Stephen Hawking and the Media Rolodex

Stephen Hawking and the Media Rolodex December 17, 2014

Every few months, Stephen Hawking will emit some comment that, on the lips of any other person, would be dismissed as the sort of thing one of Art Bell’s daffier guests might say. Most recently, he has been talking about his fears that AI could end the human race.

If I were to seriously start talking about my fears Colossus: The Forbin Project or Terminator coming true, people would back away from the computer slowly and then run. But because it’s Stephen Hawking, media just keep going back to him for Words of Wisdom.

Yet his words of wisdom are often crazy or silly. His pronouncement “Abandon earth or face extinction” is simply silly. There is nowhere to go. Planets capable of supporting human life (and that means, in the end, supporting the entire ecosystem that sustains human life) are not even known to exist. If they do exist, they are so far away we will never reach them. We are *never* getting off this rock. So we *obviously* need to focus our energy on tending the planet we’ve been given, not on Star Trek fantasies as public policy.

Likewise, Hawking makes daffy theological pronouncements that people take seriously, such as his notion that “gravity”, not God, makes creation ex nihilo possible. Mike Flynn talks about what happens when professional physicist morph into bad amateur philosophers and theologians. But the press eats it up because they have told themselves “We must not listen to the words of priests merely because they dress up in fancy robes. We must think for ourselves!”–and then immediate treat with utter credulity the half-baked pronouncements of High Priests called “scientists” merely because they have on a Liturgical Lab Coat.

We are constantly told that history has progressed from the Age of Faith to the Age of Science and Reason. In fact, the High Middle Ages were the Great Age of Reason. Ours is the Age of Mouth-Breathing Credulity.

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  • Joseph

    My sentiments exactly.

  • Guest

    This is the best thing I’ve read here in quite some time. Well done.

  • bob

    Poor Hawkihg, he’s the Head out of That Hideous Strength.

  • Justin White

    I like all of this except the “we are *never* getting off this rock” sort of pronouncement, simply because it’s an assertion that can’t be proven, so it lacks any strength. Plus, it not being your area of expertise, is almost ironic given the rest of the blog being about frustration at people who speak outside their area of expertise. Possible? Yes. Probable in the near future? Certainly not.

    • Siwash

      There are enormous temporal barriers, not just the matter of sufficient physical plant.

      • What temporal barriers? In point of fact, we have gotten off this rock, at least temporarily, since the 1960s. Mark’s statement is not really defensible without ladling on thick dollops of ex post facto rationalization.

        It’s a very good bet that we’re going to have permanent, private, orbital presence “off this rock” within the next decade. Extra-planetary colonies are actually pretty likely within the next three decades, and extra-solar colonial efforts might happen this century or next but absent novel physics discoveries, at the very least there are generation ships in our future.

        • Hegesippus

          Remember Space 1999…

    • John C Wright

      I am a science fiction writer. Whether or not we are ever getting off this rock is not a question of science but instead is a question of science fiction, since it is a speculation about the future based on an extrapolation of current technology.

      Ready for some science? There is no body within this solar system even remotely capable of sustaining human life.

      That rules out this solar system. The next nearest solar system is Proxima a trifle over 4 lightyears away.

      This is so far away that sending a package weighing one thousand pounds moving at the top speed ever achieved by a manmade object (150,000 mph) would take something over 14,700 years. This is a payload about half the size of a VW Bug.

      For purposes of comparison, in order for an payload of this speed to reach us today, it would have been launched from Proxima during the Pleistocene Era.

      As for living in space colonies, the same space colony placed in Antarctica or at the bottom of the sea would require far, far fewer resources to maintain (dropping a package into the sea costs less than putting a rocket carrying food in orbit) and would be placed in an environment far, far friendlier to human life. (Oxygen could be filtered from ocean water in a subsea habitat, or a snorkel raised to the surface; and at the South Pole, oxygen is free.)

      So, possible? It is less possible than using futuristic medicine to turn men into water breathers and colonizing the sea bottom. After a certain point, the unlikely becomes indistinguishable from the impossible.

      We are NEVER getting off this rock, except for scientific or industrial expeditions to exploit some useful nearby resource — and even that, more likely than not, will be done by robots.

      This is my area of expertise. You are asking for a speculation about the
      future, which is what science fiction writers do for a living.

