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Stephen Hawking: What an atheist can teach believers

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking died at the age of 76 after a long struggle with a motor neurone disease on 14 March 2018. Anthony Egan takes a look at his life and the significance of his work, suggesting that there is a lot that Christians, and other religious people, can learn from this self-proclaimed atheist.

What might people of faith learn from the life of the late Stephen Hawking? As a self-proclaimed atheist who once observed that God was superfluous to his theory of the universe, Hawking nonetheless has much, I would suggest, that believers should take seriously as they seek to understand both God and the universe.

Some biographical details seem appropriate at this point, particularly as Hawking’s remarkable life seems so closely tied to his work. Born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death (January 8th 1942), diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1963 while still working on his PhD and told he had only a few years to live, physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking died on March 14th 2018 –  the anniversary of the birth of another great scientist, Albert Einstein. Universally acknowledged as one of the greatest scientific minds of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, he was a cultural icon too for his refusal to let his motor neurone disease impede his quest to understand the nature – and origins – of the universe. While for Hawking this was probably a combination of secular stoicism and intellectual curiosity, it can also perhaps be read as a kind of faith, not in any divine providence as such but in a sense of commitment to engage with life in its most basic sense, a purpose that transcends obstacles in pursuit of a higher goal: meaning-making or insight.

Hawking’s breakthrough insight, published in the March 1974 issue of the journal Nature, that applied quantum theory (itself a monstrously complex theory of subatomic particles) to black holes led him to develop his unified theory of nature. To his initial chagrin this contradicted his earlier theories about black holes but – faithful to his discipline – he drew on his new insights (built in part upon his debates with fellow physicists) and presented to the world the idea that black holes could indeed collapse, and that they emitted radiation until they disappeared. This theory – called Hawking radiation – was highly theoretical and controversial. Attempts to simulate it experimentally suggested Hawking was right, but as often happens in the scientific community the results were hotly disputed.

The dynamic of this process, a questioning search for truth rooted in dialogue and the willingness to revise or even jettison ideas that no longer work, seems to me the natural allegory of a religious community at its best: engaging honestly with faith’s resources to understand where God can be found now.  In short, doing theology.

Hawking’s fame grew. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society later in 1974, he was subsequently appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (1979-2009), a position held in the 17th Century by Sir Isaac Newton. He continued to work on his grand theory of everything, even as the Lou Gehrig’s disease took its toll. For most of his career Hawking was confined to a wheelchair; in the last two decades he was effectively paralysed, communicating in a kind of code with a finger while it still could move and by blinking his eyes. Through technical wizardry these movements were processed into an artificial voice machine connected to his chair.

His condition did not stop him from producing a swathe of important articles and books. His most famous book A Brief History of Time (1988), in which he expounded on a universal theory of physics, sold nearly 10 million copies. Though aimed at a popular audience, it is still a hellishly complex book. A subsequent book, The Grand Design (2010) co-authored with colleague Leonard Mlodinow, explored among other things the mathematical possibility of multiple universes, a ‘multiverse’.

Courage in the face of obstacles seems to me another metaphor for faith lived by action. It is moral courage that takes believers and non-believers from a position of passivity and powerless to action and a sense of agency. While action is inevitably constrained by personal and social circumstances, the will to act as best one can distinguishes victim from victor, onlooker from agent, ‘subject’ from ‘citizen’ of sapient life.

By exploring the origin and nature of the universe, Hawking inevitably found himself dealing with the ‘God question’. Here too we saw not a kneejerk atheist, but an atheist who directly or indirectly was ready to engage with believers willing to debate with him. In his work Hawking dealt with scientists who were believers, either individually or through organisations like the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Based on his interpretation of the evidence he concluded that God was a ‘metaphor’ for the cosmos he tried to understand, a ‘possibility’ that could not be disproved but who seemed superfluous to his theory, and on balance probably did not exist.

I suspect believing scientists would agree with much of Hawking’s cosmology, and where they may disagree it would be on scientific issues primarily, not out of a kind of dogmatic reaction. And, precisely on the limits to the science they see in his theories, they would argue that God – however metaphorically interpreted by historic scriptures and doctrines – is more ‘probability’ than possibility, that which is within, before and beyond the material universe or multiverse. Here too, though perhaps in the somewhat different language of mathematics, they come to the same conclusion as the best of religious traditions’ theologians and philosophers.

Undoubtedly such views – holding together philosophy and astronomy, myth and math – may unsettle many believers. Such a scenario Hawking himself may have anticipated in a famous comment in an interview where he concluded that, in a battle between science and religion, science would ultimately win because while religion rested on dogma backed by authority (sometimes even force) science was based on truth derived from evidence. The later he called bluntly facts.

Philosophers of science who follow Thomas Kuhn’s approach – which embraces a more complex view where sometimes scientists (including at times Hawking himself, I should note) started with hunches that had to be tested and verified – might object to Hawking’s bluntness here. But theologians, religious leaders should primarily see it as a friendly challenge.

It is a challenge to interpret beliefs in the light of the best available scientific knowledge. (Given the Latin roots of the word ‘Scientia’, the latter two words could if I were mathematically inclined be simply ‘knowledge2’). It is a challenge to avoid intellectual laziness, or complacency, the temptation to assume because we believed something a certain way in the past we need no longer examine it. Or to simply assert beliefs from a position of ‘authority’ – even sometimes by naked power.

Scientists like Hawking do not simply affirm and repeat the claims of their intellectual predecessors. While honouring the genius of those before them, they question, theorise and experiment to see the gaps in understanding, correct the mistakes, refine questions and propose better answers. 100 years from now, no doubt, a future Lucasian Professor of Mathematics will unpick some or all of Hawking’s theories. This is not disloyalty, nor ‘heresy’: it is the very process of science itself.

It is also the last and best challenge and gift Stephen Hawking has given believers. Do we have the moral courage and sufficient spiritual conviction to take it up?

Image: NASA/Paul E. Alers

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.