Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let's Lend Stephen A Hand

Every week Time magazine asks a famous person ten questions that have been submitted by readers.

This week's famous person is Stephen Hawking.

Here's the very first question (as you can see for yourself by going here):

If God doesn't exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal? — Basanta Borah, BASEL, SWITZERLAND

Ok, now take a moment to imagine all the bright and insightful things Stephen might have chosen to say in response.

Take a few more moments to think about all the wise and wonderful things YOU might say in response.

(Maybe even take a few moments to scroll down and share those wise and wonderful things with us in a note or two before continuing.)

Now read Stephen's actual response:

I don't claim that God doesn't exist. God is the name people give to the reason we are here. But I think that reason is the laws of physics rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God.



Ahem. Sorry. It's just that that's the sort of thing I expect from goofy Unitarians - not from one of the leading thinkers of our age.

Here's what I wish he would have said instead:

Although I'm a physicist and a cosmologist - not a psychologist or psychiatrist or anthropologist - here's the situation as I understand it. Humans are social creatures. A large portion of our brains is devoted to getting along with other people and trying to figure out what's going on in their heads. When we look at the non-human world, it's natural for us to approach it in the same way and with the same skills. We personify nature. We see faces in the clouds. We think in terms of angry seas and vengeful winds. We come to believe in spirits which inhabit nature - river sprites and sky gods. It's natural for us to come to believe that the universe as a whole is inhabited by a supreme spirit. And just as we try to appease angry parents, bosses, kings, and other humans, we try to appease these spirits. The fear of injury and death and the unknown makes this appeasement very important to us. It wasn't until fairly late in human history that we've realized that these spirits are things we've projected onto nature - not independent entities. Instead of appeasing nature, we've learned to look at it objectively and as it is with the scientific method. Looking at nature from a scientific perspective has proven to be far more insightful and productive than looking at it from a religious perspective ever has. Alas, not everyone has come to accept this yet. Old psychological and cultural patterns die hard.

Yeah, that's wordy, I know. The editors at Time would have had fits trying to edit it down to fit their space requirements. They might well have decided not to use it at all.

And I'm sure there are others out there who could say it better. Michael Shermer comes to mind. So does Massimo Pigliucci. But I don't have instant access to their answers to this question right now.

All I know for sure is that Stephen's answer really sucked.

If you can compose even a marginally better one for him to use in the future, I strongly encourage you to do so!


  1. People are social and most people live in a constant state of fear of the unknown. g0d served to bring people together and to alleviate their fear of the unknown, thus belief in a g0d, choose whichever you like, spread as an answer to the questions we weren't advanced enough to answer yet. Now that we have science and technology to help us come to more logical conclusions we no longer require g0d unless we are scared and need the superstition to comfort us.

    That's my answer.

  2. People universally believed the world was flat, too, but but overcame it due to careful study, careful record-keeping and the freedom to question authority and authorities.
    We now get by quite well without that delusion.

  3. It isn't universal, for one. Cultures that didn't have contact with the European/Middle Eastern religions usually have many gods or spirits, not just one. So why would the concept of one god be any more accurate than the concepts of many gods? How about those cultures that believe that spirits inhabit inanimate objects? How do they fit in your "god is universal" concept?
    We don't understand why the world is here, so a lot of humans use supernatural explanations, just like with a lot of other things we didn't used to understand. Humans like to know things, and when we don't have answers we tend to make things up.


  5. Excellent response, AUUB, er, I mean, OD Refugee! I certainly can't top that. At any rate, the question denies the truth that there are some cultures who do NOT embrace the concept of any deity (the Pirahã of the Amazon, for one). Furthermore, many religions have been spread by the sword, not making a very convincing "spiritual" argument for their being widespread. And religious beliefs vary so much between cultures, and clash so violently, it hardly speaks to any universal entity guiding their behavior to a better world of peace and understanding.

  6. If you had to type out your blog entries one letter at a time by twitching your cheek, you would probably be less wordy, too :) ;)

  7. Thanks for all your comments! :-)

  8. I thought his comment was ok until I read yours :)