      • Always with the caveat that some unexpected future discovery may open up possibilities that are impossible today.

      • chezami

        I believe the United States should commit itself, before this decade is out, to sending a VW Beetle to Proxima Centauri and never returning it to the earth. We do these things, not because they are practical, but because they are awesome.

        • fredx2

          Ask not what VW can do for you, but what you can do for VW.

      • fredx2

        Remember there were experts in their field that said that man would never fly, that we had invented all the things that could be invented by 1900, etc.

        With a better understanding of the basic structure of the universe, there is always a possibility What is going to be the state of science in 200 years, given that we have only had science on earth for about 200 years in a serious, widespread way.

        what about in 10,000 years?

        How about in a million? By then, we will have invented a way to get to Proxima Centauri for the weekend.

        Never say never.

  • kenofken

    Unless and until Hawking’s critics can demonstrate that they’re engaging these problems on the same level as he is, I’m going to tend to give him the benefit of the doubt that he just might know what he’s talking about.

    • Blaze

      Hawkings doesn’t have a philosophy degree ….. and his inability to express basic metaphysics is apparent. Agnostics and atheists often make for wonderful astrophysicists, but for lousy metaphysicians. Just the way it is ….. He should stick to his discipline.

      • Rob B.

        Or at least do some studying of philosophy before commenting on it.

      • Mariana Baca

        He also is not a computer scientist. Nobody who works with robots has any fear that they might take over the world any time soon. We can barely make them vacuum carpets reliably.

    • UAWildcatx2

      Appeal to authority doesn’t work when we’re talking about subjects outside of his field of study. Just doesn’t work that way.

    • Christopher Lansdown

      Given that he wrote a book about how he doesn’t understand what the word “nothing” means, your faith in him comes from a very curious place. Hint: nothing is that about which you can predicate nothing. If laws of any kind apply to it, it’s not nothing. If you can say anything at all about it, other than simple negatives, such as, “it’s nothing”, “it isn’t anything”, or “it has no properties of any kind, including existence”, it’s not nothing. This isn’t a hard concept. Did you just say that something was true of it, other than it’s featureless non-existence? It’s something! Something is, you will note, the opposite of nothing. This is getting repetitive, you say? Indeed it is, because there’s nothing to say about nothing, other than that it isn’t anything. If you write a book about nothing and it has more than one page, you automatically fail.

      • Rob B.

        What does that mean about the producers of Seinfeld? 🙂

        Sorry, but I had to add a bit of levity here…

        • fredx2

          In that case, it was shrinkage that caused the nothingness

          • David Naas

            No, no, it was the Nothing in the form of a wolf which tried to keep Atreu and Artex from reaching the Childlike Empress, but the day was saved by a Luck dragon.

            • Rob B.

              You know, that’s a movie from my childhood that I just don’t understand now that I’m older.

      • pavel chichikov

        End papers. Cover. Pages not necessary.

      • sez

        Even simpler (seeing as “nothing” is such a difficult concept): How can gravity “be” without any mass for it to act on? Therefore, how can gravity bring mass into being?

      • fredx2

        I am not aware of that book, but I would bet he is talking about what existed before the Big Bang. In that case, there was nothing – not even empty space. So, we do not know anything about it, There are no known laws that apply to it, So yeah, the only thing we can say is that it was nothing. But they pay professors to write books that can be explained in one page, so there you are.

    • Alma Peregrina

      “Unless and until Hawking’s critics can demonstrate that they’re engaging these problems on the same level as he is…”

      What level is he on theology or philosophy?

      • Mariana Baca

        Or for that matter, computer science. I know, you can study both physics and engineering in Cambridge, but really, they are very different fields.

    • Mariana Baca

      A physicist need not know anything about AI or computer science. They are very different fields.

    • David Naas

      I thought people *were* engaging Hawking on his level — as an intelligent layman outside his area of expertise.

  • Siwash

    One point I particularly note is how the public mind has been so very weakened by the Bad Science involved in Star Trek and other science fiction! This causes people to have a very skewed notion about space and physics.

  • One More Guy

    Sad and true. We must pray for Dr. Hawking and all people who treat science as a magical panacea.

    • fredx2

      Or as a magical pancreas.

      • David Naas

        How about Saint Pancreas — I hear he has a hospital.

