Stephen Hawking recently passed away after living a remarkably full life in spite of being stricken by Lou Gehrig’s Disease at an early age. He was one of the most influential people of his time, not because of his condition, but because of his mind. He was brilliant and pioneered new understandings of the universe through applied mathematics in the field of cosmology.
Hawking is a voice that people listened to, not only in science, but in the application of science to such things as philosophy and the origin of the universe. Hawking may have toyed once with the idea of God, but he became an atheist. He chose, as have many a modern scientist has chosen since the 19th century, to view the world without reference to God.
In this article, I explore some comments made by Hawking’s colleague, John Lennox, who begins a recent interview by extolling the brilliance of Stephen Hawking and his scientific achievements. The subject is the existence of God. I will also introduce two very young geniuses who have different takes on the subject of God at the end.
The subtext of the article is this: when Hawking went beyond the science that he knew so well, and entered into the arena of philosophy, he stumbled. Hawking, the great scientist and intellect, wasn’t a philosopher, though he sought to wield his influence in that area. We can, and should, remember Hawking as one of the greatest scientists of our time, but scientific acumen doesn’t necessarily extend to other areas of study, especially when he spent no significant time in them.
John Lennox quoting Martin Rees, a cosmologist, astrophysicist and 40-year colleague of Stephen Hawking, points out in the segment of an interview that follows that Hawking was not well read in the areas of philosophy and theology:
This unfamiliarity with sophisticated philosophy and theology led Hawking to make some very unsophisticated statements. For instance, his pronouncement that “philosophy is dead” is at best ironic. The statement, itself, is philosophical. If the statement is true, it undermines the very assertion being made.
However, since Hawking was a such a giant in his own scientific fields with which he was intimately familiar, we tend to let statements, like the one above, go by unchallenged. The danger in that is to allow some questionable philosophy into our view of the world. Without diminishing Stephen Hawkins’ contributions to science, we need to view his philosophical comments for what they are worth.
Hawking used his work on gravity as a way to attempt to deny the existence of God. Of course, Hawking’s predecessor at Cambridge, Sir Isaac Newton (who discovered the law of gravity), came to a different conclusion on the existence of God. Hawking might dismiss his predecessor’s predisposition to believe in God based on a perceived progression in human thought that has occurred since earlier times. John Lennox, a contemporary colleague of Hawkings, however, explains it this way:
“When Newton discovered the law of gravity, he didn’t say, ‘Now I have a law of gravity, I don’t need God.’ No, he said, ‘What a brilliant God to do it that way!’ Because he didn’t see God as a kind of explanation that competes with science. Unfortunately, Hawking does. He has a totally inadequate concept of God because he thinks God is a God of the gaps, that is an explanation, an unknown X, that explains what science has not yet explained. So that the more science explains the less room there is for God. But the God of the bible isn’t a God of the gaps. The bible doesn’t begin, ‘in the beginning God created the bits of the universe we don’t yet understand’. It starts, ‘in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’, that is everything: the bits we understand and the bits we don’t. Hawking is confused about explanation. He thinks God is the same kind of explanation as science. That’s a mistake. It would be like saying that Henry Ford is an alternative explanation for the motor car and the law of internal combustion….”
Lennox summarizes the difference by saying, “Henry Ford doesn’t compete with the laws of physics; he’s a different kind of explanation.”
Hawking and Roger Penrose are known for discovering Singularity (from which idea the phrase, Big Bang, came to be associated). We might have a hard time appreciating the significance of the discovery today, but it essentially set modern science on its head. Scientists to that point largely considered the universe to be eternal and had done science without reference to God for many decades, maybe centuries. The idea that the universe had a beginning shook the scientific world because it suggests a Beginner. Hawking has, basically, been trying to fill that “gap” ever since”
One example of that attempt is found in his book, the Grand Design, in which he is famous for saying, “Because we have a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing”. John Lennox explains how the book and this statement utterly fails to achieve the purpose that Hawking intended in the following interview:
Stephen Meyer provides some additional thoughts on these. Hawking was aware of the theological implications of his work, but he spent much of the rest of life trying “to solve the problem of the origin of the universe without invoking God”, and he “doubled down on that” in what he wrote just before he died.
He was a brilliant physicist, but he was not as brilliant in his philosophical suppositions. Meyer explains what he means in the following brief interchange:
This article is not prompted by the John Lennox interview, or be Stephen Meyerhowever. It’s actually prompted by a different interview of a young man, William Maillis, on the subject of his goal to prove the existence of God. William was 11 years old at the time, but he wasn’t an average 11-year old.
William graduated from high school at the age of 9. At the time of the interview, he was a sophomore in college, with plans to be an astrophysicist. William is extremely well read on the science about which he speaks. He breaks down the idea that the universe created itself from nothing in this segment of the interview:
William goes on to address the famous Hawking statement:
To be fair to the subject, I include a video of Max Loughan, another child prodigy, who is a physicist, by his own description, at the age of 13. Max has a different view of God. His view is more on the level of Einstein’s view of God – a somewhat pantheistic view of God as energy.
It strikes me as I listen to the interview that follows that Max doesn’t understand the God of the bible. As brilliant as he is, he believes that the bible describes a god sitting on a cloud. That suggests that Max, like Hawking, doesn’t have a sophisticated understanding of the God of the bible and is considering only a caricature.
This leads to me to wonder how Max might wrestle with a more sophisticated view of God and, particularly, the God of the bible. Like Hawking, who didn’t seem to understand or take the idea of God seriously, I wonder how Max might view God if he engaged a sophisticated view of God seriously.
As Lennox points out, Hawking assumed, a priori, that God was nothing but a gap filler. His early efforts at origin science led to the Singularity (Big Bang) theory, which is compatible with a sophisticated view of the God of the bible. His efforts after that, however, were to try to fill the gap with something other than God. Those efforts led him into some very suspect philosophy and pseudo-science.
It certainly isn’t that Hawking was not a brilliant genius of a man; it’s that he never balanced his science with sophisticated philosophy or theology. Maybe Hawking might still not be a believer if he did. There are plenty of philosophers, and even theologians, who are not believers; but he would have avoided getting out onto thin ice in his philosophical thinking if he had tackled philosophy and theology with similar intent and gusto that he approached science.
If he had simply informed himself about these things, what kind of more sophisticated synthesis of science and philosophy (or even theology) might we have enjoyed from him?
William Maillis is starting with a different premise – that God does exist – and he finds the science to be all the more compelling from that perspective, as did Sir Isaac Newton, Johann Kepler and many other brilliant scientists. As for Max Loughan, maybe he will find some time and energy in his young life to consider a more sophisticated philosophical and theological perspective as he launches his scientific career.
Postscript: here is the Max Laughan interview in its entirety.