Stephen Hawking gives a lecture for NASA's 50th anniversary on April 21, 2008
Brief thoughts about my debt to the great physicist and ambassador for science, and the limits of his thought about the question of God
When I woke up this morning to the news that Stephen Hawking had died, it felt oddly like I had only just seen him. I hadn’t, of course, but I was literally yesterday perusing one of his books while blogging about wormholes and quantum physics in connection with Eucharistic theology.
Connecting wormholes and quantum physics to Eucharist theology may seem an odd move, but it’s a good example of why Hawking’s work has been massively helpful to me over the years. As I wrote yesterday, “Both the scientist and the theologian seek in effect, if not always in intent, to ‘think God’s thoughts after him.’”
For Hawking, this quest was more in effect than intent — particularly, I think, toward the end of this life. At an earlier point he seemed more haunted by the questions that science can’t answer:
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing? (A Brief History of Time, p. 190)
More recently, though, he argued — unconvincingly, it seems to me — that the equations are capable of “breathing fire” into themselves:
Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going. (The Grand Design, p. 180)
Critics, including physicists and theologians, were not slow in pointing out that by granting himself the law of gravity Hawking was not really starting at “nothing.” In the words of another physicist named Stephen whose work has been helpful to me, the Catholic theoretical physicist Stephen Barr:
The “no-universe state” as meant in these speculative scenarios is not nothing, it is a very definite something: it is one particular quantum state among many of an intricate rule-governed system. This no-universe state has specific properties and potentialities defined by a system of mathematical laws.
“As Hawking once understood,” Barr concludes, ”equations may turn out to be an accurate description of some reality, but [cannot] confer reality on the things they describe.”
Was Hawking really satisfied with his own account? Was anyone? We are all subject to cognitive biases that lead our thinking astray. Yet every critical thinker knows this — and Hawking was surely a critical thinker. He knew, and knew better than most, that final certitude eludes human beings. Neither believers nor unbelievers can ever fully escape uncertainty and unknowing.
Did he continue to wonder about the fire in the equations? As he contemplated the universe and “The Grand Design” (the title of one of his books), did he ever wonder if he was being contemplated by a Grand Designer?
I have no idea, of course. But I hope so, and I hope — and I pray — that he is now learning something about the mysterious operations of grace that are more secret and inscrutable even than the mysteries of quantum physics.
Read more: Tesseracts, Wormholes, Quantum Physics—and the Eucharist!