Scientism Makes Scientists Laughable

September 22, 2010

In their recent book, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow claim that the laws of nature are consistent with the universe popping into existence from nothing, and in fact, they affirm that this is exactly what happened.  (A helpful rebuttal to this claim can be found here). Apparently, this desperate move results from the fact that they recognize that the universe had a beginning and they want to deflect the need for a transcendent Cause to explain the universe’s origin.  To my knowledge, they do not argue that the laws of nature themselves created the universe, and that’s a good thing.  Why?  Because the laws of nature are formal causes that direct the “flow” of causation, but they are not efficient causes that produce anything whatsoever.  Thus, this claim, if made, would be a simple category fallacy.  However, their actual claim is just as egregious, and that for two reasons.

First, the laws of nature do not apply unless there already is a universe.  Those laws govern transitions of state of entities that exist ontologically prior to the laws themselves.  Thus, an appeal to the laws of nature to explain how the universe could come from nothing is otiose; those laws presuppose a universe for their applicability and cannot in any sense be employed to explain what they presuppose.  And coming-into-existence is not a process that could be governed by laws; it is, rather, an instantaneous occurrence.  In general, “e comes-to-be at time t” is to be analyzed as “there is some property P such that e has P at t, and there are no times t’ earlier than t or properties Q such that e had Q at t’.”

Second, the principle “something cannot come from nothing without a cause” is a metaphysically necessary philosophical principle that is known a priori from an analysis of “nothing” which, as it turns out, is the complete absence of anything whatever, including properties, relations, causal powers, and so forth.  Thus, “nothing” is not some sort of shadowy thing that could serve as a material or efficient cause.  Note carefully, that this principle is not a scientific one; it is not an empirical generalization, but a necessary truth of philosophy.

The fact that many people have been influenced by the claims of Hawking and Mlodinow is sad to me.  Here’s why.  In previous times when average people knew more philosophy, these claims would simply be laughable because they are philosophical assertions being made by scientists who have little or no philosophical training.  Thus, however brilliant they are in their own field, Hawking and Mlodinow are laypersons when it comes to the relevant issue at hand.  But we live in a scientistic culture.  When a scientist speaks, he is taken to be an authority irrespective of what the topic is.  And that attitude reflects poorly on the educational level of the public.  Thus, the deeper issue for me in all this is not whether or not the universe could come into existence from nothing without a cause.  It is, rather, the scientism that lies at the heart of Western culture.  I have long believed that philosophical naturalism, with its unjustified scientism, has helped to create an intellectually unsophisticated culture, and this is one reason why I think this way.

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About J.P. Moreland

J.P. Moreland is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Biola University.


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15 Responses to 'Scientism Makes Scientists Laughable'

  1. avatar Drew Mazanec says:

    What really annoys me about Hawking’s claims is that he takes these philosophical assertions and calls them “scientific fact.” Then, when philosophers raise objections, the public refuses to listen, shouting “you can’t argue with scientific fact”

  2. […] Check out “Scientism Makes Scientists Laughable”. […]

  3. avatar Dennis Krabbenhoft says:

    In one of the songs in the movie “The Sound of Music” there is a simple but eternally true statement about origins: “Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever could.” It’s a simple yet profound statement which speculators about the origin of the universe would do well to keep in mind. There MUST be a sufficient cause for the existence of the universe.

  4. avatar Josh Olds says:

    Dr. Moreland,

    I too was astounded at Hawking and Mlodinow’s conclusion in The Grand Design. And even after all their hurdle-jumping, they still end up with needing a First Cause. I found it very ironic that the book began with the statement that philosophy was dead, and then proceeded throughout the book to make an array of philosophical statements. It is really scientism at its finest.

  5. avatar A Subsequent Mover says:

    How does simply postulating that there was a first cause answer the problem of needing one? Seems you are just saying, by fiat, that we need an explanation, so I pronounce that the regression ends at some arbitrary imagined point, and I name my imagined stopping (or starting) point God. How does that really solve the problem?

    Who or what caused God?

    WHY should it settle things to name the NEED for a first cause God? If the universe can’t exist ex nihilo why can God? On what basis is that assertion made? If something from nothing doesn’t make sense, calling the origin of something (of all things) God doesn’t seem to get us outside of the loop. It just seems like a bald assertion, a diversion from the problem, not an answer to it.

    And what compels the further assertions that this first cause is sentient or intentional?

    And even if we make this first move, it isn’t necessary to build the edifice of any specific religion or doctrinal system on the need for prior causation and its asserted end in some (unexplained) thing named God. “Something causes something, therefore there is a stopping point to this chain which is called God, and therefore we can’t mix meat and dairy or must/must not engage in x practice.” Just doesn’t follow.

  6. I like J.P.’s posting because it helps to unpack their arguments.Here is the Larry King interview that includes Robert Spitzer (see all 3 parts): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AdKEHzmqxA It would be great to see J.P. on some of these shows.

  7. […] refuting the claim by Hawking and Mlodinow (The Grand Design) that natural laws are consistent with creation […]

  8. Very well said, and it is this “intellectually unsophisticated culture” that I am trying to combat as an apologetics teacher at my Christian high school. Your material is invaluable for my class, and I love you for it. Keep it up.

  9. I am doing research for my university paper, thanks for your brilliant points, now I am acting on a sudden impulse.

    – Laura

  10. […] (avec Leonard Mlodinow) a publié un livre sur le sujet du commencement intitulé The Grand Design. JP Moreland, philosophe chrétien, explique pourquoi les affirmations de Hawking et Mlodinow sont troublantes. […]

  11. avatar black bart says:

    “In previous times when average people knew more philosophy,”

    Citation Needed.

  12. […] Josh Olds, commenting on J.P. Moreland’s brief philosophical assessment of the book, observes, "I found it very ironic that the book […]

  13. avatar Felipe A. Guzman says:

    This appears to be a Top-Down argument meaning that God is at the top and if we reason starting from the premise that He does exist then all areas of knowledge seem to fall into place in a manner that is logical, reasonable and coherent in all areas of liife and existence. Becauser we live in scientific culture, the common man has allowed science to speak so called truth to him in order to not to be accountable for his actions to God. Hawkins and his followers and other atheists are only doing what unregenerated, fallen beings do best…run from God. And they do so in any form or manner that makes them think they are right, otherwise they would have to wrestle with the idea of accountability for their lustful and prideful ways.