by Bert Amsing
“You haven’t said why you don’t believe in God,” Jane said. They were at a family dinner in Cambridge with her new boyfriend’s family. She wasn’t sure about him yet. It was time for some tough questions.
“A physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by a belief in a supernatural creator,” Stephen replied. She was no ordinary girl and he was enjoying the discussion. True to form, she had a witty reply.
“Sounds less like an argument against God than against physicists,” Jane said. Stephen’s family liked her immediately. She was loyal to the church but she had a brain too.
So began the romance between Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde – at least in the movie The Theory of Everything. I watched it for the first time this past weekend though it came out in Argentina in February of 2015. It is more of a love story than a scientific explanation of a unified concept of all the forces of nature.
At the defense of his doctoral thesis on the origin of the universe, his professors challenge his presentation but praise him for his theory of a space time singularity at the beginning of time when the universe began in a black hole. In the movie, they ask him what he will do next.
“Prove with a single equation that time had a beginning,” Stephen said. Then he paused dramatically. “Wouldn’t that be nice, professor? With one simple, elegant equation, you could explain everything.” That is the Theory of Everything in a nutshell. In 1979 he predicted that a Theory of Everything would be discovered before the end of the century. Apparently he was wrong.
But what is a Theory of Everything? It is, in layman’s terms, a theory that explains, scientifically, how the two pillars of physics, quantum theory and general relativity, can be brought together as a unified concept to explain all of reality. In his book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says, “if we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we should know the mind of God.”
Now, before you get too excited about his reference to God, he later clarifies in 2014 what he meant in his book. “What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
Of course, that last statement is a declaration of a personal nature that in no way is a foregone conclusion based on science. Even he admits that. His belief in a multiverse (multiple universes all existing at the same time) can be construed as either a closed system or an open system. In the case of an open system, the existence of God is certainly possible.
Science does not disprove God any more than religion proves God.
Hawking, himself, became more intuitive and speculative in his later years rather than insisting on mathematical proofs. “I would rather be right than rigorous,” he claimed. Most of us might want him to be right because he was rigorous but that is apparently not so important in the realm of theoretical physics and cosmology thereby begging the question whether that field of study is merely another form of secular religion.
At one point, Jonathan, the local parish priest joins Stephen and Jane, who are now married, for a meal.
“Jane was telling me that you had a beautiful theorem that proves the universe had a beginning. Right?” Jonathan was only asking a polite question to keep the conversation around the table going smoothly.
“That was my Phd thesis,” Stephen said. “But my new project disproves it.”
“So you no longer believe in creation,” Jonathan commented.
“What one believes is irrelevant in physics.”
At this point, Jane interrupted and tried to explain things to Jonathan in her own way.
“Stephen has done a U-turn,” she said. “The big, new idea is that the universe has no boundaries at all. No boundaries. No beginning….”
“…and no God,” Jonathan added. “Oh, I see. I thought you had proved that the universe had a beginning and thus needed a Creator. My mistake.”
“No,” said Stephen with a smile. “My mistake.”
“Stephen is looking for a single theory to explain all the forces of the universe,” Jane said. “Therefore God must die…”
“Why must God die?” Jonathan said. “I don’t understand.”
Jane sat down again and tried to explain the nature and reality of the universe to him as if he were a small boy. “The two great pillars of physics are quantum theory – the laws that govern the very small particles, electrons and so on…..and general relativity.”
“Yes, Einstein,” Jonathan interrupted. He wasn’t a complete idiot after all.
“Einstein’s theory,” Jane agreed. “The laws that govern the very large planets and such.” She paused. “But quantum theory and relativity…”
“Don’t tell me,” Jonathan said. “They’re different?”
“They don’t remotely play by the same rules,” Jane said. Then she thought for a moment and stuck one fork into a pea and the other into a potato and held them both in the air. “If the world were all potatoes, then….easy. You could trace a precise beginning like Stephen once did. A moment of creation. Hallelujah. God lives.”
Her cynicism was not lost on either Jonathan or Stephen who just sat there smiling at his wife.
“But if you bring peas into the menu,” Jane continued. “well, then, everything goes a bit….haywire. It all becomes a godless mess.”
“Oh, dear,” Jonathan said.
“Einstein hated peas,” Jane said. “What he said about quantum theory was that God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” She got up to put the dishes in the sink.
Stephen decided to get back into the conversation although it was always difficult for him to speak. “It seems he not only plays dice,” he said, “but he throws them where we cannot find them.”
“God is back on the endangered species list,” Jane said. She sat down hard on her chair.
“Well, I expect he’ll cope,” Jonathan said softly.
But Stephen was going to get the last word. “Physics is back in business.” He smiled.
“Yes,” Jane repeated. “Physics is back in business.”
So there you have it. The Theory of Everything. How to bring quantum theory and general relativity together into a single equation that would explain everything. The laws that govern the planets and stars and black holes on the one hand and the scientific laws that govern the smallest particles, electrons and protons on the other. At the moment, they seem irreconcilable and we do not have a coherent theory to explain it all.
But who cares? What does it matter if we have a scientific “theory of everything” that explains how all the laws of physics finally work together? If we understand the origins of our universe, the beginning of time or the ultimate unity of all physical laws that govern our existence, will it make a difference? Stephen Hawking thought it would. It would bring meaning to life and give us “the mind of God.” Metaphorically speaking, of course.
