Stephen Hawking, brilliant physicist and author of "A Brief History of Time" is proving to be quite brilliant at pissing off members of the religious community too.

Now now kids, play nice.

In the seemingly endless back-and-forth bantering between scientists and the more faith-based, Stephen Hawking has injected us with another shot of reason in an exclusive interview with the Guardian where he calls the afterlife a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Hawking’s comments are an extension of a book he completed recently with Leonard Mlodinow called “The Grand Design.” The book discusses the latest best guess by cosmologists to explain the universe. Called M-theory, the cosmological framework attempts to combine all physical theories–such as quantum theory that explains things at the atomic and subatomic levels and Einstein’s theory of relativity that deals with gravity–into a single theory that accurately describes everything, at all scales. The unified theory that M-theory hopes to be has been the cosmological Holy Grail since Einstein. He spent the final 25 years of his life in search of a unified theory. He never found it.

One man’s Holy Grail is another man’s crucifix.

Hawking concludes the book by suggesting M-theory’s implications to our broad, cultural interpretation of the universe. The theory predicts that from nothing springs an infinite number of universes, each ruled by its own unique set of physical laws. Only universes with laws like the ones in our universe can support life–at least life as we know it–and explains why we find ourselves in this particular kind of universe. “Sponatenous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”

And then, oh yes, he goes there: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

In the Guardian interview which took place on May 15, Hawking expanded on his Godless approach to understanding the universe, our purpose in it, and what, if anything, comes after. It’s a short interview.

From the Guardian:

What is the value in knowing “Why are we here?”
The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

You’ve said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?
Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

So here we are. What should we do?
We should seek the greatest value of our action.

You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?
I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

What are the things you find most beautiful in science?
Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.

In the words of Inigo Montoya: I do not think that word means what you think it means.

The first question is referring to a seminar that Hawking was to give the day following the interview at Google Zeitgeist entitled “Why are we here?” You can watch his talk in the video below. I think it’s an interesting question because it and Hawking’s answer get to the crux of why the entire debate between reason and faith gets nowhere fast. When most people–at least in the U.S. where the debate is waged the loudest–ask about the “value” of knowing “why” we are here, they’re looking for an answer that is relevant to some “higher purpose.” If we knew why we were here we could answer the question: What is the purpose of life? Being the cosmologist that he is, Hawking avoids the metaphysical and stays resolutely in the physical. Value? Well, that can only be measured in terms of biological fitness. What value could there be to life, he seems to ask, other than survivability?

The dichotomy of scientific and faith-based approaches to the ‘big questions’ prevents any fruitful dialogue from taking place between them. Hawking’s critics argue that some questions–How did the universe begin? Does God exist?–cannot be answered with data. He disagrees. In the Zeitgeist talk, Hawking focuses on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the world’s largest particle accelerator. Somewhere within the accelerator’s 27 km looping tunnel physicists hope to learn about the forces at play moments after the Big Bang–and in doing so take a peek at creation.

It’s an evidence-based approach rather than a faith-based one. It’s an approach that assumes there’s nothing in the universe is that not at least potentially approachable by science.

What about Old Greybeard In The Sky?

Of course, no scientist would argue that science can disprove God. But what frustrates many scientists–and again brings the discussion to an impossible impasse–is the argument that science can’t touch the question of God. It’s religion, it’s the metaphysics, it’s philosophy, it’s faith. You’re equations may predict the planets, but God…He’s immune to equations.

And this argument doesn’t always originate from outside the scientific community. Sometimes it comes from within, sometimes from really awesome scientific minds. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould separated reason and faith with his non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA):

“To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time…: science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.”

Apparently, some of Gould’s colleagues would rather he not speak for them. In his cryptically-titled *joke* Huffington Post essay, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” the world’s most outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, proceeds to smash Gould’s NOMA:

“This sounds terrific, right up until you give it a moment’s thought. You then realize that the presence of a creative deity in the universe is clearly a scientific hypothesis. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more momentous hypothesis in all of science.”

He concludes the article with a thought that I think is shared today by a great many scientists worldwide:

“Not only do we need no God to explain the universe and life. God stands out in the universe as the most glaring of all superfluous sore thumbs. We cannot, of course, disprove God, just as we can’t disprove Thor, fairies, leprechauns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But, like those other fantasies that we can’t disprove, we can say that God is very very improbable.”

Dawkins’ opponents: “Sorry, Dick, but ‘improbable’ doesn’t mean ‘impossible.’ You’re going to have to do better than that.”

Well, he can’t. And once again we’re brought back to our exasperating standstill.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Just because you’re a scientist doesn’t mean you’re an atheist. While that is true, being a scientist does make you much less likely to be a believer. In a country where 93 percent of people believe in a personal God concerned about their well-being, only about 40 percent of scientists in the U.S. are believers. If you ask only the members of the National Academy of Sciences–the all-stars of American scientists–the proportion of believers drops to an astounding 7 percent.

I suggest scientists and their faithful foes end this bickering over who’s right and focus on more manageable disputes, like the middle east peace process.

Scientists want to have a scientific discussion while those who favor faith say science is not applicable. How are you going to solve a dispute if you can’t agree on the most basic assumptions underlying it?

You’re not.

The most conspicuous illustration of science’s impotence to make people think otherwise is evolution. Virtually all scientists accept evolution as fact. Despite it being taught at multiple levels of primary and secondary education (due to no small effort, at times) in the U.S., only about 40 percent of Americans think the following statement to be true: “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” according to a 2005 study. I remember seeing the graph for the first time when Alan Leshner, former editor-in-chief of the journal Science, gave a talk at our university. He said, “Wanna see something depressing?” Thirty-four countries, mostly in the west, were given the same survey. Iceland was the most accepting of evolution at around 80 percent acceptance; France 4th at about 75 percent; the U.K. 6th at 70 percent. The U.S. ranked 33rd, just edging out Turkey. (As an aside, following the talk I got into a little argument with Leshner concerning Dawkins. Leshner is no big fan of Dawkins, saying Dawkins’ shrill manner arguing makes the PR side of Leshner’s job much more difficult)

And so, when Stephen Hawking throws out the latest salvo into the battle between science and religion, I can only think it will raise blood pressures, raise voices, but do nothing to raise science. Despite my pessimistic condemnations, however, I think the discussion is a necessary one. Humans have always contemplated our place in the universe. We shouldn’t stop now. And who better than to offer a scientific model describing a Godless universe than Hawking? Who better to refute it on non-scientific grounds than experts of the cloth, as chief rabbi Lord Sacks recently did. Neither side should back down. Let them have their say. Who’s right? Well, we’re just too hardheaded to figure that one out. We’ll just have to leave it for future generations to decide.

And one can only have faith that they do.

[image credits: nasa hq photo via Flickr and Science]

image1: Hawking
image 2: Evolution
video: Google Zeitgeist

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.