“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.”