Thoughts on the life of Stephen Hawking

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If you are wondering what was the Jewish angle in Stephen Hawking’s life, it might be that his most powerful contributions to physics stemmed from a feud he had with the physicist Jacob Beckenstein.  Hawking’s research focused on black holes and Beckenstein suggested that that research implied that black holes had a property known as entropy. This proposal apparently offended Hawking who, nonetheless, went through the calculations necessary to disprove the theory, only to discover that Beckenstein was right.  If you have read any of the obituaries for Professor Hawking that claim that his main contribution to physics was the discovery that black holes aren’t really so black, that insight was a direct result of his feud with Beckenstein. Indeed, the radiation that black holes emit - something that Hawking initially denied they could do - is now called Beckenstein-Hawking radiation.  

Stephen Hawking lived a remarkable and inspiring life.  He was born on Galileo’s birthday and died on Einstein’s.  Indeed, he became known as one of, if not the greatest physicist of the last fifty years. For those of us who cannot breath the rarified air of theoretical physics, we were nonetheless inspired by his life story - the story of a man whose remarkable brain conquered the near total debilitation he suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease - an ailment with which he lived for more than fifty years.

For my own part, I do try to keep up, but not really with physics itself which is quite beyond me. It is with the implications that its theories of the universe and creation have on my chosen vocation, theology.  In that regard, I did my best to work my way through Professor Hawking’s attempts to explain physics to the rest of us. I read his book A Brief History of Time shortly after it came out in 1988 and I read his follow-up, The Grand Design in 2011, a year after its release.  Indeed, the implications for theology of that latter book were the subject of my Kol Nidre sermon that year.  For in it, Professor Hawking posits the possibility of a self-creating universe, indeed, a self-creating multi-verse where universes spring into existence all the time relying on nothing more than the law of gravity.  The implications for religion are clear. If you are looking up at the night sky, marveling at the vastness of the heavens and asking yourself what it’s all for, don’t bother. It is all utterly without purpose.

I have to admit, this book made me angry.  Twenty years earlier, reading Professor Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, I was excited by the concept of the singularity: a point, like the Big Bang, at which the laws of physics broke down completely.  Those laws could tell you what happened a microsecond after the Big Bang, but they could not tell you anything about any time before it.  In my mind, I retranslated the Shema to read “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is a Singularity.” Now, in The Grand Design, Hawking took away this place for God.  Indeed, he wrote there “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

What angered me about this book is what angers me about so much of contemporary cosmology: very few of us understand what it says, but all of us understand what it implies.  This sets up a very strange dynamic. Because the theory of the multiverse is unobservable and unprovable, it has no real bearing on how we live our lives. But its implication - that our universe is devoid of any meaning - can have tremendous impact on our behavior, our morality and our own sense of purpose and self-worth.  Yet most of us are utterly incapable of arguing against it because we don’t really understand it in the first place.

Nearly 200 years ago, Charles Darwin upended much of what we now call fundamentalist theology with his theory of evolution.  But ideas like natural selection and survival of the fittest are explicable to most of us and one can reformulate one’s theology to fit their observable truth.  And, I should add, Darwin’s theories caused little problem for Jewish theology which has never been fundamentalist and has pretty much always viewed Genesis’s account of creation as metaphor.

Yet what does one do when a scientist of Professor Hawking’s reputation announces to the world that there is no God, and he does so based on mathematical theories that are explicable to only a relative handful of people?  

Maybe all we can do is remind people that perhaps Professor Hawking is wrong.  In that regard, the story of his feud with Professor Beckenstein is illustrative.  And indeed, the science writer Dennis Overbye has remarked that one of the hallmarks of Professor Hawking’s personality was that “he made an art form of admitting his mistakes.”

In the meantime, I suppose what we might still have is some kind of Jewish take on what is known as Pascal’s wager.  In the 17th century the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal suggested the following way to think about whether God exists, based on Christian notions of eternal salvation or damnation.  If one believes and God does not really exist, the loss is relatively small. But if one does not believe and God does exist, the loss is tremendous. For Jews, the formulation of this wager is less personal but no less profound.  The loss of a belief in God, and with it, the loss of a belief in the purposefulness of creation, puts at risk the very foundation of our morality and with it, the possibility of civil order. After all, why should we behave ourselves, sacrifice for others or act charitably if our lives are without purpose.  Why should we not rather make pleasure our ultimate goal in life and spurn anything that diminishes it?

There are those who believe that morality can be be built on a foundation that does not rest on a belief in a transcendent purposefulness to creation.  I have my doubts.

Professor Hawking is generally considered to have been the greatest physicist since Einstein.  Yet I cannot help but noting that Einstein stubbornly refused to accept the implications of the revolution in science that he helped to create.  “God does not play dice with the universe,” he famously said as a rejection of the randomness that lay at the heart of the new physics. I am not sure whether that statement was based on science or a deep rooted fear of what it would mean were the cosmos truly that random.  If it was fear, I cannot help but share it. As for Professor Hawking, he argued that “God not only does play dice with the universe, but sometimes he throws them where they can’t be seen.” Perhaps he was more sanguine than I am as to what that statement about the cosmos means for life on this planet. But I, for one will not stop hoping that he is wrong.