Stephen Hawking (1942–2018)
Despite his physical challenges, Hawking lived to the age of seventy-six. If he were a resident of Halley’s comet, with its long elliptical orbit cutting through our solar system, that would be just a little over one year old. When Halley’s comet last visited us in 1986, I wanted to see it, but could not make it out in our light-polluted suburban sky. My love for the universe began earlier in the way that it often does for children. In 1977, at the age of four, I had experienced the Star Wars phenomenon and was enthralled by the possibility of space travel. At the age of seven, Carl Sagan’s series on public television, Cosmos, put my ambitions on more scientific footing. The next year, the space shuttle Columbia successfully launched and completed its first mission. Space travel, the universe, and science were all the same discipline in my emerging mind. I followed the Shuttle program closely, savored school visits to the NASA Lewis Research Center near my hometown, and seemed to be the only one in my junior high school on January 28, 1986 who was upset when the space shuttle Challenger exploded seventy-three seconds into flight. I knew something about the difficulties of launch since I had model rockets of my own. The worst that had happened to mine was losing them on the roof of the school building. In contrast to my classmates, I identified with the shuttle crew that had been lost.
My first introduction to Stephen Hawking was through his bestseller, A Brief History of Time, which I read on its release in 1988 at the age of fifteen. My interest in the cosmos had already turned more philosophical. I was swallowing up popular titles by John Gribbin and Paul Davies. And the hardback version of Sagan’s Cosmos was always handy. All of this learning proved a good foundation for a teen suddenly called upon to answer the challenges of his pesky Christian friends who took issue with his naturalist views of the world. Ironically, when I met Hawking twenty years later, I was speaking from the other side of the table.
I moved to Cambridge, not for Hawking, but for doctoral study in History and Philosophy of Science. Since becoming a Christian as a teen, my interest in science broadened in ever more philosophical, historical, and theological directions. After my PhD, I became a research fellow at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion where I met some leading lights in the field of Science and Religion, such as my old hero Paul Davies. During my fellowship, unrelated to my own historical research, I also witnessed up close the culture wars in science and religion. The God Delusion was published during my first year at the Institute and proved an obstacle to sane discussion about science, philosophy, and theology within the larger public arena. Positions were ossified, politicized all the more by the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision a year earlier in the U.S. No guard could be lowered and all parties were entrenched. There was some murmuring on the scientistic side that Voldemort needed to go, but the public face of the debate remained fixed. My research was unrelated to these debates, so I only observed them. The Institute provided other more positive experiences for me to enjoy. For instance, one evening, I tagged along to a dinner with physicists and astronomers and trepidatiously took a seat near Stephen Hawking.
Understanding the Lucasian Professor’s medical condition, I knew that if I spoke with him at all, I should make it count. What to ask such a person? I’m not a physicist, and my mathematical ability was little more than the average engineer. I decided to stick to philosophy. I looked over Hawking’s latest popular work, The Universe in a Nutshell, as well as some shorter writings. I had no issue with the general outlines of modern cosmology: The Big Bang, General Relativity, and the possibility of an increasing number of dimensions. During my fellowship at the Faraday Institute, I had studied Arthur Eddington and Georges Lemaître, leaders in astronomy and cosmology in the twentieth century, both faithful Christians. The only obnoxiously anti-Christian impulse in cosmology at the time seemed to be the Multiverse hypothesis, and as far as I knew, Hawking was uninterested. Yet I also knew that while Hawking was generally polite about religion, it played no part in his thinking. He was a physicist and trusted his equations.
So I asked him if he thought it was possible to comprehend the universe, and why he would say so. His books seemed to suggest he did. His answer was simple: there have been previous advances and the gap is closing. As a historian of science, my answer to this is always the same: Scientific models of the universe continually change. How can we be certain that the latest set of models is not just another scientific revolution, which may yet be replaced by another in the near future. Can we have certainty about such advances? His answer was a simple, “No.” I continued, if we wanted such certainty, would we not need something on the order of divine revelation? Or, is there some other way? His reply was clear and a welcome qualification to the confidence that seemed to accompany his first answer. Hawking said, “We can never be certain. We were almost certain the cosmological constant was zero, but then we found it wasn’t.” (The cosmological constant is a factor that determines the rate of expansion of the universe. Einstein at one stage employed it, then regretted it, only for astronomers recently to invoke it once again.) Hawking seemed to be acknowledging the very kind of plasticity in scientific theories that I had in mind. Yet for all these fluctuations, his writings show that he did believe theoretical physics was converging on the truth.
What was refreshing about that conversation, however limited by the circumstances, was the contrast with debates still raging in 2008 over human origins at the biological level. It had become impossible for either side to express any variation, let alone acknowledge that a question was unanswered, or might be unanswerable. If a leading astronomer of Hawking’s stature can say that he is not sure about the truth, would it be beneath a Christian to say the same? Hawking was not unsettled by changes in theories and models within his field, likely because these were within a larger framework that he trusted, if even that was little more than the mathematical approach to reality. In contrast, Christians often experience emotional turmoil when confronted by the smallest contrary fact presented by biology or anthropology. Is their faith based on such a small foundation that they are so easily unsteadied? Is the answer to their angst further entrenchment, to deny that fact, lest the whole edifice fall?
The answer to the wobbly soul in the midst of scientific debates, however directly they may impinge on what one holds as theological truths, is not stubborn refusal to allow new evidence or interpretations. So what, for the moment, if your imperfect system of knowledge is made a little more imperfect? (I use the word “imperfect” here in the more traditional sense, of “incomplete.”) Is your greater system of knowledge too small? Is it not grounded in a network of theological principles tightly bound to the Scriptures and human experience that stands despite the introduction of a novel idea, however offensive or disconcerting? This one piece of new evidence may contradict one part of your beliefs, but a thousand other beliefs stand despite it. The solution to quelling the culture wars carried out on scientific turf is not more apologists trained in science (however valuable that may be) to do the work for us and put us at ease. Rather, what is needed is a firmer theological foundation for the rest of us, which provides solid ground when other beliefs or principles are under investigation with a potential for change.