  • UAWildcatx2

    Fr. Barron talks about how if in science class, a students responds with, “it just happened” to a question about really *anything* in science, they’d fail the class. But when people like Neil Degrasse Tyson or Stephen Hawking say that, people nod their heads in agreement and murmur about how intellectual these men are.

    • Rob B.

      Gotta love Father Barron. Sad to see, though, that the scientists are the new “authorities” in our time.

      • UAWildcatx2

        It’s the reason why crazy coo-coo-bananas people like Giordano Bruno are raised up (literally, if you’ve ever been to Campo di Fiori) on pedestals as “martyrs” of science.

        • Rob B.

          Yeah, but try telling that to the anti-theist crowd. You’re lucky if they just look at you and say, “Whuuuut?”

      • fredx2

        What’s worse, in the field of social science, they are usually merely fake authorities. So many social science studies have so few subjects, and self selected subjects, that they can manipulate the results any way they want.

        • Rob B.

          That’s because the “social sciences” aren’t really sciences; they just play them on TV… 🙂

        • David Naas

          Used to be, they were called, “social studies”, but I was in school a rather long time ago.

          • Rob B.

            Yeah, that was when history was essentially removed from the curriculum…

    • David Naas

      Are you from Tucson?

      • UAWildcatx2

        I am!

        • David Naas

          Also in Baja Arizona.

  • Rex

    Chesterton makes the same point in the first few chapters of his book Orthodoxy.

    • Rob B.

      Jose Ortega y Gasset makes much the same point in *The Revolt of the Masses* as well, I think…

  • HenryBowers

    +1: Liturgical Lab Coat

  • David Naas

    “Scientists” (and it’s in quotes because of the way science teachers and popularizers think of themselves) presume they are Renaissance Men, capable of speaking with authority on any subject because — Science!

    Renaissance Men could do that since a) they had a smaller body of knowledge to master, and b) they had actually studied their subjects, all of them.

    By observation, the more specialized the “Scientist”, the more likely he/she is to make ludicrous remarks outside their areas of competence. (Thinking Neil de Grasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins here.)

    These aforementioned folks actually are intelligent people, one does not get a PhD in math or astrophysics or cellular biology and be dumb. One would hope they would actually study the subject they “pontificate” on, rather than demonstrating how smart people can say stupid things.

    • Alma Peregrina

      I never thought of those distinctions between Renaissance men and Modern Scientists. Well put.

    • fredx2

      It’s like thinking that because someone has spent his entire life studying amoebas, and is incredibly brilliant when it comes to amoebas, that he can give marital advice because…he is incredibly brilliant when it comes to amoebas.

    • Rob B.

      I feel an 80’s song moment coming on…

  • David Naas

    As an after thought, I believe, “We are *never* getting off this rock,” might refer to a *Firefly*-type migration of the entire human race to another solar system?

    Much as I am a science-fiction fanatic (for the last 60 years), I just don’t believe such an enterprise is gonna happen.

    — I would love to be proved wrong!

  • MarylandBill

    I definitely think one needs to keep a balanced view of things. Certain some of what Hawking says is pure non-sense. But some of his statements make a bit more sense when you think about them.

    Lets start with his statements about leaving the Earth. He merely is recognizing the fact that regardless of whether we are good stewards of the Earth or not, sooner or later something will happen to the Earth that will drive the human race to extinction. His statement does not necessarily imply moving to another Earth like world, but could include ideas like building habitats in orbit or on asteroids or comet. Are the ideas science fiction? Of course they are right now, but then again, so was space flight a century ago (The NY Times ridiculed Robert Goddard for proposing the idea in 1920).

    His position on A.I. is a little more controversial since it appears to be predicated on the idea that we would be direct competitors for resources. Still once true A.I. arrives, we can’t be sure what will happen next. Its not that it is necessarily hostile, but we also can’t know that it will remain under our control and beneficial.

    • David Naas

      We know humans can live in “outer space” for short periods. The crux of the matter is whether we can live permanently in a space habitat, and thrive (i.e. reproduce) beyond the magnetosphere of Earth. I would like to believe we can, but more (lots more) research is needed. Habitats, asteroids, moons, even Mars and a terraformed Venus, yes. Comets???

    • Dan13

      It still begs the question of–from a purely materialistic point-of-view–why would the extinction of the human species be a bad thing?

      I understand the evil AI theory, but I’m a bit skeptical of our capability to construct AI in the first place. And I’m very doubtful on the possibility of space colonies.

