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Stephen Hawking’s "God-Haunted" Quest

David Klinghoffer

On Christmas Eve, I wish those of our readers who are Christians a very merry and meaningful holiday.

As for myself, besides helping our kids put together a recalcitrant backyard trampoline, over the upcoming holidays I’m hoping to catch up on some neglected movie going. I’m especially eager to see two biographical pictures about scientists in different fields (Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking) who are united in brilliance, in suffering (of different kinds) — and in atheism. At Real Clear Religion, Father Robert Barron writes very insightfully about the Hawking film, The Theory of Everything, which he calls "God-haunted," as was, seemingly, the relationship between Hawking and his wife Jane:

In one of the opening scenes, the young Hawking meets Jane, his future wife, in a bar and tells her that he is a cosmologist. "What’s cosmology?" she asks, and he responds, "Religion for intelligent atheists." "What do cosmologists worship?" she persists. And he replies, "A single unifying equation that explains everything in the universe." Later on, Stephen brings Jane to his family’s home for dinner and she challenges him, "You’ve never said why you don’t believe in God." He says, "A physicist can’t allow his calculations to be muddled by belief in a supernatural creator," to which she deliciously responds, "Sounds less of an argument against God than against physicists."

That really is delicious.

Barron points out the irony of Hawking’s quest for a single unifying equation to explain reality. Under a materialist understanding of the cosmos, why should such a thing be remotely expected? The intelligibility of the universe, one that could be explicated so elegantly and concisely, suggests instead a coherent design and a single designer.

We recall the opening lines of St. John’s Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word…and all things were made through the Word." The universal intelligibility of nature is a function of its being brought into existence by an intelligent Creator. The young Joseph Ratzinger stated the relationship as follows: the "objective mind" discoverable in finite reality is the consequence of the "subjective mind" that thought it into reality. Ratzinger furthermore observes how a peculiarity of our language discloses the same truth. When we come to know something, we speak of "recognizing" a truth, but the word "recognition" (re-cognition) implies that we have thought again what had already been thought by a more primordial intelligence. Long before Hawking used the phrase, Albert Einstein characterized his own science as a quest to know the mind of God, and in so doing, he was operating out of the very assumptions I’ve been articulating.

In light of these clarifications, let us look again at the central preoccupation of The Theory of Everything, namely, Hawking’s quest to find the one great unifying equation that would explain all of reality. It is always fascinating to go to roots of an argument, that is to say, to the fundamental assumptions that drive a rational quest, for in so doing, we necessarily leave the realm of the purely rational and enter something like the realm of the mystical. Why in the world would a scientist blithely assume that there is or is even likely to be one unifying rational form to all things, unless he assumed that there is a singular, overarching intelligence that has placed it there? Why shouldn’t the world be chaotic, utterly random, meaningless? Why should one presume that something as orderly and rational as an equation would describe the universe’s structure?

I would argue that the only finally reasonable ground for that assumption is the belief in an intelligent Creator, who has already thought into the world the very mathematics that the patient scientist discovers. In turning his back on what he calls "a celestial dictator," Stephen Hawking was indeed purging his mind of an idol, a silly simulacrum of God, but in seeking, with rational discipline for the theory of everything, he was, in point of fact, affirming the true God.

In a Jewish understanding, conveyed in the Midrash, the idea of a design preceding creation is crystalized not in a single equation but in a single letter, heh, the definite article as it appears in the first verse in Genesis. The definite article in Biblical Hebrew gives a sense that the subject previously knew the object in question: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." He created not an indeterminate "heavens and earth," but the heavens and the earth that he envisioned.

The scientist, in Ratzinger’s term, "re-cognizes" this vision that was in God’s mind prior to the inception of physical existence. Barron writes:

Though the great scientist concluded his most popular work with a reference to "knowing the mind of God," it is obvious by the end of the film that he meant that line metaphorically. The last bit of information that we learn, just before the credits roll, is that Professor Hawking continues his quest to find the theory of everything, that elusive equation that will explain all of reality.

Perhaps there are two kinds of scientists. One like Hawking sees that idea, that "mind," as little more than a pun. The other leaves open the possibility of its being the ultimate reality.

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