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World small for brilliant Hawking


Stephen Hawking was a courageous man, writes Fr. Raymond de Souza, who had a memorable encounter with Hawking in 1995.

hawkingStephen Hawking's death last week was fittingly marked by tributes to a great scientist and a courageous man.  Yet it also indicated how confused we are today about what thousands of years ago was already clear, namely the philosophy of science.  Professor Hawking was not beyond those confusions.

As a graduate student in Cambridge in 1995, I was in a bakery when I turned from the counter to find Hawking in the shop behind me, accompanied by his nurse, whom he had married that summer.

I remember from that passing encounter an admiration for his courage, as it was a painstaking process for him to simply get into the bakery and have a look at what was on offer.  That he insisted on doing that, to say nothing of carrying on his academic career, was inspiring.

As was his brilliance, even for those like me who understood little of the physics he explored.  The world got used to it, but it remained astonishing that he could do his academic work despite his disability.  How does one do physics without scratching out equations on a pad or chalkboard?

Hawking's compositions in physics are thus comparable to the 14- year- old Mozart transcribing Allegri's Miserere from memory after hearing it once, or Beethoven composing the ninth symphony when deaf.  That music and physics use the language of mathematics is not accidental to those towering achievements.

Surely a large part of Hawking's appeal was that he demonstrated that man's greatness lies in his capacity — despite the frailty of the flesh he shares with the beasts — to touch the deepest mysteries of meaning, as is done by sublime music and in contemplating the vastness and order of the cosmos.  To fully contemplate the vastness of the cosmos requires more than one discipline.

The "philosophy of science," developed as far back as Aristotle, distinguishes the disciplines, and their specific competencies.  Biochemistry has one answer to What is Stephen?, while literature would provide another.  If you want to know whether Stephen might be a reliable friend, it is the latter you need, not the former.

The philosophy of science gave a prominent place to physics, the discipline that deals with how the universe works in terms of mass and motion and energy.  But there are questions that are literally "beyond" physics.  Why is there something there to study in the first place?  Why is there something rather nothing?  It's called "metaphysics."

Hawking was too smart not to know the difference, that his mastery of describing the universe did not answer the question of why it existed at all.  "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?" he asked in A Brief History of Time.

Nevertheless, the ideological atheism that dominates the hard sciences regards metaphysics as something of an occasion of sin, the sin being thinking that God might exist.

In 2010, on his way to Canada for several weeks at the Perimeter Institute, Hawking gave an interview to Diane Sawyer, in which she asked him about the biggest mystery he would like solved.

"I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something greater than nothing," Hawking explained.

That's metaphysics.  You can do metaphysics without theology, let alone Christian theology — see Aristotle.  Nevertheless, the ideological atheism that dominates the hard sciences regards metaphysics as something of an occasion of sin, the sin being thinking that God might exist.

So Hawking backed away from metaphysics, and maintained that as long as there was a law of gravity, the universe could create itself.  But how can there be a law of gravity before anything exists?  It would be literally nonsense, and likely Hawking knew it.

Professor Hawking was an ideological atheist, but unlike may of his contemporaries, was open to dialogue with a religious view of the universe which he studied with his equations.  He served for 40 years on the Vatican's Academy of Sciences, which includes scholars independent of religious profession.  At the last meeting he attended in 2016 he spoke about the origins of the universe.  He gave credit there to the Catholic priest who developed the "big bang" theory.

"Georges Lemaitre was the first who proposed a model according to which the universe had a very dense beginning.  He is the father of Big Bang," Hawking said. Monsignor Lemaitre knew that the Big Bang and Christian faith were compatible.  After all, where did whatever went "bang" come from?  Science cannot tell you anything about what existed before anything existed.

Hawking expanded the limits of what physics tells us.  It is an elementary part of the philosophy of science that there are limits to what physics can tell us.  Hawking insisted, by assertion and not evidence, that there were no such limits, that there was no metaphysics, just physics.  Which means that Hawking's world — despite the fact that he saw farther than almost everyone else — was, in the end, rather small.



NationalPostFather Raymond J. de Souza, "World small for brilliant Hawking." National Post, (Canada) March 23, 2018.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

The Author

desouza Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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