Smart People Can Make Dumb Mistakes

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 04/22/2013

“It is not necessary to invoke God to...set the Universe going,” concludes Stephen Hawking in his latest book, The Grand Design. Denying God is old hat, but this comes from a world-class theoretical physicist. That’s why Christians are unnerved by his bold claim. A statement from a scientist of his caliber commands attention. But it turns out there is no reason for concern. Everything Hawking has written in his book can be dismissed as irrational. Everything. Let me tell you why.

Hawking advances a view known as scientific determinism. This is the idea that everything in the universe—including human beings—is entirely physical. Human behavior and decisions are governed by the mechanical forces of physics and chemistry. In other words, human beings have no free will. Hawking writes,

It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.

Hawking concludes that “human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature” and our actions are “as determined as the orbits of the planets.” That’s why our decisions are not rational, he explains.

If our actions are determined by physical laws, then Hawking’s actions are determined too. Deterministic forces act on all physical objects, even those as small as the neurons in Hawking’s brain. Every one of his thoughts, therefore, results from the collision of billions of atoms governed by mechanical forces. And though the interactions might be inconceivably complex, they are nonetheless determined and irrational by his own admission. Hawking is a biological machine—a deterministic box—without free will and reason to guide his decisions and ideas.

What’s written in his book, then, was also determined by the complex interaction of physical laws and atoms in his brain. Rational thought didn’t produce his ideas and arguments; deterministic laws did. And since the determined actions of physical objects can’t, even in principle, produce rational ideas, his book must be irrational.

But just remind Hawking not to shoot the messenger. Because it turns out I’m not the one who declares his book irrational. It is Hawking himself who does. His own view on determinism is a devastating blow to the rationality of his writing. His book is self-defeating.

True beliefs aren’t produced by the brute force of physical laws. They’re arrived at when people evaluate their merits using reason and sound judgment. But without free will, those intellectual faculties are a farce. That’s why the Christian worldview best explains how one can arrive at true beliefs. Our minds can reason independent of and unencumbered by the physical laws of nature.

The ideas in Hawking’s book are no more rational than those produced by a hailstorm hammering out keystrokes on a computer. Unfortunately, millions of people who read his book won’t know that. They’ll swallow it hook, line, and sinker. And then, ironically, tell you that your beliefs are irrational.

Paul best explains this strange phenomenon when he writes in 1 Corinthians 3:19–20:

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God.” For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless.”

This latest salvo by an otherwise brilliant thinker misfires at best, and backfires at worst. Hawking’s book should not be feared for its assault on our faith, but for its power to deceive the world that a legitimate critique of the Christian worldview lies within its covers.