Who shapes our world?
Pharaoh Seti, Emperor Nero, Pope Alexander, Charles Darwin – What links these famous historical figures? The answer is, that they were all gods.
History powerfully demonstrates that all empires, cultures and groups have always been heavily influenced and controlled by it's charismatic leaders, whether political or religious. This is true in all fields of human activity, be it fashion, art or religion. Now these influences may be harmless or positive, depending on one's perspective but, in more serious and consequential spheres of life, such as science, the control of information and discovery has affected mankind's history greatly. Certain powerful figures accumulated ultimate power to decide on behalf of their society what was right or wrong, or what was true or false.
In ancient times, when mythology was prevalent, nations looked to certain leaders in society to map out their lives. In ancient Egypt it was the Kings or Pharaohs who had ultimate power. These men and women explained the universe on their own terms, with the aid of their high priests. They became actual gods to their people.
The ancient Greeks were famous, not only for their gods and divisions, but also for their scientific endeavours. Many schools of thought, such as philosophy and geometry were introduced or developed by them. Particularly under Alexander the Great was the inclusive policy of incorporating worship and knowledge from all conquered nations practised. Perhaps more than any other historical culture, the Greeks influenced science and philosophy and shaped it into it's modern form.
During the heights of the Roman Empire, the Caesars ascended to the heavenly position of authority, declaring themselves literal gods and having extreme powers over life and death. No belief or truth that contradicted the Emperor's truth was permitted.
For the past sixteen centuries, the churches, most notably the Catholic church, have resided in the ultimate position of authority, dictating not only what is right and wrong but also what is real and not, setting the boundaries of knowledge and censoring any information that might contradict their godlike authority. Even the leader of the Catholic church, the “Pope” is still officially titled “Holy Father.” This was a title which specifically referred to the creator of all physical and biological matter, the God of the Bible, “Yahweh” (“Jehovah”). There were many dark occasions in history where this church hierarchy of gods challenged and destroyed not just religious ideas that challenged it's position but, also scientific ones. The most notable of these being the incarceration of the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei. He had the audacity to claim that the earth was not the physical centre of the universe but that it actually orbited the sun. The infuriated church saw this as an attack, not only on their scientific authority but, on the text of the Holy Bible itself. Ironically, Galileo never contradicted the Bible's text, being a devoted studier of scripture himself. The church had misunderstood and misrepresented the passages of scripture that referred to the position and permanence of the earth. Galileo knew this but, sadly, was forced to recant his “Heresy.” This was the ignorant pattern of control for centuries.
With Darwin's radical philosophies of the 19th century came a massive power shift away from organized religion. Within a few decades, many in the scientific world had shaken off the influence and control of the churches and had set a new course of bold and determined discovery. In this new venture, no scientific stone would be left unturned, no idea inadmissible and no theory too absurd or offensive to consider.
It is with great irony that this has taken over scientific thought in the past century, since certain scientists often found themselves the object of ridicule or censorship for propounding diverse and daring ideas in the past. One classic case is that of Isaac newton who, while publicly formulating his laws on motion and gravity, was involved in clandestine research into, among other things, Alchemy. This was, and still is today, seen as some kind of black magic art, not fit for the realms of genuine science. Yet, today, scientists have to acknowledge that atoms of one physical property can be manipulated to transform a substance into a different one.
What contributions to genuine science and the advancement of knowledge did the aforementioned empires and cultures bring to humanity? What have history's famous scientists discovered, proved and established? How has this benefited the ongoing desperate needs of the human race or brought the answers to the important questions any nearer (or farther)?
Of all the great adventurers and pioneers of science in mankind's insatiably curious existence, who stands out as the greatest? Must we assume that, as with technology and scientific knowledge, the latest is greatest? After all, a scientist of the first century was surely limited by the lack of knowledge or the prevalence of myths or conjecture, weren't they?
When considering the most influential names in scientific history, certain names immediately spring to mind, names like Copernicus, Newton. Galileo and others. More recently, we think of people like Hubble, Einstein or Hawking. It is worth though, pausing for a moment to reflect on an important fact of science. A great scientist once stated “The only knowledge is experience.” That is still true today and it emphasises the fact that all discoveries, in all sciences and arts are not new in themselves but are always derived from previous work, or as one humble writer so eloquently put it, “We were standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Nicholas Copernicus' discoveries about planets and motion would not have been possible without the research and dedication of the Danish Astronomer Tycho Brahe. Einstein could not have formulated his equation E=MC2 without the insights of many other physicists including Marie Curie. .
So what have these brilliant minds discovered for humanity, and how have we benefited? Furthermore, does their intellectual capacity make them best fitted to guide and even save the human race? And, in the end, can they answer the big questions, not just the “hows” and “whens” but the “whys”? And who is the greatest scientist ever in the history of our species?
