We’re doing this.
Last night, renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking passed away. He was 76. He had been afflicted with ALS since his 20s, and that alone is an amazing feat.
I relate to Stephen in more than one way, and I’d like to speak about it for a little bit, to share my thoughts and get them out of my head. His death makes me sad, not just because a great thinker has now left us without being able to impart his deepest thoughts to us. I’m sad because the questions I wished he would ask remain unasked, unanswered. Does this make sense to say: Hawking asked and answered many of the biggest scientific questions in the cosmos. He looked for the origin of everything, he looked for a unifying theory tying everything together. All these scientific theories put forward are brilliant, so far beyond what I or 98% of most people could think of and attempt to put forward in a coherent theory.
What Hawking himself said he was looking for was a complete underlying theory. “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
In A Brief History of Time (1988) Hawking wrote, “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of reason – for then we should know the mind of God.” In The Grand Design (2010), he wrote: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” This is the mind of a genius not thinking about how to make a guacamole recipe, but on how the universe exists.
But, (and there is a big “but”), he set himself at a huge disadvantage – he attempted to answer philosophical questions by using physical scientific method. Why does the universe exist cannot ever be proven using the scientific method. Why a thing exists, be it a rock or dog or human or hot pepper, we can’t explain why those things are. To attempt to answer that by using the physical is to answer only half the question.
You see, even in his own quotes, he mentions the intangible – the mind of God and the creation of something from nothing, both things that cannot be proven or disproven by science. Metaphysics (a division of philosophy), yes. Physical science, no. (Actually, physics as we know it demands that something cannot be created from nothing, but that’s another topic.)
I think you all know by now that I am Catholic, and I believe in God. I believe, in short, that the intangibles that Hawking was looking for are there in God and in the mind of God that he wanted to figure out. So for me it’s easy to look at and go, “oh yeah, he was searching for God!” But let’s unpack it, why would someone that can unlock the secrets of the universe and cosmos constantly be searching for a bigger answer, a deeper meaning, a “why” of the universe? Because in knowing what he knew, he discovered there was a deeper level beyond it, even to discovering that he couldn’t find the answer the way he was searching.
This is where I also relate to Stephen. He and I both have ALS. He and I are both looking at the universe and wondering “why”. He and I are both searching. He and I (him much more intelligently than me) both looked at creation and wonder how, and why. Our difference is that I allow for the potential of the unseen/unprovable outside of the scientific theory, a philosophical viewpoint of what could be out there beyond physics (metaphysics). I believe that this mindset of allowing oneself to think metaphysically opens up so many more doors and explanations that otherwise frustrate us. It’s not the “wave the magic wand and God did it, and we’ll never know”. It’s the honest investigation to the primary sources of everything.
Today I add him to my prayer list. I hope that now the answers he sought so diligently are laid open to him, even the “Why” that is so elusive. I sincerely hope that we as humanity pursue the questions he asked with an open mind. I hope that the good example he showed by sticking through the ALS and suffering can motivate others to realize they have great potential in life, even if only by thinking about deep things. I hope that when I die, I see him in heaven, and we can talk about these things. Because he as a scientist and me as a philosopher we should be able to discuss these types of topics, both here on earth and in heaven.
And that goes for all of us – we should be able to have rational discussions about this stuff, over a beer or whatever, asking the questions and attempting to answer. That’s why we are here. That’s what separates us from the animals.