South of the South Pole

Stephen Hawking’s Challenge to Philosophy
Stephen Hawking at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. (Lwp Kommunikáció)

“A human being is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed,” says Blaise Pascal. “If the universe were to crush the reed, the man would be nobler than his killer, since he knows that he is dying, and that the universe has the advantage over him. The universe knows nothing of this.”

I was teaching the philosophy of Pascal to undergraduates about a week before Stephen Hawking died. When I read the news of his passing, the first thing that came to mind was this passage from the Pensées. There were probably moments in Hawking’s life when he felt physically crushed by the universe. But the disease that crippled his body did not keep him from a heightened form of the awareness Pascal describes. Hawking knew more than that he was being crushed by the universe: he knew the forces and contours and extreme environments of the universe and, with his intelligence, could reach back to its origin in the Big Bang.

What I always wondered about Hawking is whether he believed there were limits to what human intelligence can apprehend. Are we hardwired so that there are some things we simply can’t know, or even ask about? I confess I was biased against him: in his writings, Hawking dismissed philosophy as a discipline, and in my pride as a philosophy teacher I dismissed him as being unable to imagine the ultimate, transcendent questions about the universe, including the metaphysical question of “Why?”—of what accounts for the existence of the universe. More important to me than whether Hawking believed in God (he did not) was whether he believed that metaphysical questions are legitimate. I justified my prejudice by noting that Sir Martin Rees, the Royal Astronomer and a friend of Hawking, said that Hawking “has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic.” Yet Hawking’s statements and writings reveal that his attitude toward metaphysical questions evolved over time. It’s worth a closer look.

In the last few years of his life, Hawking made statements that might, at first glance, seem plainly anti-philosophical and anti-metaphysical. “Asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless…. It would be like asking what lies south of the South Pole,” Hawking said at a conference hosted by the Vatican in 2016, echoing a conclusion he had expressed many times before. “There was nothing south of the South Pole so there was nothing around before the Big Bang,” he told the physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview that aired just a few weeks before his death. There is an important sense in which Hawking is right. According to the theory of general relativity, upon which Hawking built his work on the origin of the universe, there is no such thing as “time” before the Big Bang: time was created along with the Big Bang. The question of what comes before it is meaningless from a physicist’s point of view.

Earlier in his career, Hawking had a subtler way of addressing the difference between the questions physics asks and answers and metaphysical questions. In a famous passage in A Brief History of Time—the 1988 book that won Hawking international fame as a popularizer of theoretical physics—Hawking recounts a 1981 conference at the Vatican where he delivered a paper before Pope John Paul II. “At the end of the conference the participants were granted an audience with the pope,” Hawking remembers. “He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the Big Bang, but we should not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.”

Hawking’s memory is disputed, but what John Paul likely meant was that the question of the origin of the universe, which the pope identified with the Big Bang, is properly speaking a metaphysical question, not a scientific one. Physical sciences explain natural processes and the composition of matter; metaphysics asks for an explanation of why nature and the universe exist to begin with. This is more or less the position of canonical thinkers in the three monotheistic faiths, like Averroes, Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas. The so-called cosmological arguments for God’s existence, which were developed by each of the Abrahamic religions, all rely on the idea that the ultimate explanation for the universe must lie outside the universe itself, in a Necessary Being or Prime Mover or First Cause—metaphysical ideas that were usually identified with God.

In A Brief History of Time, Hawking asserts that these metaphysical ideas might be rendered moot by his “No-Boundary Proposal” about the origin of the universe. (The theory was refined over the following decades; Hawking was reportedly working on an updated version of the theory weeks before he died.) The proposal is designed to deal with certain problems concerning the relationship between space and time within the Big Bang, which Hawking classifies as a singularity—a location of infinite density and gravitational force, of which a black hole is the primary example.  The physicist Robert Penrose describes the No-Boundary Proposal as the theory “whereby the singularity is replaced by a smooth ‘cap,’ this being likened to what happens at the north pole of the Earth, where the concept of longitude loses meaning (becomes singular) while the north pole itself has a perfectly good geometry.” Space and time are “capped off” at the Big Bang. There is nothing behind or before the Big Bang. Hawking sees the metaphysical implications of this theory. “One could say: ‘The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.’ The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.”

Hawking wants the ultimate explanation for being itself, not the “name” of its first cause.

Yet there is an interesting contradiction at the heart of A Brief History of Time. In the momentous closing pages of the book, Hawking himself indulges in what are best classified as metaphysical questions. Musing on the possibility of uncovering a “Theory of Everything” that accounts for all phenomena in the knowable universe, Hawking considers what exactly this theory would explain:

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 questions 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? Is the unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence? Or does it need a creator, and, if so, does he have any other effect on the universe? And who created him?

There is a basic metaphysical concern that underlies Hawking’s questions: Why does the universe exist? To ask who created the Creator is the most radical way of expressing this concern: Hawking wants the ultimate explanation for being itself, not the “name” of its first cause. Hawking laments that “in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for philosophers.” Metaphysics and physics were no longer in conversation with each other.

Hawking’s views on metaphysics and philosophy more generally seemed to have hardened by the time he published his last book for a popular audience, The Grand Design (2010), co-written with Leonard Mlodinow. Hawking and Mlodinow pose three fundamental “Why” questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this set of laws and not some other? They claim that “it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, without invoking any divine beings.” It isn’t just that philosophers lack scientific literacy, but that science has overcome the need for philosophy. Building on the No-Boundary Proposal, Hawking and Mlodinow argue that the need for a divine Creator disappears once we overcome the idea that the universe has a “beginning.” They take up Richard Feynman’s theory about why, on the quantum level, a particle of light will sometimes act as a wave. Feynman conjectured that a particle does not have a unique history as it travels through space, but somehow takes every possible path between two points. Hawking and Mlodinow apply this theory to other theoretical work on the quantum singularity that became the Big Bang: “the universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way”; it was, in fact, a “multiverse.” Why, then, do we see only one way—that is, one universe? Because we can see only the particular universe that made intelligent life possible. From within that universe, we look backward and “create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”

But there is still the nagging question of where this primitive unity called the “Big Bang” came from. Hawking and Mlodinow have an answer: gravity. Within specific conditions, gravity can “create matter.” “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” the authors state. But this appears to imply that “gravity” somehow exists prior to the universe—that it dwells south of the South Pole, as it were. It would exist not “before” the universe in the order of time (because time begins with the Big Bang), but somehow as a reality that precedes it. If this is the case, then, as Edward Feser writes in his book Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Ignatius Press), the law of gravity “is not nothing; hence, an explanation of the existence of the universe that makes reference to such a law is rather obviously not, contrary to what Hawking and Mlodinow suggest, an account of how the universe might arise from nothing.” Gravity would not rescue us from metaphysics.

Even if Hawking did not believe in metaphysics, his theoretical speculations achieved a kind of transcendence. For to understand the universe in its entirety—or even just to aspire to understand it in this way—is a way of transcending one’s limits as an item within it. Modern theoretical physics may speak a different language from classical metaphysics, but the impulse behind the two kinds of inquiry is similar. Despite his crushing physical disability, Hawking was able to pursue this impulse further than most of us can. He exemplified both sides of Pascal’s metaphor to a rare degree: he was among the frailest of “thinking reeds,” and among the most thoughtful, a credit to the universe of which he was part.

Santiago Ramos teaches philosophy at Boston College.

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