to know any of this in order to become a better bartender.
     Because we are finite beings using limited minds to confront and respond to finite situations, we don't need to know everything about something in order to explain it to our satisfaction. All we need to know about anything are those features that are relevant to the attainment of our immediate (and equally limited) purposes. For this reason, it is quite possible to fire a gun and hit a target while remaining utterly ignorant of the science of ballistics or to learn everything there is to learn about how to scramble eggs without even knowing that chickens exist.
     Science is one of the many inventions of the finite human intellect which offers specialized explanations. Like all explanatory systems, it is designed to facilitate very specific kinds of purposes, and the nature of these purposes will condition the sort of facts that scientists need to examine when they formulate explanations. The major objective of science is to collect information that enables us to make accurate predictions about the future behavior of material objects, and successfully manipulate these objects in ways that enhance technological development. Because these are the limited goals of science, there are many, many kinds of facts—facts that might be very significant in other contexts—that scientists can utterly ignore while still managing to supply scientifically valid and comprehensive explanations. A forensics expert can determine exactly how a murder occurred without needing to know anything about the motives of the killer. A chemist can fully explain why a colloidal substance called  Alfredo sauce adhered to the fettuccine I ate for dinner tonight without once considering if the price I paid for my meal was fair or not.
     And Stephen Hawking recently created another big reaction in religious circles by stating (again) that he can scientifically explain the physical origins of the universe without recourse to the concept of God.
     So what else is new? Surely we've known for generations that science—like auto mechanics or electronics or cosmetology—doesn't need to postulate spiritual entities or engage in theological speculations in order to invent more efficient methods for improving gas mileage, heating office buildings or camouflaging gray hair.
     Why do people persist in thinking that a field of human inquiry designed to enhance  our interactions with material objects will be able to offer spiritual guidance? Are people today still so spiritually naive that they imagine God to be a white haired, bearded old man sitting on a throne somewhere beyond the farthest galaxies, waiting for the Hubble Telescope to snap His portrait? And why do scientists like Stephen Hawking feel a need to tell us that we don't need to use spiritual concepts when we try to explain or manipulate things for non-spiritual purposes? Does Dr. Hawking also need to inform us that we don't need concepts like “honesty” or  “personal integrity” to understand politics or contemporary business practices?
     All sarcasm aside, the point being made here is that (a) we experience a multidimensional universe capable of sustaining a very diverse range of meanings and purposes; and (b) the explanations that help facilitate purposes in one area of experience do not need to employ the concepts required to explain things in other areas of experience. Displacing an explanatory method from its proper level of usage will usually cause lots of unnecessary confusion...or unintentional laughter.
     Remember the disappointed reactions of high school students in Health classes when human sexuality was explained  in coldly medical terms? I remember my friends and I  looking at cross sections of fallopian tubes and plastic models of ovaries and wondering how any of this information could help us score with our girlfriends that evening. Although anatomical diagrams of the female reproductive system might one day help us to remove ovarian cysts or deliver babies, they didn't seem very relevant to the major objectives of teenage boys, nor would any of us have wasted our money buying Playboy Magazine if the foldouts consisted entirely of such gynecological charts.
     Now imagine for a moment that Stephen Hawking is not a theoretical physicist but is, instead, the world's greatest gynecologist. He writes several popular books in which he makes the following statements: “I have studied the labia, the clitoris, the uterus and the ovaries extensively. I have dissected them in the laboratory numerous times and examined the cells of which they consist under the microscope. I have observed the monthly cycle of female egg development and have measured the levels of the chemicals and hormones that must be present in order for motile male sperm cells to successfully reach and fertilize the female egg. And I can confidently state that concepts like 'romance,' 'seductiveness,' 'attraction,' 'desire,' 'love' and 'responsibility' are not needed to describe the physical aspects of sexual intercourse or explain how babies are made.”
     Would couples throughout the world experience a crisis of romantic doubt after hearing such amazing news from the great Dr. Hawking? Would married men and women rush in hordes to their attorneys to file for divorce? Or would they viciously attack Dr. Hawking and loudly condemn him for his disbelief?
     All the recent twitter about Stephen Hawking's recent “God” statements indicate how little the general public understands science and its limited nature. Ironically, religious people who feel threatened by Hawking's pronouncements thereby demonstrate how thoroughly they have fallen under the spell of scientific materialism. It is only when we assume that science provides the only valid description of reality that we can be upset when our beliefs about divinity are excluded from its explanations.