Stephen Hawking died in March of 2018. He battled a disease for fifty-five years that should have taken his life in two. Dr. Hawking pushed the boundaries of human understanding while inspiring wonder in millions. Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees eulogized, “Few, if any, of Einstein’s successors have done more to deepen our insights into gravity, space and time.”
Rarely does such an intriguing combination of intellect, personality, and circumstances intersect. A mind of that caliber and a life of that character has much to tell us about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.
As Dr. Hawking drew close to death, he shared his thoughts on the prospects of dying. Hawking believed that science had eliminated the notion of a personal creator, and he was outspoken in his belief. He believed that the universe was only the result of quantum fluctuations. He believed that humans are no more than biological machines. So, when commenting on death his worldview came through.
I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
Despite the monumental life he lived, in the end, he was reduced to a computer whose components had failed. This world-changing mind was reduced to a failing machine. The man who changed how we view the world was reduced by his own worldview.
Stephen Hawking was so much more than his worldview allowed him to be.
Here’s the thing…
People are more than their worldviews often allow them to be. This is because their worldviews contain a fatal flaw known as reductionism.
Reductionism generally refers to explaining something by simplification. This can happen in nearly any field of study, and sometimes with a positive effect. However, reductionism becomes a problem when it oversimplifies what it attempts to explain.
This is especially true for our worldviews.
Christian philosopher Nancy Pearcey addresses the issue in her book Finding Truth. She explains that reductionism is “reducing a phenomenon from a higher or more complex level of reality to a lower, simpler, less complex level—usually in order to debunk or discredit it.” The problem is, when our worldview is reductionistic, we fail to see reality as it is.
This happens when we make one aspect of reality the ultimate explanation for all reality. A part is used to explain the whole. The whole, therefore, must be reduced.
Dr. Pearcey describes the problem:
If reductionism is like trying to stuff all of reality into a box, we could say the problem is that the box is always too small.
In other words, our worldview will ultimately fail to explain some part of reality—“Something will stick out of the box.” What is worse, whatever sticks out of the box is typically explained away and abandoned. What we thought was real, our worldview overrules as an illusion. (See cognitive dissonance.)
Watch how this happens.
The result of reductionism is always a reduced view of humanity. That is why it is important to look out for it in our worldviews.
Many worldviews assert that all reality fits completely inside the box of nature. We categorize these as naturalistic.
Dr. Hawking’s worldview could be described as naturalism. He believed that everything in the universe, including humanity, should be explained exclusively in terms of scientific phenomena. Anything that appeared to be outside the realm of science is a mere illusion. He wrote:
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.
If reality is only nature and science, free will does not fit in the box.
Naturalism also reduces humanity to the point that our consciousness is assumed to be an illusion. It doesn’t fit in the box. Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey explains:
Our starting assumption as scientists ought to be that on some level consciousness has to be an illusion….The reason is obvious: If nothing in the physical world can have the features that consciousness seems to have, then consciousness cannot exist as a thing in the physical world.
The reduction continues. Anything in the human experience that cannot fit into the box of nature is jettisoned. Renowned neuroscientist Francis Crick brings us to the logical conclusion:
‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.”
We must wonder: If that much of the human experience must be written off as an illusion, does the naturalist worldview view the world well?
Many worldviews assert that all reality fits completely inside the box of spirituality. We categorize these as pantheistic.
Pantheistic worldviews explain everything in the universe in terms of spiritual oneness. Anything that appears to be distinct is mere illusion. This includes physical desires and individuality. We dissolve all distinction, usually by way of meditation. That way, we find our place in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Over-soul: “the soul of the whole…the eternal ONE.”
Charles Darwin declared that the world of biology is the result of gradual chance mutations. Yet, decades earlier, G.W.F. Hegel declared the world of ideas to be the result of gradual “actualization of the Universal Mind.” He described all history as progress toward an Absolute Spirit or Universal Mind.
The problem with this reductionism is that it consigns all individuality to illusion. This is especially seen in the pantheism of Eastern religions. Pearcey explains:
In Hinduism, your individual identity is actually called maya, which means illusion. It is regarded as the cause of evil, selfishness, greed, and war. The goal of meditation is to dissolve your sense of being a separate self by merging with the cosmic One, the undifferentiated All, like a drop of water dissipating into the ocean. In Buddhism, the word nirvana means literally “to become extinguished.”
We see reductionism expressed in the Upanishads, ancient writings that form the basis for Hinduism. In one passage, a father explains to his son the essence of who he is.
“Bring me a fruit from the banyan tree.”
“Here is one, Father.”
“Break it open.”
“It is broken, Father.”
“What do you see there?”
“These tiny seeds.”
“Now break one of them open.”
“It is broken, Father.”
“What do you see there?”
“My son, you know there is a subtle essence which you do not perceive, but through that essence the truly immense banyan tree exists. Believe it, my son. Everything that exists has its Self in that subtle essence. It is Truth. It is the Self, and you are That.”
Did you catch the reductionism? What the son identifies as nothing, the father explains as the essence from which come nature (the tree in this case), self, and truth. The father concludes by telling his son that he is that—nothing.
As ancient as religious pantheism is, we see the same reductionism today in best-selling books and top-trending videos from the likes of Deepak Chopra and Damien Mark Smyth.
We must wonder: If that much of the human experience must be written off as illusion in the pantheist’s worldview, does the pantheist view the world properly?
Naturalism reduces humanity to machines. Pantheism reduces humanity to oblivion. Yet, the Christian worldview seems to maintain what the others seem to miss. Christianity maintains that we are physical and spiritual beings. We live in a natural world with intangible yet real emotion, will, and identity.
The Bible teaches that God created humanity in his image. Both naturalists and pantheists dismiss this out of hand because it does not fit within the framework of their worldview (See plausibility structures.) However, this is the highest view of humanity possible. Because God is the ultimate explanation for reality, being made in his image is the ultimate status.
We stand apart from the rest of nature, eternally and equally valuable in the eyes of our Creator. This value was demonstrated when God came to us in Jesus Christ to fix the image that we had corrupted by our rebellion against him. The value the God sees in us as his image-bearers is expressed in his grace, mercy, and love.
There is no reductionism in God’s love for us.
 Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes, pp. 44-45 (Kindle Edition).
 Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: 5 Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes, p. 103 (Kindle Edition).
 Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design, p. 32.
 Nicholas Humphrey, “Consciousness: The Achilles Heel of Darwinism? Thank God, Not Quite,” in John Brockman, ed., Intelligent Thought: Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement (New York: Vintage, 2006), 58.
 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, 3.
 Pearcey, p. 127.
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