To answer, let me reflect on the discoveries and accomplishments of several key figures in history, and also on some lesser recognized ones too.
Eratosthenes 276 BCE
Eratosthenes was a Greek astronomer who discovered, among other things, the size of the earth's circumference, confirming that the earth is a circle. This has helped mankind in navigation, mapping and general understanding of light and distance.
Sir Isaac Newton 1643 CE
British Physicist (then referred to as a “Natural philosopher”) who defined the laws of gravity and motion, along with more specific mathematical formulae. His work has been pivotal in understanding how forces interact and has been used in space exploration, aeronautics and other fields.
Louis Pasteur 1822 CE
Pasteur was a French chemist who demonstrated that microorganisms (germs) caused destruction and decay in organic matter. His work led to the development of many medicines and treatments, saving millions of lives. He also established that life could only arise from previous life, for example, from maggots laid on rotting flesh.
Albert Einstein 1879 CE
German physicist, probably the most famous and influential scientist of the past hundred years. His theories have helped our understanding of the universe, light, time and energy, resulting in atomic power and space exploration. He was also a great humanitarian, speaking out for causes such as world peace and animal rights.
And all this brings us to our modern era. With the recent death of prominent physicist Stephen Hawking, it seems that a chapter has been closed with science and that a vacuum has been left. All through history, in each generation, there has always been a spokesperson for science, a kind of scientist Laureate of their time. Society looked to these people for guidance and hope. One can almost feel a sense of confusion after the death of Professor Hawking, as though the captain of the great ship “Discovery” has been washed overboard and the crew are now looking for a replacement to navigate the stormy waters of life.
Over the last 50 years or so, science has taken on a new guise. Instead of defined laws of physics and empirical evidence as the basis for testing data, a new arm, known as “Theoretical physics” has been developed and is now seen as the litmus paper for scientific truth. Some might argue that this could actually be a resurface of natural philosophy, without physical evidence to substantiate it. “Theoretical physics” is usually untestable by the established so-called ”Scientific method.”
Foremost among these modern pioneers was the late Stephen Hawking, a renowned British physicist. Professor Hawking established such a cult status that few would dare to challenge his assumptions and decrees, even on subjects not related to science. Stephen Hawking was generally regarded as probably the ultimate source of information and guidance, particularly in matters of science. This was the Zeus of science, the King of the gods. How profound was his influence and, why? In a televised interview with Stephen Hawking, an overawed William Shatner asked Stephen Hawking what the future held for humankind and our beautiful planet. The answer he was given was grim and severe and left the man who made Captain Kirk a legend visibly disturbed. In his later written works Professor Hawking himself expressed great concern, and even sadness over the state of humanity and the earth itself. He also declared - if so fact-um, that God has never existed and that the universe did not require a causal agent to come into existence. These statements are taken by millions as reality, truth. Like Charles Darwin the British naturalist, and probably the most influential scientist of the 19th century, Hawking presented a very negative view of the future, although he did express a vain hope that scientific knowledge might be the only solution to mankind's woes. For a man who had spent most of his life embroiled in equations and research, trying to fathom the workings of the physical universe, it seems that only in the final years of his life did he finally turn the telescope around and actually peer at the very planet he was inhabiting and start to take note of the neglect and mismanagement of man's systems and environment. Surely though, science should always have been about the betterment of the human race, shouldn't it? After all, what use is there in knowing what a star is made of when the very planet that we stand on, while peering into space, is dying from poisons? A prominent religious man was once asked how he felt when man first set foot on the moon. He answered that, although it was a very impressive achievement, “It solves none of the problems that keep us awake at night.“
Stephen Hawking's authority was virtually unchallenged. And so, when he boldly declared that God does not exist, the world listened attentively while one god denounced the other as a fantasy. But what authority did he have for making such a statement? What physical evidence could he site for dismissing a concept that has been at the heart of mankind's consciousness since civilization began. And how could he so boldly dismiss the testimony of other gods of science who actually expressed a belief in a God, scientists such as Einstein, Newton and Darwin?
We may well ask then, what did Stephen Hawking actually discover, prove and give to science and mankind's sorry existence? Well, the truth may be a little uncomfortable for those who held Mr Hawking aloft as a pillar of knowledge and discovery.