      • MarylandBill

        Call me a pragmatist, but even from a materialistic point of view, every species primary goal is perpetuate itself. Even from a Christian viewpoint, I don’t think it is God’s intention that we simply passively await the ultimate destruction of life on Earth. IMHO, the end of the world, when it happens, does not just mean the end of life on Earth but the end of life in the Universe.

        • Dan13

          “Call me a pragmatist, but even from a materialistic point of view, every species primary goal is perpetuate itself.”

          I think that’s a tad anthropomorphic, but evolution does select for the genetic material of individuals that either directly or indirectly reproduce at a higher level. However, that doesn’t mean an individual human (assuming we have some semblance of free will) should act for the benefit of the species.

          I don’t think people like Hawking have an objective refutation to a cynical hedonist (say an executive at ExxonMobil) who is willing to threaten the environment and the long-term viability of humanity for his short-term pleasure (since he’ll be dead once it hits the fan).

          Of course as Christians we believe that we were created to love God and each other. And part of our love for God is to act as stewards of the environment (that is, God’ creation). But that is the Christian outlook.

          • fredx2

            “evolution does select for the genetic material of individuals that either directly or indirectly reproduce at a higher level”

            So I guess the coming elimination of the Episcopalians is simply evolution.

      • fredx2

        With time, all things are possible. Look at the trip to the moon. We did that with weak 60’s technology because we decided to do it. We do what we decide to do.

    • fredx2

      The problem with his AI thesis is that AI will be incorporated into Humans. Actually, to be precise, AI will be used to enhance our abilities, not create them. For example, an implantable smart phone will probably be here in another 20 years. It is more likely that we will become enhanced humans.

  • Colin Kerr

    Earth has a bit of pollution, and yet a rather breathable atmosphere. Mars might have some methane and might have once had some water. Which should we choose?

    • Floating cities on Venus! Now! Before it’s too late!

  • pavel chichikov

    You mean I have to know something about a topic before I can comment? That’s bull and outrageous.

    I’m outa here.

    • Alma Peregrina

      It depends on the amount of humility with which you comment.

  • pavel chichikov

    No, really, emigrating to another world so as to preserve our beloved species reminds me of Dr. Weston.

  • pavel chichikov

    Have you noticed that recently Dr. Hawking has been hedging his statements re God?

    If I recall and understand correctly, Dr. Weinberg is now an agnostic.

    • fredx2

      If Weinberg is now an agnostic, that is a big movement. Perhaps the faddish atheism that existed in some quarters has begun to come under serious fire, and they realize that being on one extreme is as dumb as being on the other.

  • Babagranny

    Classic journalism: “That’s the way it is.” Contemporary journalism: “We heard this; what do you think?”

  • Babagranny

    When “HAL” starts to talk back, we need to be sure to have a way to turn him off.

    • fredx2

      He’ll just shoot the person attempting it into the blackness of space.

  • Tiffany

    Hilarious. Although mockery of Art Bell is beeeeeyond the pale. If Patheos had any class they’ll fire you. HE IS A PROPHET ;0 <3

  • fredx2

    The same thing happened to Einstein. Once the media says you are the “world’s smartest man” they take every silly word you say as Gospel. Einstein appears to have handled it this way: If they wanted a pro religion quote, he gave them one. If they wanted an anti-religious quote, he gave them one. So they would go away and leave him alone. Hawkings seems to be getting old, and older people say the darndest things.

  • RobW

    I couldn’t care less what Hawking has to say. He needs prayers.

  • Scott W.

    As Dr. Feser put it,

    In his book of reminiscences “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Richard Feynman tells the story of a painter who assured him that he could make yellow paint by mixing together red paint and white paint. Feynman was incredulous. As an expert in the physics of light, he knew this should not be possible. But the guy was an expert painter, with years of practical experience. So, ready to learn something new, Feynman went and got some red paint and white paint. He watched the painter mix them, but as Feynman expected, all that came out was pink. Then the painter said that all he needed now was a little yellow paint to “sharpen it up a bit” and then it would be yellow.

    It seems Hawking is pulling the same thing. You can get something from nothing. All you need is a little something (gravity) to get it started.

  • Captain_America
  • Ikilope

    Thank you — I was beginning to think that there was something wrong with me! He is more like Chauncy Gardner than Einstein for sure!