Letters: Hawking and God

Science, faith and Hawking

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Julian Baggini brings refreshing clarity to the generally confused discussion on science and religion (Opinion, 4 September).

He generously concedes that “most sensible religious commentators agree” that to read Genesis as a cosmological textbook is to misconstrue its literary genre. He is also right to insist that believers should never have taken succour in Hawking’s famous phrase about “the mind of God”, which was clearly a metaphor (as was God-talk for Einstein). And, most importantly, he is correct to point out that the only god that scientists might reasonably posit is the absentee landlord of the deists, who bears no resemblance to the ultimate intimate of the Bible.

But then Baggini spoils an otherwise intelligent way of framing the issues when he concludes that science makes the biblical God, if not impossible, then “very unlikely indeed”. He makes a fundamental category mistake: he takes the existence of God to be a hypothesis.

Of course scientists, must take the existence of God to be a hypothesis – that is the grammar of their discourse. But the God in whom Christians believe is not a hypothesis; his existence is not more or less probable. The Creed does not begin: “On balance, we believe in God ...”, nor does the true believer avoid the popular science section in Waterstone’s lest he discover some new and unpalatable fact.

In the grammar of faith – and this is the thrust of the unfortunately named “ontological argument” – the non-existence of God is inconceivable. Science should fill us with delight at the nature of the universe, but it can neither add to nor subtract from authentic religious belief. For the pros and cons of faith, one should go not to science but to suffering.

The Rev Kim Fabricius,

Swansea

While we may not jump on the Nietzschen bandwagon and proclaim that Stephen Hawking has killed God, his newest book is more cause for concern than Dawkins’ crusade ever was for the moderate believer in God.

Of the five famous proofs offered for the existence of God by St Thomas Aquinas, four are dedicated to showing that that nothing can come from nothing, and that therefore if the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” has an answer, it must surely be God. Hawking’s assertion that something can indeed come ex nihilo through physical laws alone thus challenges the theist in a way which other recent attacks on religion have not.

It remains to be seen how theologians will respond to Hawking, but I suspect that one criticism which will be offered is that his account of the universe’s creation is not truly out of nothing; for the question remains to be asked: why were there physical laws, such as gravity, rather than none?

Greg Marcar,

Cranleigh, Surrey

Julian Baggini’s article was a masterful summary of the current conflict between science and religion.

The scientific method has been very successful in debunking religious superstitions. People of faith are reduced to worshipping a diminished, almost to zero, “God of the gaps”.

However athiests must not succumb to hubris. The vast majority of the world’s population still adhere to some form of religious belief. Let us hope that, in the longer term, this obvious human spiritual need can be answered in a benign, non-religious way. This could, perhaps, involve the study of physics, philosophy and meditation.

Patrick Smith,

Beccles, Suffolk

Blair’s legacies to the Labour Party

As a former Labour party voter and member, I was saddened and disappointed to read of Tony Blair’s comments regarding the competence of Gordon Brown. It is not his opinions that I find disturbing, but the fact that he did not feel the need to share them with either his party or the public at the time of his departure from Downing Street.

To me, this shows a complete contempt for those who put him in a position of power in the first place, and we have to ask the question: “If not Labour or the British electorate, where exactly did his interests lie?”

Previous generations fought hard to win us the right to vote. A good politician is one who is prepared to take a stand over matters of principle, even if this stance will cost them popularity, and without such men and women our vote becomes worthless.

A swift return to power should not be a top priority for a new Labour leader. Instead, considerable effort should be spent on the question of what the party believes in and which people embody those principles with heart and soul as opposed to lip-service.

A R Wainwright,

Halstead, Essex

The publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs highlights something profoundly wrong with the British democratic process.

The personal qualities required for someone to climb to the top of the greasy pole of party politics provide no guarantee that that person will be adequate to guide the nation's fortunes, should their party acquire a majority of votes at an election.

A longing for power does not mean it can be exercised fairly and intelligently, and the flawed personalities who have occupied the post of Prime Minister in the last few years have brought the nation to the sorry state it is in today – Thatcher and the decline of British industry, Blair's Iraq war, Brown's PFI.

There was a time when the permanent Civil Service could exercise some restraint over the wilder excesses of party politics (see Yes, Minister) but increasingly its wise counsels have been overruled in favour of party hacks or biased “special advisers”.