A BBC science reporter made this statement about Stephen Hawking – “His contributions to science changed the way we look at the universe.” But he added that “His theories have not been proven.” So Professor Hawking has never actually discovered anything tangible, nor have his ideas benefited society in any way. Quite the opposite in fact. When people who are religious or optimistic about the future are informed by this god of science that life is pointless, meaningless and hopeless, lives are affected, relationships are affected, attitudes are changed and hope is abandoned. Faced with such a bleak outlook, with no incentive for adherence to morals, many have succumbed to a purely Epicurean attitude to life, namely “Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” No wonder society is deteriorating on all levels, social, moral, ecological etc. When the gods of science speak, the world takes note and responds accordingly, this brings consequences. When Charles Darwin published his works on natural selection it triggered a flood of anti religious philosophy and political ideas, many of them negative. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was a philosopher who had a profound effect on politics and the shaping of the twentieth century. He was heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his book “Philosophy—An Outline- History “, he wrote “The strong, brave, domineering, proud, fit best the society that is to be.” This was an idea that was carried forward by others, most notably a young German chancellor in the 1930’s named “Hitler.“ The book “Milestones of History“ noted that during the next century, “Darwinian ideas formed an integral part of Hitler’s doctrine of racial superiority.” And so, Stephen Hawking had put his official stamp on atheism.
But was Hawking correct? What was his reasoning? In his book, “The Grand Design” Hawking stated “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” As with many of Stephen Hawking's (and other atheist scientists) statements and claims, there is great inconsistency in what he says. For example, until the early 20th century, scientists generally believed that the physical universe was infinite, having no beginning. In fact, many of them criticized and ridiculed the Bible book of Genesis for it's statement that the universe did, in fact, have a starting point, a beginning caused by an “Abundance of dynamic energy” (Isaiah 40.26). Yet, with discoveries made by the Hubble telescope, many of those scientists were forced into a humiliating reversal of opinion and had to reluctantly concur with the Bible's correct statement. So science can change, with new knowledge (or old, as in this case). And science, real science is in a constant state of flux, that what we know today, we may have to unknow tomorrow. Yet, Hawking and others dismiss a casual agent because the physical force of gravity exists. In plain language Hawking is claiming that, if something exists, it must have come into existence under it's own mechanism, otherwise it could not exist. But, he does not allow a mechanism outside of the object or the force (gravity) to be the cause. This despite the overwhelming scientific, empirical evidence that matter cannot be created by any known physical process and without causal agency. In accepting that the universe had a beginning, scientists such as Hawking placed themselves in a very difficult position, showing a huge inconsistency in their reasoning. Their usual argument against God is that, if God created the universe, who created God? Apart from the obvious answer that, God, by his very nature, is is the creator, not the created, if one demands an answer to this question, it betrays a total contradiction in their thinking. On the one hand, they insulted the Biblical claim that the universe was not infinite, insisting that it was. This placed them in the smug, safe position of not having to explain the origin of the universe. Yet, in contrast, once they were forced to accept the fact of a non-infinite universe, they questioned and ridiculed the idea of an infinite God. In other words, their intellect can stretch to the concept of gravity being eternal, but not the creator of gravity.
Hawking goes on to say that “Philosophy is dead.” Once again, here is a massive inconsistency which should have been an actual embarrassment for Professor Hawking. All of his theories, including the latest M-theory, are conjecture, guesswork, speculation. He does not know, he supposes, he theorizes, in short, he philosophizes! Yet philosophy is dead. So inconsistent and absent of scientific substance are Hawking's last statements about the physical universe, that many in the scientific community have rounded on him and criticized his dogmatic assertions. One such qualified person is Ethan Siegel, Astro-physicist, author and science communicator. He wrote “Speculative, unproven ideas is a pitfall that has afflicted many of the greatest scientific minds throughout history. Many of Hawking's proposals are speculative and unproven, and they lack evidence. This has never stopped Hawking from touting them, much to the chagrin of careful scientists everywhere. Unproven ideas should never be a substitute fro legitimate facts, yet Hawking, in every book he ever wrote, never tells you when he strays from the confirmed and validated into this speculative realm, particularly where his own ideas are concerned. To an insider, it feels like the definition of selling out: using your fame and clout for self-promotion, rather than to educate humanity's knowledge and the limits of that knowledge.”
In agreement is John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science at Green Templeton College, Oxford. Of Hawking's statements about God he wrote "Nonsense remains nonsense, even when spoken by famous scientists, even though the general public assumes they are statements of science."
In relying on the gods of science to inform us what is real and what is not, to utter prophecies about our future and the end of the universe, we have overlooked a simple fact. Gods, by their nature and definition, should not die, yet these gods that we serve with zeal and devotion, the Hawking, the Darwin, the Einstein, they are all dead and they are no more, just as the Bible states, “The living are conscious that they will die, but the dead are conscious of nothing at all, their remembrance has been forgotten.” We should be cautious of which gods we give our devotions to, because, at the end of the day, they may be just as mortal and flawed and prejudiced as we are.