Yes, yes, I grant that he was brilliant in his field of expertise, theoretical physics. But as was recently noted in these pages, when he ventured outside of his bailiwick, he said some really boned-headed things. Consider just one example from his book The Grand Design:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”
In one sentence Hawking committed two egregious logical blunders. First, he committed the error of reification (ascribing concrete properties to abstract concepts). The law of gravity does not do anything. Like all laws of science, it is a mathematical model of observed regularities. Why the regularities scientists observe should be such as they are and how those regularities came to be in the first place is beyond the realm of science – and thus not within Hawking’s area of expertise.
Second, he committed the error of non sequitur. “Nothing,” in the sense that is under examination, means “absolute non-being.” Such a state has no properties. When it obtains, it means there is absolutely nothing. Now look at Hawking’s statement. He said, essentially, “because we have something (the law of gravity), the universe can create itself from nothing.” Well sure, if by “nothing” one means “something” then that is at least possibly true (whether it is true is another question). But that is not what “nothing” means, as any reasonably bright second grader knows.
This is why we should be very careful when we employ the argument from authority. “X said thus and so” can be a powerful argument if X is the world’s foremost authority on the subject. Certainly it is never absolutely persuasive because in the past the majority of scientists (even the smartest among them) have been wrong about basic things. Until well into the twentieth century most cosmologists subscribed to the theory of the luminiferous aether. That theory turned out to be bunk. Still, when an expert speaks within the area of his expertise, his views are worth considering. But when an expert speaks outside his area of expertise, he is just another layman, and his pronouncements do not deserve greater weight than any other layman.
Another example: Albert Einstein was in favor of socialism. The man who was widely considered one of the smartest scientists in history was utterly clueless in the realm of economics.
When it comes to the argument from authority, our best bet is to follow Sergeant Esterhaus’s advice. “Let’s be careful out there.” ·