Despite his undisputed brilliance in his field, British physicist Stephen Hawking was “naïve” and “ham-handed” in matters of religion, writes Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
One can be “exceptionally intelligent in one arena of thought and actually quite naïve in another,” Barron wrote in an online column Wednesday. “This, I’m afraid, is the case with Stephen Hawking, who, though uniquely well-versed in his chosen field, makes a number of blunders when he wanders into the domains of philosophy and religion.”
A well-known speaker and bestselling author, Barron suggests that the modern mind naturally assumes that if a person is exceptionally competent in one discipline, he will be an expert in everything, which simply is not the case.
“Stephen Hawking was a great theoretical physicist and cosmologist, perhaps the most important since Einstein, Barron writes. He was, moreover, “a person of tremendous courage and perseverance, accomplishing groundbreaking work despite a decades-long struggle with the debilitating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
When staying “within the confines of his areas of expertise, he was readable, funny, informative, and creative, Barron notes. It was only when he wandered far from the competences of science — into philosophy and religion, which employ different methodologies — that he would fumble and falter, Barron claims.
The question, for instance, why there is something rather than nothing, is not ultimately a scientific question. It is not observable or measurable. But it is a question of deep significance and importance.
So when Hawking wrote “I think the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing, according to the laws of science,” he was expressing a philosophical opinion, with no scientific basis at all. And as such, his opinion carries no particular weight or authority.
For its part, religion asks qualitatively different kinds of questions that are outside the realm of science, Barron observes, which many scientists have trouble accepting.
The “scientistic” attitude, Barron says, is “the arrogant tendency to reduce all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge,” while excluding all other modes of human knowing.
Following their proper methodology, the natural sciences can tell us a great deal about certain things.
“But they cannot, for example, tell us a thing about what makes a work of art beautiful, what makes a free act good or evil, what constitutes a just political arrangement, what are the features of a being qua being—and indeed, why there is a universe of finite existence at all,” Barron writes.
“These are all philosophical and/or religious matters, and when a pure scientist, employing the method proper to the sciences, enters into them, he does so awkwardly, ham-handedly,” he adds.
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