The question Stephen Hawking couldn’t answer…
When I was studying to become a vicar in Cambridge, I was attached to a local church and Stephen Hawking was a regular, familiar and already world-famous face on Sunday mornings with his wife and carer. It impressed me that such an eminent physicist was asking spiritual questions - and - although, like most others, I never read it - his book, A brief history of time, ends in such a vein: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? . . . Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”
The obituaries last month for arguably the most famous scientist since Einstein have rightly focussed on how Hawking refused to let motor neurone disease disable his prodigious scientific mind, and brought new understanding to the question of how the universe began. However, the genius who was elevated to Sir Isaac Newton’s chair of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge at the age of 37, wasn’t able to give an answer to the question of ‘Why?’
Prof. Hawking returned to the mystery of existence in The Grand Design: “We wonder, we seek answers . . . Where did all this come from?” he wrote. “Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.”
Hawking restated the ancient philosophical questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? “Some would claim the answer to these questions is that there is a God who chose to create the universe that way . . . We claim, however, that it is possible to answer these questions purely within the realm of science, and without invoking any divine beings,” Hawking replied. Yet, his answer is not an answer: “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” In other words, we exist because we exist. But the question remains - Why?
Oxford mathematician Professor John Lennox observed in response to Hawking: “To presuppose the existence of the universe to account for its own existence sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, not science.”
To limit our significance and existence to simply what can be measured and observed - the scientific worldview - is self-evidently reductionist. But it is also a dead end. ‘Why?’ is as important a question as ‘What?’ and ‘How?’ - if not more so.
However, there is someone who does claim to have answers to ‘Why?’ and uniquely backed up that claim the first Easter. Might be worth checking out…?
with every blessing, Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar