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Friday, September 22, 2006

Big Bang IV - Stephen Hawking and God

Dr Schaefer continued -

Here we take a good look at Stephen Hawking's stated beliefs within his scientific pronouncements, and specifically regarding his views on God.

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking is probably the most famous living scientist. The tenth anniversary edition of his book, A Brief History of Time, is available in paperback and I strongly recommend it. The book has sold in excess of 10 million copies. For such a book to sell so many copies is essentially unheard of in the history of science writing. For the past five years I have used A Brief History of Time as the centerpiece of a course that I teach for a select group of 15 University of Georgia freshman. For balance, the class also studies the novel That Hideous Strength, the third book in the C. S. Lewis space trilogy. My course falls in the "Get to know the professor" category that is becoming popular in large public universities to offset the sense of anonymity that many entering freshmen feel.

An excellent film (1991, director Errol Morris) has been made about A Brief History of Time, and we enjoy the film every year in my freshman seminar. There has even been another good book (A Reader's Companion, Bantam, 1992) made about the film. Hawking has a wonderful sense of humor. He displays it in the foreword of the Reader's Companion, stating "This is The Book of The Film of The Book. I don't know if they are planning a film of the book of the film of the book."

I want to begin our discussion of Stephen Hawking by saying something about his scientific research, without getting bogged down in details. Hawking has made his well-deserved scientific reputation by investigating in great detail one particular set of problems: the singularity and horizons around black holes and at the beginning of time. Now, every writer in this general area is convinced that if you encountered a black hole, it would be the last thing you ever encountered. A black hole is a massive system so centrally condensed that the force of gravity prevents everything within it, including light, from escaping. The reassuring thing is that, despite what our children see on the Saturday morning cartoons, no black hole appears to be in our neighborhood. That is, the closest black hole to planet earth is far more distant than could be traveled in the lifetime of a human being using conventional rockets.

Stephen Hawking's first major scientific work was published with Roger Penrose (a physicist very famous in his own right) and George Ellis (not as famous as Penrose and Hawking, but still very well known), during the period 1968-1970. They demonstrated that every solution to the equations of general relativity guarantees the existence of a singular boundary for space and time in the past. This landmark is now known as the "singularity theorem," and is a tremendously important finding, being about as close as we can get to a mathematical rationalization for the Big Bang Theory. Later, of course, Hawking began to carry out independent research, both by himself and with his own doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows. As early as 1973, he began to formulate ideas about the quantum evaporation of black holes, exploding black holes, "Hawking radiation," and so on. Some of Hawking's work is radical, exploratory, and even speculative in nature. However, by any reasonable standard Stephen Hawking is a great scientist. Even if time shows some of his more radical proposals to be incorrect, Hawking will have had a profound impact on the history of science.


It may be that one day the common public will see Hawking as a giant equal to Einstein for his accomplishments and imagination. Some of what Einstein believed to be true has been disproven and very likely this same fate will befall some of Hawking's assertions. This is what happens to pioneers in a scientific field and certainly in this area scientists are still pioneers, strangers in a strange land, when seeking the answers to questions of beginnings and underlying forces in nature.

The scientific centerpiece of A Brief History of Time would appear to fall in the speculative category of his research. In fact, I think it is fair to say that the scientific centerpiece of A Brief History of Time was not considered one of Hawking's most important papers prior to the publication of the book in 1987. I am referring to the "no boundary proposal" that Hawking published in 1984 in work with James Hartle, a physics professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Using a grossly simplified picture of the universe in conjunction with an elegant vacuum fluctuation model, Hartle and Hawking were able to provide a mathematical rationalization for the entire universe popping into existence at the beginning of time. This model has also been called the "universe as a wave function" and the "no beginning point." While such mathematical exercises are highly speculative, they may eventually lead us to a deeper understanding of the creation event. I postpone my analysis of the no boundary proposal for a few pages.

Hawking is certainly the most famous physicist in history who has not won the Nobel Prize. This has puzzled some people. Many people automatically assume that Professor Hawking has already won the Nobel Prize. Yet as of this writing (late 2001) he has not. This is probably because the Swedish Royal Academy demands that an award-winning discovery must be supported by verifiable experimental or observational evidence. Hawking's work to date remains largely unconfirmed. Although the mathematics and concepts of his theories are certainly beautiful and elegant, science waited until 1994 for rock solid evidence for even the existence of black holes. The verification of Hawking radiation or any of his more radical theoretical proposals still seems far off. In this context, we must recall that Albert Einstein was wrong about a number of important things scientific, especially quantum mechanics; yet we recognize him as one of the three great physicists of all time, along with Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell. I should conclude this section by noting that a number of Nobel Prize Committees have shown themselves to be composed of rather savvy people, capable of compromise. So I would not be surprised to see the old gentlemen in Stockholm find a way to award the Nobel Prize in Physics to Stephen Hawking. Perhaps Hawking could share the prize with those responsible for the first observations of black holes.


And God

Those who have not read A Brief History of Time may be surprised to find that the book has a main character. That main character is God. This was the feature of the book that the well known atheist Carl Sagan found a bit distressing. Sagan wrote the preface to the first edition of the book, but was less famous than Hawking by the time of arrival of the tenth anniversary edition, in which Sagan's preface does not appear. God is discussed in A Brief History of Time from near the beginning all the way to the crescendo of the final sentence. So let us try to put Hawking's opinions about God in some sort of a context. The context is that Stephen Hawking seems to have made up his mind about God long before he became a cosmologist.

Not surprisingly, the principal influence in Stephen's early life was his mother, Isobel. Isobel Hawking was a member of the Communist Party in England in the 1930's, and her son has carried some of that intellectual tradition right through his life. Incidentally, Hawking's fame is now such that he felt obligated to endorse one of the candidates in the 2000 United States presidential election. By the time he was 13, Hawking's hero was the brilliant agnostic philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell. At the same age, two of Hawking's friends became Christians as a result of the 1955 Billy Graham London campaign. According to his 1992 biographers (Michael White and John Gribben), Hawking stood apart from these encounters with "a certain amused detachment." There is little in A Brief History of Time that deviates in a significant way from what we know of the religious views of the 13-year-old Stephen Hawking. However, we must note that in public questioning Hawking insists that he is not an atheist. And I am told by eyewitness observers that in recent years Stephen Hawking has appeared "once or twice a month" in an Anglican church with his second wife.

Perhaps the most important event of Stephen Hawking's life occurred on December 31, 1962. He met his future wife of 25 years, Jane Wilde, at a New Year's Eve party. One month later, Hawking was diagnosed with a debilitating disease, ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known in North America as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was given two years to live at the time. That was nearly 40 years ago. I have seen three chemistry professor friends die of this terrible disease. My three friends lasted two, three, and five years, respectively, the last surviving on an iron lung for his last tortuous year. By anyone's estimation, the preservation of Stephen Hawking's life is a medical miracle. And he is a man of great personal courage.

At this point in his life, 1962, Stephen was by all accounts an average-performing graduate student at Cambridge University. I hasten to add that even average doctoral students at Cambridge, still one of the five great universities in the world, can be very good. Let me quote from his biographers, White and Gribbon, on this point:

"However, there is little doubt that Jane Wilde's appearance on the scene was a major turning point in Stephen Hawking's life. The two of them began to see a lot more of one another and a strong relationship developed. It was finding Jane Wilde that enabled him to break out of his depression and regenerate some belief in his life and work. For Hawking, his engagement to Jane was probably the most important thing that ever happened to him. It changed his life, gave him something to live for and made him determined to live. Without the help that Jane gave him, he would almost certainly not have been able to carry on or had the will to do so."

They married in July of 1965, somewhat past the expected date of Stephen Hawking's death. The fact that three children followed is indisputable evidence that Stephen was not dead. Hawking himself said in an interview shortly following the publication of A Brief History of Time that "what really made a difference was that I got engaged to a woman named Jane Wilde. This gave me something to live for." Jane Wilde is an interesting person in her own right. I think she decided early on to pursue an academic discipline as far as possible from her husband. She has a doctorate in Medieval Portuguese Literature!

Jane Hawking is a Christian. She made the statement in 1986, "Without my faith in God, I wouldn't have been able to live in this situation (namely, the deteriorating health of her husband, with no obvious income but that of a Cambridge don to live on). I would not have been able to marry Stephen in the first place because I wouldn't have had the optimism to carry me through, and I wouldn't have been able to carry on with it."

The reason the book has sold more than 10 million copies, i.e., the reason for Hawking's success as a popularizer of science, is that he addresses the problems of meaning and purpose that concern all thinking people. The book overlaps with Christian belief and it does so deliberately, but graciously and without rancor. It is an important book that needs to be treated with respect and attention. There is no reason to agree with everything put forth in A Brief History of Time and you will see that I have a couple of areas of disagreement. It has been argued that this is the most widely unread book in the history of literature. I first began to prepare this material for a lecture in December 1992, because I was asked by a friend (John Mason) in Australia to come and speak on the subject. John wrote to me, "A great many people in Sydney have purchased this book. Some claim to have read it." So I encourage you to join the students in my University of Georgia class and become one of those who have actually read A Brief History of Time.

