Being a big fan of both science and Stephen Hawking, naturally I had to buy his last and most recent book, "Brief Answers to the Big Questions," which was published after he died this year.
So far I've only read up through the first two questions, "Is there a God?" and "How did it all begin?" Since Hawking was an atheist, you can predict what the answers are. But I'll save the details for later in this post.
First, I want to acknowledge Hawking's amazing courage and commitment to truth. He talks about the progression of his ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which eventually left him only able to control his cheek movements -- but through technology he still was able to communicate via this means.
I found this paragraph deeply moving.
My illness seemed to progress rapidly. Understandably, I became depressed and couldn't see the point of continuing to research my PhD, because I didn't know if I would live long enough to finish it. But then the progression slowed down and I had a renewed enthusiasm for my work. After my expectations had been reduced to zero, every new day became a bonus, and I began to appreciate everything I did have. While there's life, there is hope.
And in case you're wondering, yes, Hawking was an atheist until the moment he died. Apparently there are rumors to the contrary, but those are false. Like so many other atheists, Hawking found meaning in life without the fantasy of God.
“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist,” Hawking said of the meaning of life. “Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”
Here's how Hawking starts off the chapter in his book that addresses the Is there a God? question.
Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion. Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where did we come from? Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything.
The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believed in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses. Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.
Hawking then makes clear what his overall attitude toward God is.
I do not want to give the impression that my work is about proving or disproving the existence of God. My work is about finding a rational framework to understand the universe around us. For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it's possible that I've upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature.
This is key.
The laws of nature are universal. So far, it appears that they operate the same way in every corner of the universe. Further, even though many religious people believe in miracles that supposedly defy the laws of nature, there is no demonstrable evidence that miracles exist, either now or in the past.
Thus where is the need for God, if the laws of nature are sufficient to understand the universe? (This understanding is incomplete, and likely always will be; however, science is by far our best means of comprehending the cosmos, since religion does a terrible job with this.)
Hawking then discusses scientific theories about the origin of the universe, as the Beginning of Everything appears to be the only area where religion might have something to say, since the laws of nature do a good job of explaining the current state of the universe.
At the moment of the Big Bang, an entire universe came into existence, and with it space. It all inflated, just like a balloon being blown up. So where did all this energy and space come from? How did an entire universe full of energy, the awesome vastness of space and everything in it simply appear out of nothing?
Interestingly, because this was an idea that either I hadn't come across before, or failed to understand properly, Hawking describes how right now the universe is still "nothing" in terms of matter/energy. So nothing became another form of nothing via the Big Bang.
This is an easy to grasp metaphor.
Imagine a man wants to build a hill on a flat piece of land. The hill will represent the universe. To make this hill he digs a hole in the ground and uses that soil to dig his hill. But of course he's not just making a hill -- he's also making a hole, in effect a negative version of the hill. The stuff that was in the hole has now become the hill, so it all perfectly balances out.
That negative energy now is in space. The positive energy is in mass and energy that comprises stars, galaxies, us. Again, nothing has become nothing in a different form. Hawking says the only question is "What could cause the spontaneous appearance of a universe?"
Here's his answer, which is based on the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity theory.
The laws of nature tell us that not only could the universe have popped into existence without any assistance, like a proton, and have required nothing in terms of energy, but also that it is possible that nothing caused the Big Bang. Nothing.
The explanation lies back with the theories of Einstein, and his insights into how space and time in the universe are fundamentally intertwined. Something very wonderful happened to time at the instant of the Big Bang. Time itself began.
Hawking concludes his Is there a God? chapter with this:
When people ask me if a God created the universe, I tell them that the question itself makes no sense. Time didn't exist before the Big Bang so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It's like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth -- the Earth is a sphere that doesn't have an edge, so looking for it is a futile exercise.
Do I have faith? We are each free to believe what we want, and it's my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.
This leads me to a profound realisation: there is probably no heaven and afterlife either. I think belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking. There is no reliable evidence for it, and it flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust.
But there's a sense in which we live on, in our influence, and in our genes that we pass on to our children. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe and for that I am extremely grateful.
Now, to my knowledge Hawking doesn't address a question that I love to ponder, but which I admit may be an artifact of the limited human mind: Why is there something rather than nothing?
As we've seen, Hawking says that actually there is still nothing, even though our universe sure appears to be something, since the positive mass/energy is balanced out by the negative energy of space.
However, seemingly there had to be laws of nature within this nothing to allow that balancing to occur. And laws of nature aren't nothing at all, but something within nothing.
I suspect that Hawking looked upon Why is there something rather than nothing? as an uninteresting philosophical question, since there doesn't appear to be any way to answer it, even in theory. The question boggles the mind, but this probably is because our human minds are used to causes and effects happening within time.
If the cosmos always has existed, this takes us outside of time. And also seemingly outside of eternity. We're into a realm of "is'ness" beyond our capacity to envision. As I've noted many times before on this blog, it appears that something must have always existed.
Religious people typically term this something God. Scientific people typically term this something the laws of nature that allow things to come from nothing. Either way, we're left with mystery, awe, the grand design of the universe which was Stephen Hawking's life work.