In his final book, Stephen Hawking offers his thoughts on the “big questions.” Because he is so smart, his perspective so thoroughly that of a scientist, albeit a very human one, and because his conclusions are the result of a lifetime of concentrated observation and thought, everyone should read what he has to say. But for exactly the same reasons, and because it’s a “book,” most people won’t. And of course many will hold his ideas in contempt, as the ideas of the greatest minds in every age, challenging our rutted consolations, have been. That’s a shame. Hawking was a brilliant, witty, optimistic human being who in spite of his condition considered himself fortunate. Brief Answers to the Big Questions was assembled from his personal archive of material, and completed after his death in 2018. The reader easily bonds with his personality—even if forced to confront the realization that inside that wracked body lived an unaffected mind!
“Most people can understand and appreciate the basic ideas [of science] if they are presented in a clear way without equations,” Hawking writes, “which I believe is possible and which is something I have enjoyed trying to do throughout my life.”
And, thank you, for the most part he manages to do that. But when he offers us the “simple formula—S=Akc3 /4Gℏ”—which “expresses the entropy [of a black hole] in terms of the area of the horizon, and the three fundamental constants of nature, c, the speed of light, G, Newton’s constant of gravitation, and ℏ, Planck’s constant,” I have to admit I don’t really speak that language, and move on to clearer concepts, which indeed comprise the vast majority of the book.
Hawking reflects on God, the origin of the universe, black holes, time travel, the possibility of other life in the universe, the odds for human survival on earth, the implications of artificial intelligence, and the colonization of space, and much else—always staying true to his belief that nothing more is needed to understand the universe than the laws of nature. For him, it is not permissible to step outside them for explanations. I wonder how many of our problems could be solved if the human race would embrace just that one idea.
The human mind discombobulates at the idea of things always having been, or having no end, but that’s because it is programmed to think in terms of linear time and therefore cause and effect. But to Hawking time came into existence along with everything else at the Big Bang, and he is comfortable with the idea that nothing “caused” the Big Bang. Saying something we can’t understand did it, and it just happened, amount to the same thing. Hawking concludes that the universe can’t always have existed because everything in it is finite. So what is “infinity,” he makes you wonder. Is it the same as no-time? He draws a comparison between the heart of a black hole, where there is infinite density and no time, to the state from which the Big Bang banged. In Hawking’s mind there is no need for a creator, whose only real purpose is to be the cause of the universe, and there isn’t one in a temporal sense. If God “caused” the universe to happen, then he existed where there was no time, a contradiction which people shrug away by saying he existed outside of time, yet their complete conception of God is as a being operating within and limited by linear time. Not to mention that this hat trick completely deadens our ability to explore without prejudice the fundamental mysteries of reality. And all our ratiocination becomes the torturous groping for meaning in a space where the heart of the matter is disallowed!
For Hawking, if anything, God is “the embodiment of the laws of nature,” and not the human-like being, intimately concerned with human affairs, usually depicted. “When you look at the vast size of the universe, and how insignificant and accidental human life is in it, that seems most implausible.”
“I have been enormously privileged,” Hawking writes, “through my work, in being able to contribute to our understanding of the universe. But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me. Without them, the wonder of it all would be lost on me.”
You can reconcile that sentiment with Hawking’s scientific mindset however you like. He doesn’t say, but I assume Hawking would have considered the affections of evolved intelligent creatures secondary to the primary laws of science, their by-products perhaps. Epiphenomena.
But maybe it’s the other way around.
Here and there in the book Hawking evokes Hamlet’s brooding reflection, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space” to describe the human condition, especially true of himself, a mind that could go to the furthest reaches of the universe, locked in a broken body. But he never finishes the quotation: “—were it not that I have bad dreams.”
We should never discount the dreams.
Food for later thought.