Saturday, 28 April 2018

Why we can't know why we are here

A P.S. to Why Are We Here? (22 March). Some weeks after pondering why on earth Stephen Hawking thought he could prove God doesn't exist I've just been reading a review of a book by John Gray called "Seven Types of Atheism". Gary notes that, in pagan times, there were many gods and you could worship whichever one you liked, though taking part in the rituals didn't mean you needed to believe in anything: in paganism "belief was irrelevant". However, Christianity changed that, bringing the culture of monotheism, the belief that there is only one true god. Gray thinks Christianity has a lot to answer for and he finds disturbing parallels in "atheistic religions" such as Bolshevism and Hitler's fascism. I found this a bit hard to swallow until I read that it was believed that Lenin's embalmed corpse would be resurrected and its clothes were regularly changed by KGB seamstresses in preparation for its miraculous awakening.

Gray is a professed atheist but he is disparaging of the "new" atheists such as Richard Dawkins, who put their faith in science. Their mistake, according to Gray is to believe that religion can be disproved, as if it were an obsolete scientific theory. They fail to see that science cannot close the gap between facts and values. Religion expresses a search for meaning, which would remain even if everything could be scientifically explained. The writer of the review I was reading, the commendable John Carey*, notes that the sharpness and clarity of that thought is typical of Gray's intellect and the power of his advocacy. These were the thoughts I was striving for when pondering why Hawking thought he could answer the question "why the universe exists at all". The best I could come up with was "After all, these are questions that people's belief and value sets intrude on. Where some scientists see the hand of god, others just see  the laws of science in action."  What I think can be concluded is that Hawking, while an outstanding scientist, had very modest talents as a philosopher.

*John Carey is the Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. Known for his anti-elitist views on high culture, he has twice chaired the Booker Prize committee and chaired the judging panel for the first Man Booker International Prize. His book reviews in the Sunday Times are always worth reading (many are probably better than the book reviewed!). His review of John Gray's book was published on 22 April.


  1. Speaking as an atheist I find your posting most interesting. Another good read on this subject is a book written by Ludovic Kennedy called 'All in the mind A Farewell to God' Helped me on the road to atheism from a CofE upbringing and a time as a choir boy at both St.Andrew's in Maghull and St Helen's in Sefton Village.

  2. Phil, I have followed with interest your blogs on this. I'd recommend a look at a book by Francis Collins, who was the scientist that led the international research programme to map the human genome. In a key section of his book, he looks into four key hypotheses: 1) Science trumps God (atheism/agnostic), 2) God trumps science (Literal creationism - not credible in my view, or the author's, 3) Intelligent Design - Science with a little help from God ( also discarded as flawed) and 4) Science and God in consistent, complimentary harmony - he calls this "Biologos" and, in my view, sets out compelling reasoning for backing this. His book is called "The language of God". Andy P

    1. Thanks for this tip, Andy. Maybe I should make this my holiday reading - it sounds interesting. But am I prepared to allow the sometimes irritating search for enlightenment to intrude into the noisy thoughts about guitarists and sport which occupy my small brain? (Rhetorical question....)