Stephen Hawking & the Mind of God

A Brief History of ‘A Brief History of Time’
Stephen Hawking at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. (Lwp Kommunikáció)

 

This article first appeared in the April 6, 1990 issue of Commonweal

 

The longevity of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Bantam) on international best-seller lists is itself a phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation. As I write, the book has been on the American list for more than ninety weeks. For a work on relativity and quantum physics to achieve this distinction is unprecedented. Hawking is a physicist with a particular interest in cosmology. He has achieved theoretical insights of remarkable originality, particularly with regard to the quantum physics of black holes. In A Brief History of Time he describes his personal discoveries within the context of our current understanding of the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.

     Hawking interprets modern cosmology with admirable clarity, but his book is hardly a "gripping" read. So what accounts for the book's extraordinary popular appeal? Some uncharitable critics have suggested that A Brief History of Time is more a publicity event than a book, that it is bought but not read, and that its main value is as a coffee-table status symbol. Best sellers do have a way of generating their own aura of irresistibility, but, in the case of Hawking's book, this can hardly be the whole story.

     I would suggest several reasons for the popularity of A Brief History of Time. The first and most obvious is Hawking himself. Stephen Hawking suffers from ALS, or motor neuron disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. His body is almost totally disabled. He is confined to a wheelchair and speaks and writes with the help of a computer and voice synthesizer. Within this incapacitated body is contained a remarkably capacitated mind, some would say the most brilliant theoretical mind since Einstein. Hawking was born on the anniversary of Galileo's death and holds Isaac Newton's chair as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. He is a fitting successor to those illustrious explorers of the cosmos.

     For many people, Hawking's physical trial and intellectual triumph confirms the primacy of mind over matter, of optimistic spirit over debilitating misfortune. (Hawking himself might merely use the words "lucky" and "unlucky.") Purchasing Hawking's book may be a conscious or unconscious way of paying homage to the inspiring courage of the man.

But there is more. Professor Hawking's reputation has exploded beyond his physics to make him a revered icon of our time. We are seduced by his achievement into believing that whatever he has to say on any topic must be worth listening to—even as Newton was pressed into public service as Master of the Mint and Einstein was sought out to be Israel's head of state.

     In this regard, I am put in mind of an anecdote described by New Age guru Shirley MacLaine in her book Going Within: A Guide to Inner Transformation (Bantam). MacLaine goes on pilgrimage to Cambridge to interview Stephen Hawking. She seeks wisdom. Hawking, characteristically, asks for a kiss. After some chatty preliminaries, MacLaine asks if the harmonic energy of the universe is "loving."

     "I don't know that there is anything loving about energy," says the wheelchair-bound professor, via his computerized voice-synthesizer. "I don't think loving is a word I could ascribe to the universe."

     "What is a word you could use?" wonders MacLaine.

     "Order," replies Hawking. "The universe is well-defined order."

     MacLaine persists: "So the question becomes how we define order in relation to how we see ourselves and our behavior?"

     "Maybe," replies Hawking. "What do you mean?"

     What do you mean, indeed. There is not much chance for a meaningful dialogue in this encounter between latter-day shaman and bemused physicist. MacLaine lives in a world of penny miracles. Chants, crystals, chakras, channelers, and clairvoyants: These are the instruments of her dreamy conjurations. Hawking, on the other hand, modestly admits to only one miracle, the universe itself, and even that may be something less than miraculous. His meditations are mathematical.

     What the actress and the professor have in common is they both sell lots of books. Apparently, both authors have something to say (or are perceived to have something to say) that the public wants to hear. And indeed they explicitly assert the same goal—to know how the universe works and the role we play in it. It is a goal of formidable dimension, and if either book provides the answers, it deserves long tenure on the best-seller list.

     Professor Hawking lists three possibilities in the search for the ultimate meaning of the universe: (1) There is an ultimate theory describing the universe that we will one day discover, if only we are clever enough (for Hawking that theory will be mathematical, the so-called GUT, or Grand Unified Theory so vigorously sought by physicists); (2) there is no ultimate theory, only an infinite sequence of theories describing the universe in ever greater detail; or (3) the universe is random and arbitrary, with no more than occasional fleeting and accidental patterns of meaning.

