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Keith Ward on Stephen Hawking

Courtesy of Christine Baker-Parrish
May 7 2018
Michael Taylor

In the last century or so, a certain narrative has gained power in which religion is dead, and science is the one who has killed it. If religion does exist at all, this narrative tells us, it is only among those unenlightened folks, who--either through some pitiable lack of fortune, or, worse, some willful act of ignorance--have never glimpsed those rays of peer-reviewable truth in whose light God necessarily appears to be a mannequin. Whether or not this narrative had any basis in fact when its first prophet began to trumpet it abroad seems irrelevant now. What matters is that the story has acquired countless adherents, and that it has made hostile the relationship between two fields that both claim to provide explanations to fundamental questions about why we are here and what our lives are all about.

In his talk at Stanford on April 23, the philosophical theologian Keith Ward (Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at the University of Oxford) set out to complicate the narrative presented above, arguing that science not only does not kill religion but even gives it strength. To this end, Ward put himself into dialogue with one of the mightiest champions of science: the late Stephen Hawking.

Ward began his talk by noting that both science and religion are interested in answering the question, “Why am I here?”, but the two disciplines come at that question differently. Scientists like Hawking, Ward says, give an explanation that has to do with physical laws, while theologians and philosophers give one that has to do with moral values. Whereas Hawking would say that the laws of science are the most objective and fundamental aspects of our universe, Ward argues that values are at least as objective and perhaps even more fundamental. Ward is careful to acknowledge that humans do not (and probably cannot) know moral values with the same certainty with which they know physical laws. But Ward has faith, nonetheless, that some objective values do exist, and Ward believes that such values are, therefore, as necessary as gravity in any explanation of how we got here.

Given that Ward believes in objective values, it should not surprise us that he believes in a God whose existence explains them. Indeed, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “theoretical moral arguments for God's existence can be understood as variations on the following template:

  1. There are objective moral facts.
  2. God provides the best explanation of the existence of objective moral facts.
  3. Therefore, (probably) God exists.”

So, Ward’s argument can be understood as another variation on an age-old template. But the specifics of Ward’s explanation are unique in their engagement with quantum physics.

Surprisingly, Ward does not believe that scientific explanations make it harder to believe in God. Just the opposite: Ward thinks these explanations might be some of the best proofs of God anyone has offered. In brief, here’s how Ward spars with Hawking about the significance of quantum physics: Hawking argued that physical laws are necessary and unchanging forces that do not just describe the universe but that even brought the universe into existence. But what is God, Ward parries, if not “necessary and unchangeable,” at least in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas. And the universe depends--at least to a quantum physicist like Hawking--on “a reality beyond space and time which is beautiful, elegant, and intelligible.” Does not God have these same principles? And finally, through the famous double-slit experiment, where particles behave differently under observation, quantum physics can be said to suggest the idea that there is no such thing as an observer-dependent reality, that reality becomes real because someone observes it. Well, Ward concludes, perhaps God can be explained as a consciousness who simultaneously observes us, holds all the theoretical possibilities for our universe in his supernal consciousness, and selects the (good) possibilities that become our reality. At this point in Ward’s talk, as the audience is left struggling to separate Hawking’s physics and Ward’s theology, Ward’s true intentions become clear: what might have looked like his “fight” with Hawking was no contest at all. Rather, Ward was attempting to incorporate Hawking’s argument into his own.

There are obvious and important theoretical questions connected to Ward’s belief in moral facts, but the real interest of Ward’s talk lies in how he seeks to affect the relationship between science and philosophy . On the most charitable reading, Ward’s argument is an act of reconciliation in which the scientist and the philosopher join forces to become one of those beings who, according to Galileo, are so rare and magnificent: those who “understand perfectly both the Bible and science.” On the most skeptical reading, Ward’s argument is an act of condescension in which science is to take second place to religion. Probably the truth lies somewhere in between. But whatever it is in word, Ward’s performance is something extraordinary in deed, an inspired and soulful effort that proves, in and of itself, that religion is far from dead.


MICHAEL TAYLOR is the Interim Communications Manager for the Center for Ethics in Society. He is from Massachusetts, and he currently lives in the bay area.

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's media portal for ethics-related news on campus and beyond. We review events and speakers, and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. A wide range of voices author the articles, including undergraduate students.