In Stephen Hawking’s new book, the posthumously published Brief Answers to the Big Questions, the renowned cosmologist and science communicator reflected on some of the biggest questions we humans can possibly ask:
Where did we come from? How did the universe begin? What is the meaning and design behind it all? Is there anyone out there? The creation accounts of the past now seem less relevant and credible. They have been replaced by a variety of what can only be called superstitions, ranging from New Age to Star Trek. But real science can be far stranger than science fiction, and much more satisfying.
Hawking, whose ashes now rest in Westminster Abbey in London between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and whose voice will be beamed towards a black hole, wrote that he spent much of his life “travelling across the universe” in his mind and felt privileged to be able to contribute to the greatest story ever told. “The fact that we humans […] have been able to come to an understanding of the laws governing us, and our universe, is a great triumph,” wrote Hawking. “I want to share my excitement about these big questions and my enthusiasm about this quest.”
In the beginning, Chapter 1, Hawking addresses perhaps the single biggest question we can ask: Is there a God? The answer depends, of course, on what you mean by “God.” He writes:
One could define God as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of as God. They mean a human-like being, with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.
Religion, Hawking observed, was an early attempt by Homo sapiens to understand and organise themselves and the world around them. They provided a rich and enduring tapestry of myths, teachings, rules and rituals that gave our ancestors some useful semblance of order and meaning in life as they knew it. Twenty-first-century science is, however, “increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion” and is providing more compelling and consistent answers to important questions about life, the universe, everything. Hawking was an unabashed optimist by nature but believed that “people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, and they do not trust or understand science.”
The conflict between religion and science is ancient; religion and science are not, as Stephen J. Gould famously argued, “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA), distinct domains of knowledge that address different aspects of the fundamental nature of things and being over time. “Asking if God exists is a valid question for science,” Hawking argues, “After all, it is hard to think of a more important, or fundamental, mystery than what, or who, created and controls the universe.” On this scientific view, God is a failed hypothesis.
Hawking believed that, given the remarkable achievements of modern science in understanding the laws of nature, there is simply no need to insert a creator of any sort into the natural clockwork (science generally follows the parsimony principle, or KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid). Supernatural forces and gods were once thought to be behind every bush and bolder, they retreated to cloudy mountaintops, the starry heavens held them for a spell, and now not even the Big Bang itself is a safe space. According to Hawking, our current understanding of the laws of nature (and in particular quantum mechanics: the science of the unimaginable small where particles literally pop in and out of existence) can make sense of the beginning of our universe without wishfully stretching for the theologian’s outmoded ‘prime mover’:
Our everyday experience makes us think that everything that happens must be caused by something that occurred earlier in time, so it’s natural for us to think that something—maybe God—must have caused the universe to come into existence. But when we’re talking about the universe as a whole, that isn’t necessarily so.[…]
The laws of nature itself 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 “final key” for removing the need for a grand designer of the universe was that wibbly wobbly subject Hawking was deeply and intimately engaged with his whole life: time. Hawking explains:
As we travel back in time towards the moment of the Big Bang, the universe gets smaller and smaller and smaller, until it finally comes to a point where the whole universe is a space so small that it is in effect a single infinitesimally small, infinitesimally dense black hole…. You can’t get to a time before the Big Bang because there was no time before the Big Bang. We have finally found something that doesn’t have a cause, because there was no time for a cause to exist in. For me this means that there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.
Hawking said the question “Did God create the universe?” simply does not make 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.
Hawking sparingly used the word “God” like Einstein did, so “knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature” (a project he predicted will be completed by the end of the century). When most religious people and institutions use the word “God,” however, they generally mean Abrahamic monotheism; there exists a kind of personal, psychological, and supernatural being that cares about us now and (potentially) forever after. About this kind of God Hawking was an atheist; he appreciated the brief time he had to wonder in the universe:
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.
In the final passage of his book Hawking urges the reader to “look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” to stay curious and continue to try and make sense of the universe we all find ourselves in. He concludes: “And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future.”