     Both Stephen Hawking and Shirley MacLaine express a preference for Option 1, which may account for their popularity. MacLaine asserts her preference for Option 1 emphatically; the professor is more tentative. Tentativeness, of course, is one thing that separates science from New Age sorcery (or, for that matter, from Old Age religion). Hawking salts his speculations with words like "maybe," "if," "perhaps," and "probably." He knows we are still a long way from knowing how the universe works, much less why it works.

     However, concludes Hawking, if we ever do discover an ultimate theory, it should be possible in time for anyone to understand it. Then we can get on with the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. "If we find the answer to that," he says, "it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God."

The mind of God! Hawking's frequent use of the G-word is one thing that distinguishes his book from other popular works on contemporary cosmology by physicists (there have been dozens in recent years). Might that too be a component of the book's allure?

     Great physicists make unsteady philosophers, and even unsteadier theologians. Whatever the hopes of readers who come to the book looking for theological insights, Hawking's invocation of God's name most often records God's absence. Indeed, Hawking's own labors as a theoretical physicist might seem to restrict ever more severely any actual or potential role for a divine being. His illustrious predecessor as Lucasian Professor confined God's role in the universe to that of a Great Clockmaker who set the world going and then retired from his creation. By proposing a universe that has no boundary in space or beginning in time, Hawking removes even the need for a Creator.

Great physicists make unsteady philosophers, and even unsteadier theologians.

     The essence of Professor Hawking's natural theology is this: God's mind is identical with a plan of creation of stunning simplicity and generality, the so-called Grand Unified Theory. We have caught, he believes, many essential elements of that plan, and now stand at the threshold of the Grand Design itself.

     But the professor's engaging invitation to know God's mind is a bait-and-switch come-on, for in the end God's thoughts turn out to be couched in the language of mathematical physics. The translation into ordinary English (no matter how artfully done) means something essential is lost.

     Few of us are capable of reading the Grand Design in the language in which it is written. This relative inaccessibility of modem cosmological thought is surely one reason for the rampant popular interest in those pseudosciences and New Age quackeries that seem to offer the aura of science with none of the drudgery. Many readers of A Brief History of Time will probably give up somewhere about page 25, when the discussion reaches non-Euclidean space-time. The promise of an easy path to God's mind soon gives way to a quasi-mathematical thicket of superstrings and black holes.

     If God's mind, as reflected in Grand Unified Theories, resides beyond the bounds of our comprehension (and therefore full appreciation), is there anything left to draw us to the book? Yes. Hawking tells an immensely satisfying tale of his own intellectual development, and the story nibbles at the margins of larger questions of admittedly theological interest.

     The story begins with black holes and the fate of stars. In a normal star, in the prime of its life, the contractive force of gravity is balanced by an outward pressure caused by thermonuclear fusion occurring at the core. Energy produced by fusion (similar to what happens in a hydrogen bomb explosion) makes the star shine. When the energy resources at the star's core are depleted, gravity gets the upper hand and the star collapses upon itself. If the star is sufficiently massive—roughly eight times as massive as the sun—no known force can resist the gravitational collapse. The star gets smaller and denser until not even light escapes the irresistible tug of gravity; the star becomes a black hole. Within the region of blackness the star continues to collapse until it becomes infinitely small and infinitely dense—what mathematicians call a singularity—and the equations of physics break down.

     According to our present understanding, the universe itself began as an explosion from a mathematical singularity about 15 billion years ago. Mass, energy, space, and time came into existence with the explosion. Until recently, physics had nothing to say about what came before the big bang. It seemed that the universe came into existence at a moment in time, full of the rich potential that would lead to the universe we enjoy today. Here, certainly, was work worthy of a Creator, and some incautious theologians lost no time exclaiming how modem physics here served to confirm theological doctrine.

     But the attempt to find confirmation for theology in the gaps or singularities of physics has always been a risky business, and no less so on this occasion.

     The discovery that established Professor Hawking's scientific fame was to show that when quantum physics is applied to black holes they turn out to be not so black after all. Indeed, given enough time, all of the energy contained within any black hole will evaporate. In effect, the application of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle blurs the boundaries of a black hole, allowing radiant energy to appear outside the region of "irresistible" gravity.

