Stephen Hawking moves on

A tribute to Stephen Hawking would be in order if for no other reason than the way he demonstrated, by how he lived his life, that even a severely debilitating disease does not define the person who suffers from it. While a student at Cambridge University he was diagnosed with a form of motor neuron disease. In the early 1960’s his doctors gave him no more than two or three years of life. But the disease, for which there is no cure, did not stop the brilliant man from making his contributions to science and to life. The disease finally made him dependent upon a motorized wheelchair for mobility and a voice synthesizer for speech. But it did not limit his ability to communicate his brilliant ideas and concepts.

There is, of course, far more to the story than can be stated in a single tribute. Not everything in his life worked out the way he planned. Although I believe he discovered love and certainly his three children all speak of the love of their family, I know there were also times of pain in relationships. Two divorces couldn’t have been easy for him or for the women he divorced.

He made it his life’s work to explain complex scientific principles to laypersons. His book, “A Brief History of Time: A Layman’s Guide to Cosmology” was a best seller. It sold over 10 million copies. But even Hawking admitted that most of the people who purchased the book never actually read it to its conclusion. It was dubbed “the most popular book never read,” and there is some truth to that title. Hawking got hung up in arguments of extremely complex concepts and those arguments sometimes became a bit circular. His search for a comprehensive set of laws that governed the whole of the universe came up short as will always be the case for humans. We can understand some things very well. We aren’t that good at understanding everything. At any rate, it will be many more generations and many more successful and failed scientific experiments before the understanding of the universe is comprehensive enough to give something near to complete understanding.

You do have to admire, however, a man who makes it his life’s job to explain something that is too complex for explanation. The audacity and courage of his goals deserve our admiration. He wasn’t one for small thinking. His attempt to develop a “theory of everything” is among the boldest undertakings ever attempted by any human.

While Hawking received no small amount of fame for some of his comments about religion and his willingness to debate some of the historical claims of religious thinkers and writers, he never took up the cause of evangelical atheism in the manner of Richard Dawkins. Still, there are plenty of folks who saw his writings as being somehow anti-religion. This, I suspect, is inaccurate or at best incomplete.

After all, you can’t come up with a theory of everything unless that everything includes God. Which brings me back to the theory that very few people actually read the book “A Brief History of Time” all the way to the end. He concluded that book with the observation that if scientists could find the most fundamental laws of nature “then we should know the mind of God.”

I know he was speaking metaphorically, but he brought to the discussions and conversations between religion and science a quality that is missing in the work of some other scientists. He acknowledged that while science and religion have made conflicting claims, one does not have to abandon one’s devotion to scientific method in order to realize that science and religion are about fundamentally different things. Far from casting out religion, science, when pursued fully, leaves plenty of room for religious thinking. He seemed to understand that no religion has ever been rendered obsolete by facts or observations.

More importantly, I think, he knew that most scientific discoveries and break-throughs are eventually rendered obsolete by the discovery of new facts and additional observations. Science is very good at proving former scientific theory to be wrong. Ideas are continually superseded when they are proven to be inadequate.

Hawking could sound almost religious when he wrote about science, especially the field of theoretical physics. Trying to find the patterns in the basic fabric of reality - the mathematical laws that govern the workings of nature - requires work that is not only accurate in the smallest detail but also comprehensive in the wider picture. This led Hawking and other scientists to claim theological significance for their work. While he dismissed the most simplistic notions of a God-created universe, Hawking’s search for M-theory, a fundamental theory of nature at its deepest level produced ideas and concepts that are so difficult to test that it requires a level of faith to embrace their observations.

These observations and arguments, of course, are too complex and convoluted for a single journal entry - they are tasks of many lifetimes. But the ongoing conversation between science and religion certainly comes to my mind on the day that I awoke to the news that Stephen Hawking has died.

It is obvious that his death does not mean the end of his ideas. It is clear that some of the value of his writings is yet to b revealed and that people will be reading his books for many years to come. His sense of humor is remembered and celebrated by his family and his colleagues alike. His capacity to overcome adversity and live with disability is a shining example for all of us. And all of us will experience some level of disability in this life.

It is abundantly clear that death is not the end of Stephen Hawking.

Generations of scientists will continue to test and refine and expand his theories. A few will even describe their work in religious terms. They will continue to use theological language in ways like calking the Higgs boson the God particle.

And Hawking, having reached the end of his earthly life, now has come face to face with one of life’s ultimate questions. I have no doubt that his conversations with God are both delightful and fascinating.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!