When Stephen Hawking finally came to America after the triumph of his book, A Brief History of Time, he was asked a question by someone in the audience (at least in the movie version).
“Professor Hawking, you have said that you do not believe in God. Do you have a philosophy of life that helps you?”
In the movie we watch as Stephen becomes thoughtful and pensive and, for a moment, we are astounded to see him slowly straighten out his hands, then his feet and legs. He is able to lift his head and begin to get out of his wheelchair. His eyes are focused on a pen that one of the young, pretty girls has dropped on the floor. He is determined to make his way down the stairs and to pick it up and hand it back to her. We are witnessing a miracle. It’s beyond belief.
A second later we realize that it was all in his head. A dream. A wish. A possibility. But he smiled as we hear the question repeated. “Do you have a philosophy of life that helps you?”
“It is clear,” Stephen said through his mechanical speaking device, “that we are just a advanced breed of primates on a minor planet orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburbs of one of a hundred billion galaxies.” Not a very auspicious start, but Stephen was only beginning.
“But, ever since the dawn of civilization, people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world.” Certainly that has been his quest throughout his adult life, seeking a unified theory of everything.
“There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe and what can be more special than that there is no boundary.” At least that is his theory, that the universe has no boundaries, no beginning and no end, much like the north pole that is a reference for all points on the compass.
With that in mind, Stephen now creates a metaphor for life from that one element of the universe that he believes is true, though it is unproven and not agreed to by everyone in the scientific community. “And there should be no boundary to human endeavor,” he said, referring to his triumph as an author and scientist, in spite of his disability. “We are all different. No matter how bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there is life, there is hope.”
His words were met with a standing ovation, smiles and nods of agreement. And it’s true, isn’t it? Even if it isn’t very scientific. Even if his philosophy of life isn’t based on his science but on his personal achievement in spite of overwhelming odds. Sure, it’s just a movie but it, apparently, describes what the real Stephen Hawking believes.
The question is whether or not his words bring hope to you as well. After all, it isn’t the Theory of Everything that matters but rather your personal accomplishments against all odds in a world that is not always friendly. That truly is an inspiration to all of us. Whether or not it is enough to make sense out of this world is the real question. I will leave that up to you to decide.
But if we’re going to be unscientific about it, then God might have a theory or two of His own to suggest and His story has given millions of people hope throughout the centuries that we are something more than just “dust in the wind.” We were worth dying for. God created us on purpose. Each one of us has an unfathomable value. We are loved. We are worth saving. The intrinsic value of every human life is the bedrock of Western Civilization and marks the difference between those who use and abuse power for their own ends and those who are willing to sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of a world based on love and respect and care for each person without discrimination or manipulation.
Do we need God in order to love one another that much? I don’t know. Apparently even with God, we aren’t doing such a great job. All I know is that we need something stronger than Stephen Hawking’s personal accomplishments and triumphs over incredible odds as a foundation for life. It is inspirational but it lacks substance. Personal accomplishments even in the face of disability are a weak substitute for personal sacrifice for the sake of others in the name of love.
I will opt for the latter which is, in my opinion, very difficult without a strong belief in God and His intervention in the affairs of this world. After all, long before we even knew the questions to ask, God gave us the answer 2000 years ago. In the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16,17 NIV Italics mine). Paul was talking about Jesus.
What was God supposed to tell us back then, that the universe began as a space time singularity in a black hole of nothingness when he used his creative and intelligent power to release the strong and weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity into space to create life on our planet? What is certain is that Stephen Hawking is a fascinating and intelligent “breed of primate” and the movie is definitely worth watching.
How was He supposed to explain His continued intervention at certain points in the process so that higher life forms could be “created” (what secular scientists would call a “genetic mutation”)? After all, poetry also tells truth, doesn’t it?
Then, to top it all off, we would have liked Him to explain to Moses that He also sustains the universe at each moment in time with that same creative and intelligent power, holding together quantum physics and general relativity in perfect harmony (what secular scientists would call “natural laws”).
After all, the laws of general relativity and quantum physics do somehow work together since we are here and the world seems to be working well enough. We may not understand how that is possible, but what makes us think that if God were to explain it to us even today, that we would even understand Him?
Modern science may be fascinated by the “how” of it all, but their efforts to divorce the “how” from the “who” is misguided at best. It isn’t the “how” that gives value to human life or hope for the human condition. Meaning comes from identity, purpose and significance and those are all relational terms. If there is any meaning at all beyond what we create for ourselves, it will have something to do with the “who” behind the Big Bang and the “one” who continues to hold it all together and how we relate to Him. At least that’s the way I see it.
I am not at all sure that a Theory of Everything, the scientific “how” at the center of it all, will make much difference in the equations of daily life. The fundamental problem seems to be our relationships, a lack of respect and care for one another, a primal priority of the self in a dangerous and difficult world.
Christianity claims that the problem lies primarily and first of all in the broken relationship we have with our Creator. That’s what makes Jesus so interesting and necessary. But it is uncertain whether the majority of people will accept that analysis of the problem or His solution and therein lies the problem. We need help, and desperately so, but we won’t take it from Him. He demands too much, expects too much, cares too much. After all, it isn’t God’s existence that is the real problem but rather that we simply don’t trust Him enough to follow Him wholeheartedly.
What is certain is that Stephen Hawking is a fascinating and intelligent “breed of primate” and the movie is definitely worth watching.