It is high time a more restrained, just and accountable process was introduced. But how the people can circumvent a ruling elite that has seized power is a perennial problem of history.

Tony Cheney,

Ipswich, Suffolk

I always believed that Tony Blair used the fox hunting issue as a political football. When he needed to redeem himself with the left of his party, he would bring it into play. When things were going well for him, he would kick it offside.

He’s doing the same thing now when he ruefully acknowledges to his interviewers that he may have got that one issue a wee bit wrong, may not have fully understood the whole picture – thus throwing just a little bit of raw meat to all of us who would like much straighter answers from him on matters of far greater national and moral significance.

I have no particular feelings one way or the other about fox hunting but find it amusing that Blair should have found it so useful during his premiership that he’s still using it as an instrument of diversion and distraction. And we are all as foxed as ever.

Mary Rose Gliksten,

Swinton, Scottish Borders

It seems that most people’s antipathy towards Tony Blair is centred on the Iraq invasion. However, I believe that history will record even worse failings.

The two most important issues now are climate change and impending peak-oil. We needed strong leadership to address these by moving swiftly towards a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, we got nothing of the sort. Consequently, we are now a long way behind the game on both counts.

Indeed, we may have already left it too late to effectively tackle global warming. I believe this catastrophic failing of Blair’s premierships will ultimately outweigh his Iraq folly.

Keith O’Neill,

Shrewsbury

Why Hague shared a room

I have no interest whatsoever in William Hague’s sex life.

When I travel on short budget holidays with a male friend we have no alternative but to share a twin room. It all boils down to finance – we are low-paid workers. So why did our Foreign Secretary feel the need to do share a room? Has he developed a cost-saving conscience? Can we now expect to see Cameron and Clegg bunking up together when they go off on official business?

F Bell,

Manchester

It is indeed disturbing to learn that Mr Hague shared a hotel room with his adviser Mr Myers. After all, anything could have happened. Anything. Clearly, the Government needs to spend extra money arranging separate hotel rooms for government staff in such circumstances. Better still, tax-payers money could be spent employing chaperones for ministers. Such chaperones could stay at a minister’s side 24 hours a day to ensure that nothing of an unseemly nature ever occurs.

Daniel Emlyn-Jones,

Oxford

Welcome fall in house prices

“House price crash”, cry news headlines (3 September). Behind the headlines lies the simple fact that house prices may be flat-lining or even falling modestly.

The assumption, of course, is that rising house prices are a good thing. Maybe we have become too accustomed to that, over the last 15 years, most of which have seen house price hyper-inflation.

And the result? Record numbers of first-time buyers locked out of the market. Land prices that are too expensive causing knock-on effects on the public purse by making social housing programmes unaffordable. And a private sector development model that is trapped into gambling on rising land prices as its main source of profit.

All of this is economically inefficient, socially divisive and grossly unsustainable. Let’s start to see the return of house prices to some semblance of sanity as something to be celebrated, not feared.

Graeme Brown,

Director, Shelter Scotland,

Edinburgh

When company results come out

James Moore’s comment piece “There’s no excuse for 70 companies to report interims at the last minute” (27 August) states that Diageo is one of the companies which chose to report figures on the same day in order to meet a deadline from the Financial Reporting Council. He is wrong on two rather important counts.

Since Diageo was formed in 1997 we have always reported results on the last Thursday in August. Moreover, we report preliminary results on the last Thursday in August, not interims.

Accompanying the article with an admittedly nice shot of our wonderful Captain Morgan Rum rather compounded the offence I’m afraid. We all make mistakes, but please do let me set the record straight, and defend the honour of my colleagues who worked really hard to deliver a fabulous amount of information to a very grateful market.

Stephen Doherty,

Director of Communications,

Diageo Plc, London NW10

My escape from the paywall

You report that the usage of the Times website has fallen by 90 per cent (“Has Rupert Murdoch’s paywall gamble paid off?, 2 September). I used to buy The Times daily and occasionally went to its website to copy a news item for my electronic “news cuttings” file. When the charge was introduced I was naturally annoyed that I would have to pay twice - once for my daily Times newspaper, and again if I wanted to put an item in my electronic cuttings file. I wrote to the editor to ask how he justified this double charge, and to tell him that if he couldn’t I would stop my order for The Times and go elsewhere.

