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The God Question

Amitabha Bhattacharya (amitabha2110@gmail.com) is a retired Indian Administrative Service officer.

Looking for answers in Stephen Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions

 

Many ancient texts describe god as beyond speech and mind (comprehension). Frontiers of modern physics and cosmology, since the advent of Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Richard Feynman, may not lie beyond speech and mathematical expression, but are almost as difficult to comprehend. The conception of physical reality from the time of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton started changing radically with Einstein’s theory of relativity, espousing ideas that are counter-intuitive and can mainly be understood mathematically. It is difficult to conceive that space and time are not independent of each other, that time is the fourth dimension of our familiar three-dimensional space, and that space-time can be warped by gravity.

Stephen Hawking (1942–2018) has extended the frontiers of science like very few before him. His final book, published after his death, Brief Answers to The Big Questions (2018), asks fundamental questions, such as “Is there a God?” “How did it all begin?” “Is there other intelligent life in the universe?” “What is inside a black hole?” and also futuristic ones, like “Is time travel possible?” “How do we shape the future?” “Should we colonise space?” “Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?” None could have perhaps negotiated these questions in a more lucid and admirable manner. However, simplicity of language cannot always hide the complexity of high physics.

Hawking’s first book, A Brief History of Time (1988), is not easy to comprehend either. Hawking graciously acknowledges, “Undoubtedly, the human-interest story of how I have managed to be a theoretical physicist and a best-selling author despite my disabilities has helped … partly because I fit the stereotype of a disabled genius.” Nevertheless, his books have definitely made the lay reader curious about such fascinating discoveries and raised public awareness about how science alters our perspective of the past, present and future.

Kip Thorne—co-Nobel winner for his work on gravitational waves—in the introduction to Brief Answers to The Big Questions, notes “Newton gave us answers. Hawking gave us questions. And Hawking’s questions themselves keep on giving, generating breakthroughs decades later. When ultimately we master the quantum gravity laws, and comprehend fully the birth of our universe, it may largely be by standing on the shoulders of Hawking.” It is no surprise that Hawking’s ashes reside, in Westminster Abbey in London, between those of Newton and Charles Darwin.

Hawking’s ideas about the beginning of the universe are truly revelatory. He has not skirted obvious questions like, “What happened before the beginning? What was God doing before he made the world? Was he preparing hell for people who asked such questions?” Thinkers from ancient times to Immanuel Kant have been concerned with these questions and their inherent contradictions. Einstein’s theories changed our vision, unifying time and space, establishing equivalence between matter (mass) and energy, and positing that nothing can travel faster than light. Edwin Hubble’s discovery in the 1920s that the universe is expanding and galaxies are moving away from each other was revolutionary. Logically, if the universe has been expanding, the galaxies must have been, at one time, close together. Gradually, the steady state theory of the universe started giving way to the big bang theory.

Reconciling many theories and observations, Roger Penrose and Hawking indicated that the “universe began in a Big Bang, a point where the whole universe and everything in it were scrunched up into a single point of infinite density, a space–time singularity.” As Hawking explains, “According to the no-boundary proposal, asking what came before the Big Bang is meaningless—like asking what is south of the South Pole—because there is no notion of time available to refer to. The concept of time only exists within our universe.”

What would be our future? Depending on matter in the universe being above a critical amount, the gravitational attraction will, billions of years later, ensure that they all come together in a “big crunch,” ending the history of the universe! Alternatively, if the density is subcritical, the stars will exhaust their fuel, the universe will become colder and colder, and gradually come to an end.

Hawking’s seminal work on black holes—regions of such strong gravity that even light cannot escape—and the “Hawking temperature” of and “Hawking radiation” from such holes are discoveries which, according to Thorne, established “profound connections between general relativity (black holes), thermodynamics (the physics of heat) and quantum physics (the creation of particles where before there were none),” generating astonishing insights into quantum gravity.

Hawking’s ideas on god have to be situated in the context of his ideas on the origin of the universe (and hence of space–time). He starts by saying that his work is to understand the physical universe, not to prove or disprove the existence of god.

He alludes to the old belief “that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. Well, I suppose it’s possible that I’ve upset someone up there, but I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature.” Admittedly, science has been explaining much of what used to be the preserve of religion. However, in this conflict between science and religion, much depends on how god is defined. Hawking does not believe in a human-like personal god. His god is impersonal, “so knowing the mind of God is knowing the laws of nature.”

Hawking argues that if god had created the universe, did he have freedom to choose the initial state of the universe? If everything can be explained by the laws of nature and if he does not intervene with such laws, what is the freedom or meaning of god? He explains that three ingredients are needed to make the universe: matter, energy, and space. With equivalence of matter and energy established, science today says “space and energy were spontaneously invented in an event we now call the Big Bang.” It has been argued that the big bang produced a huge amount of positive energy and simultaneously the same amount of negative energy in space. These energies add up to zero, as per another law of nature.

Of the big questions, “Is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science?” Hawking, committed to science, believes the latter.

In the universe of Hawking, which is the physical one, there is no serious discussion of metaphysical topics like consciousness (individual and universal) and its relation with the human brain. Some ancient texts also spoke of the impersonal god, and of the darkness and void in the beginning, and that nothingness predated the manifestation of the universe. Admittedly, to have arrived at such realisation, no scientific method in the modern sense was used.

At one place, Hawking refers to god playing dice, as opposed to the Einsteinian conviction, and asserts that “Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang so there is no time for God to make the universe in.” Who knows what game of dice god had played at the beginning? Therefore, Hawking’s views that “no one created the universe and no one directs our fate … there is probably no heaven and afterlife … belief in an afterlife is just wishful thinking” and not derived automatically from the laws of nature, should best be treated as his personal faith only.

Science has no room for absolutism; it is a continuous quest towards understanding the physical reality. Even the great works of Hawking, perhaps, require to be viewed in that context.

 

Updated On : 22nd Feb, 2019

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