Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Stephen Hawking is 'innocent'

Stephen Hawking came out with a (to put it politely) senseless statement during the recent World Science Festival, "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

I am not offended because I am into religion but because I am into philosophy of science. Among philosophers who are in the discourse over science, most agree that 'science' is still very much a term needed to be further articulated. Hawking wrongly assumes that 'science' is already clearly defined and everyone knows what it is. Obviously, this remark is made out of (again, to put it politely) innocence.

In a recent Beginners Guides on Philosophy of Science, Geoffrey Gorham lamented that "there may be no single criterion for demarcating science from non-science or capturing the proper scientific attitude." Then Gorham went on to described the various nuances of 'science' in each given field, "The concept of "science" may in this way be similar to a concept like "game": there are many typical features of games--scorekeeping, rules, winners, and losers, etc.--but none of these are possessed by all and only games. [...] we will expect a science to involve empirically testable, mathematically precise, logically coherent explanations of natural systems, different sciences will exemplify these virtues in varying degrees." (p.40)

Hawking is not only wrong on the definition of science but also wrong on the definition of 'religion'. All contemporary scientists invoke authority in their published papers as a way to ensure the readers that there are already major works done to support the claims made in the papers. Contemporary theologians invoke authority for the similar reason. Clearly Hawking did not read contemporary theologians. If he did, obviously he failed to see this similarity. If he saw, certainly he had something else in his mind and was unable to convey with precision what was that when he made that remark, hence deluding the public over the issue.

Thus, Hawking, as a celebrated scientist (for whatever reason), did not give a fair definition of 'science' in his statement, and so provided a disservice to the field he has spent his entire life in. In any way, he fell short to deal justly and adequately over the issue relating science and religion. He should just stick to commenting on theoretical physic and not on another subject which is clearly out of his league.


eppursimuov3 said...

well, whether or not science has been clearly defined, we can agree that it definitely works to a certain extent. No doubt there are always mistakes and constant revision in science, we have to admit that science is giving us an increasingly accurate picture of the world in which we live. So I do agree with Hawking that science is based on observation and reason. Although I would add that the whole scientific enterprise is based on its own set of metaphysical foundations that are accepted as a given and cannot be proven scientifically in themselves.

Where my opinion differs from Hawking is that I believe religion/theology does incorporate reason and observation as well. Observation in this case would be the experience of people of faith in the present, as well as the people of faith in the past (tradition and scripture). And we accept these 'observations' based on trust. Science is not that much different. No scientist has the time to repeat every experiment/observation other scientists have done in the past, and has to accept other previous works based on trust.

So I agree that science does have a certain amount of authority/tradition attached to it, but the difference probably is that such 'authorities' can always be questioned and challenged. Whereas, in many religions, that is not possible. This is also the main difference between citations in a scientific paper and claiming the authority of the church/magisterium/bible.

To summarize, my conclusion is that science and theology/religion are both based on authority, tradition, reason and observation/experience. It's just that they give different weightage to the importance of each component. And this has everything to do with the fact that both deal with different aspects of reality.

pearlie said...

My thoughts too (though my thoughts would clearly not be as deep as yours :)