As you might expect, there was no reply, so I cancelled my order for The Times and am now a regular reader of The Independent.

Rolf Clayton,

London NW7

Don’t leave it to the RSPCA

Philip Hensher (“Who will hold the RSPCA to account”, 30 August) can take heart from the fact that most of the animal abusers in the UK know the limit of the RSPCA powers and behave accordingly to avoid prosecution.

For the vast majority of the public, whose concern is to eradicate cruelty, surely the pertinent question is why in 2010 is it left to the RSPCA to prosecute those accused of cruelty to animals? The law of the land should be enforced by the police and the CPS. No one expects the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Association that Philip Hensher mentions to prosecute people for cruelty to gentlefolk. So why should it always be the RSPCA that picks up the considerable bill for enforcing animal welfare law, particularly when they lack the authority to do so properly?

M J Huskisson,

Halesworth, Suffolk

Mystery of early colour pictures

The photographs from the Prokudin-Gorsky collection (“Portraits of a lost Russia”, 28 August) are remarkable and superb. Unfortunately the method described for producing the final result would not have worked.

Projecting negatives, even singly never mind “laid on top of one another” gives a negative image. It would be interesting to know how the process was actually done in the early 20th century and how the Library of Congress digitised the images in the 21st century.

It is probable that originally the positives were made from the negatives and then projected with three projectors with appropriate colour filters and with the images in register.

James Stammers,

Tarporley, Cheshire

Top universities deserve top fees

Professor Roger Brown (letter, 4 September) is himself in peril of talking “bullshit” in suggesting that “resources and prestige” are unconnected to “educational quality”. Elite universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are wealthy as a result of their academic success; therefore they should be allowed to charge students more in order to reflect this. I would never pay £10,000 for a degree from Liverpool Hope University, whereas I would gladly pay that for my degree from Cambridge.

Michelle Willmott,

Crewe, Cheshire

Perspectives on Sarkozy and the Roma

Try this test to detect racial prejudice

Readers may find it helpful to apply to Mary Dejevsky’s article of 3 September a rough-and-ready technique for the evaluation of statements about race and ethnic groups – replace the ethinic group being discussed with another group of people and see how the statements read then.

Of course, you can use your own ethnic group or sex or whatever or some other grouping. For instance, try replacing “Roma” in the article by “Jew”. This is quite a good choice because Jewish people are a minority (at least in this country) and have to an extent separate traditions, schools, language etc. Their recent history as a group is also, of course, the most powerful evidence that racism is a bad idea.

Anyway, following this technique, the headline of Mary's article would read “Sarkozy is right about the Jews” – and that strikes me as a good indicator of the flaws in her arguments.

This technique works is because it exposes the logical fallacy of prejudice (literally, to judge in advance of the facts). To name a group of people and then judge them as a group is to ignore the facts of their nature as people: men, women, children, babies, fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and so on; and makes it easier to treat these individual people unjustly.

Mary is right to be concerned that we are challenged by poverty in the world; many poor people are trying to reach Europe, for instance by boats across the Mediterranean and to the Canary Islands; many die in the attempt. Millions more suffer and die in abject poverty at home.

Our controls on immigration are morally defensible only if the need of people to escape their poverty is not a matter of life and death. A policy of “out of sight and out of mind” is not a sufficient moral response, and will become in any case increasingly impractical.

The alternative to the “keep them out and send them back” policy is to accept that we are jointly and severally obligted to relieve poverty, and act accordingly.

Michael McGuffie,

Wellington, Somerset

When cousins marry

Mary Dejevsky writes about some of the problems she feels have arisen from bringing in cheap labour from third-world rural villages. Her list includes “corrupt voting, forced marriages and disability caused by first-cousin marriages”.

Page 12 of the same issue of The Independent focused on births by older women, and said that “Down’s syndrome pregnancies rose by 70 per cent in the 20 years to 2008”. But as this happens mainly among the white general population it is not an issue for people like Mary Dejevsky. An ethnic minority having children through first-cousin marriages, where the risks of a child being born with a genetic disorder is not a lot more than a woman having a baby after 35, is made in to an excuse for some cheap immigration-bashing.

Raheel Anwar,

Enfield, Middlesex

***

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