     Now the justly famous professor from Cambridge turned his attention to the ultimate singularity—the big bang, the beginning. Hawking relates how his interest began to shift from black holes to the origin and fate of the universe when in 1981 he attended a conference on cosmology organized by the Jesuits at the Vatican. He writes: "The Catholic church had made a bad mistake with Galileo when it tried to lay down the law on a question of science, declaring that the sun went around the earth. Now, centuries later, it had decided to invite a number of experts to advise it on cosmology. At the end of the conference the participants were granted an audience with the pope. 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."

     One wonders how accurately Professor Hawking remembers what transpired at the papal audience, but the pope's purported advice raises interesting questions, particularly with regard to Hawking's own theoretical work on the big bang. It also raises questions regarding the proper relationship between science and theology.

     Pope John Paul II has expressed his views on science and theology in a letter that stands as a preface to a volume of papers that emerged from a Vatican conference marking the 400th anniversary of the publication of Newton's Principia mathematica (Physics, Philosophy and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, edited by Robert J. Russell, William Stoeger, S.J., and George Coyne, S.J., University of Notre Dame Press and Vatican Press). Wrote the pope: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes." He continues: "The unprecedented opportunity we have today is for a common interactive relationship in which each discipline retains its integrity and yet is radically open to the discoveries and insights of the other."

     If the pope did indeed suggest that theoretical physicists should not inquire into the big bang, that hardly qualifies as radical openness. And it is exactly here—the singularity of the moment of creation—that Professor Hawking's theoretical investigations are of relevance, for on this question his expertise is unsurpassed. His insights are the crux of the story told in A Brief History of Time.

     Drawing upon his investigations of stellar black holes, Hawking applied the laws of quantum gravity to the universe itself, especially at the first moment of creation when the entire universe can be thought of as a black hole singularity. Here matters are very much more speculative, but the theories suggest interesting conclusions, among them the possibility that the universe did not have a beginning in time. Quantum physics blurs the boundaries of creation as it blurs the boundaries of collapsed stars.

     Certainly, Hawking makes no dogmatic claim for the truth of this insight. To qualify as science, any theory for the origin (or nonorigin) of the universe must make predictions that can be tested against experience. At present, no ensemble of observations elucidates the precise nature of the big bang. But future observations and theoretical investigations will undoubtedly have much to say about the "moment of creation," and no physicist worth his salt will place the big bang off-limits for theological reasons.

     In this respect, Pope John Paul II's further remarks on the relationship of science and religion are relevant. He cautions theologians against making "uncritical and hasty use for apologetic purposes of such recent theories as that of the 'big bang.'" This is good advice for theologians, and good advice too for readers of A Brief History of Time. Cosmologies change. Today's theories may seem quaintly old-fashioned to the physicists of the next century. In spite of Hawking's teasing invitation to behold the mind of God, no one should refer to his book for enlightenment about God's role in the universe. On such questions the Cambridge professor is probably no more (or less) reliable than Shirley MacLaine.

     What Hawking does reveal, and admirably so, is a universe of wondrous complexity and simplicity, a proper stimulus for wonder and awe. Perhaps what the book best illustrates is the inspiring power of the unfettered human mind to comprehend patterns of order that permeate creation, from the level of the fundamental particles to the distant quasars and big bang.

     And what of ultimate meaning? Of the three options listed by Professor Hawking, I find myself leaning toward Option 2 (there is no ultimate theory of the universe, only an infinite sequence of theories that describe the universe in ever greater detail), and I am therefore distrustful of any claims to know the mind of God, now or in the future, whether offered by New Age gurus or theoretical physicists. Instead, I am content to enjoy Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time for just what it is—an engaging personal account of a brilliant mind at play.

     In the end, what is most attractive about A Brief History of Time is not the theology or philosophy (which are treated with wry humor), or even the physics (which will be almost impenetrable for the nonscientist), but the ingenuous first-person narrative regarding the author's participation in the remarkable theoretical discoveries he describes. Hawking says that his goal as a physicist is "to know the mind of God." Watching the plan for creation take shape in Hawking's mind may be as close as many of us come to participating in God's thoughts.

 

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CHET RAYMO is professor of physics at Stonehill College and a science columnist for the Boston Globe. His most recent book is In the Falcon's Claw: A Novel of the Year 1000 (Viking).

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