Stephen Hawking has made some eminently sensible statements on the relationship between science and Christianity. For example, "It is difficult to discuss the beginning of the universe without mentioning the concept of God. My work on the origin of the universe is on the borderline between science and religion, but I try to stay on the scientific side of the border. It is quite possible that God acts in ways that cannot be described by scientific laws." When asked by a reporter whether he believed that science and Christianity were competing world views, Hawking replied cleverly "Then Newton would not have discovered the law of gravity." Dr. Hawking is well aware that Newton had strong religious convictions.

A Brief History of Time makes wonderfully ambiguous statements such as, "Even if there is only one possible unified theory (here he is alluding to the envisioned unification of our understandings of quantum mechanics and gravity), 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?" In a similar vein Hawking asks "Why does the universe go to the bother of existing?" Although Hawking does not attempt to answer these two critical questions, they make wonderful discussion topics for university students, and I have enjoyed using them for this purpose.

Hawking pokes fun at Albert Einstein for not believing in quantum mechanics. When asked why he didn't believe in quantum mechanics, Einstein would sometimes say things like "God doesn't play dice with the universe." On one such occasion, Niels Bohr is said to have responded "Albert, stop telling God what He can do." Hawking's adroit response to Einstein is that "God not only plays dice. He sometimes throws them where they can't be seen." Of course, I like Hawking's response very much, having devoted my professional career to the study of molecular quantum mechanics.

For me (and for Hawking's now distinguished student Don Page; more on Professor Page later) the most precious jewel in A Brief History of Time reflects Hawking's interest in the writing's of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.). Hawking states "The idea that God might want to change His mind is an example of the fallacy, pointed out St. Augustine, of imagining God as a being existing in time. Time is a property only of the universe that God created. Presumably, God knew what He intended when He set it up."

The first time I read A Brief History of Time, admittedly not critically, for the first 100 pages or so I thought, "This is a great book; Hawking is building a splendid case for creation by an intelligent being." But things then begin to change and this magnificent cosmological epic becomes adulterated by poor philosophy and theology. For example, Hawking writes on page 122 of the first edition, "These laws (of physics) may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that He has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it". The grounds on which Hawking claims "it appears" are unstated, and a straw God is set up that is certainly not the God who is revealed in time and space and history. What follows is a curious mixture of deism and the ubiquitous "god of the gaps." Stephen Hawking thus appears uncertain (agnostic) of his belief in a god of his own creation.

Now, lest any reader be uncertain, let me emphasize that Hawking strenuously denies charges that he is an atheist. When he is accused of atheism, he is affronted and says that such assertions are not true. For example, Hawking has stated "I thought I had left the question of the existence of a Supreme Being completely open. . . It would be perfectly consistent with all we know to say that there was a Being who was responsible for all the laws of physics." Stephen Hawking is probably an agnostic or a deist (a believer in an impersonal god) or something in between these two positions, his recent church attendance notwithstanding. He is certainly not an atheist and sometimes does not even appear very sympathetic to atheism.

One of the frequently quoted statements in A Brief History of Time is, "So long as the universe had a beginning, we would suppose it had a creator (the cosmological argument). But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?" Hawking's most famous statement is contained in the last paragraph of A Brief History of Time. Perhaps attempting to balance the quotation just cited, Hawking writes "However, if we do discover a complete theory. . . . . then we would know the mind of God." As a person who has dedicated his professional life to science, I am personally sympathetic to this statement. John Calvin was correct is stating that "All truth is God's truth." But I think Professor Hawking is claiming too much here. I would modify his statement to say that if we had a unified, complete theory of physics, we would know much more about the mind of God. To claim to know God comprehensively is beyond the capability of any human being.


Hawking, a brilliant man by all accounts, and not a Christian, nevertheless says, "It would be perfectly consistent with all we know to say that there was a Being who was responsible for all the laws of physics." It appears that his lifetime of study has shown him glimpses of a God he cannot quite define, yet must acknowledge because of those very studies. That he exemplifies courage is beyond question. That he is intellectually honest enough to concede that he see God, in some form, within the context of his scientific findings is another point in his favor. The truly great ones want the truth. I do hope he finds it, like his life's companion, before he passes from this lifetime.

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