This Last week I arrived to work one morning when one of my business partners said, “Hey, did you hear that Stephen Hawking changed his mind about being an atheist?”
For a moment I was surprised, and interested. I would not have expected Stephen Hawking to have done that, but then after the initial flash of surprise I knew from the smug-twinkle-in-his-eye-that-my-partner-can-never-quite-deadpan-away-when-he-is- messing-with-you that this was not going to be an interesting discussion on physics, philosophy, or faith, but that it was going to be a smug little joke, with a sad, sad punch line. I knew the truth before my partner spoke the words: “He died yesterday.”
I had all sorts of emotions. I was sad. I was, however, not surprised. I know a little about ALS and even with the resources and stamina that Dr. Hawking had, I was always amazed that he had survived this long. I was also a little annoyed, and again, sad (very sad actually) that I now forever will have first heard about his death through a smug little smirking commentary on his atheism, rather than in a respectful condolence that acknowledged the amazing accomplishments of this great man.
I had never been a serious student of Dr. Hawking, or even of theoretical physics past the level of what I needed to learn to get into medical school and the popularizing books designed for the general public that he produced, but I was always engaged by what I had read. And even in these books perhaps I only really understood about 20 percent of what he had written, making me the official Jason Mendoza of theoretical physics.
(ok quick digressive reference to “The Good Place” Season Two Episode Eleven: Jason has just suggested that they actually travel back to Hell so they could rest up and come back to try to again at the Eternal Judge’s tests again in the morning, apparently unaware that in so-doing they would be merely imprisoned in Hell for Eternity)
Eleanor: Oh Jason, I feel like you understand about 20% of what is actually going on.
Jason: (smiling and sincerely moved by what he sees as a compliment): Thanks!
Ok, digression over. In those books of Dr. Hawking’s I sensed the breadth of a mind that was always thinking and puzzling and searching. I admired his bravery against a debilitating illness as well as his self-effacing humor. I marveled at the descriptions of time and energy and black holes and singularities. I also caught glimpses of a wonderful human heart.
I am very different from Dr. Hawking in many of my beliefs and conclusions. I am not a determinist. I believe that we are shaped and influenced, and in some circumstances even left without a choice about a great many things (for example: despite decades of trying to prove otherwise to myself, I now acknowledge that I do not have a choice about being a transgender person- it is simply who I am, it is, in a sense, determined, I cannot change it or choose otherwise). But I do believe there are spheres of thought or action where we can endeavor to make choices through some type of free-will. It can be very difficult to differentiate where we might have a choice and where we might not, but I feel that there are things about which I can make choices. I can try to choose whether I act selfishly (or not) in my interactions with my fellow humans. Or I can try to choose whether I judge another kindly or harshly (for example notice how I appear to be choosing to judge my business partner for his little joke). Dr. Hawking, as I understood him, felt that the sense of free-will might be presaged somehow in the unpredictable quantum mechanics of an electron that can seem to be in two places at once. We are uncertain about the behavior of the particle, and we can be equally uncertain about what actions or thoughts are determined or free. The following punchline from his essay on determinism reflects in my mind a certain humility rather than hubris on this issue:
“In the case of human beings we are quite unable to use the fundamental laws to predict what people will do, for two reasons. First, we cannot solve the equations for the very large number of particles involved. Second, even if we could solve the equations, the fact of making a prediction would disturb the system and could lead to a different outcome…
Is everything determined? The answer is yes, it is. But it might as well not be, because we can never know what is determined.” From Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays. Bantam Books, October 1994, pp. 138-139
Unlike Dr. Hawking, I am also not an atheist. I feel that I have encountered God in an undeniable and ineffable manner that cannot be put aside. This has been a source of great peace and joy for me and in other ways has brought difficult challenges that I would not have had otherwise, but I cannot say that because I have been blessed with this encounter that I am somehow superior or better than someone who has not had some of my experiences. Only God knows the hearts and the reins, and if the greatest of the three cardinal virtues is love rather than faith, then how a person loves and treats and helps another will be the thing that is more important to God ultimately than what we may have learned through our faith here. Paul taught that not everyone is necessarily given the gift of faith, but he seems to imply in 1 Corinthians 13 that we can all strive to love each other better no matter our circumstances. I believe that I caught glimpses of Dr. Hawking’s loving and human heart in his writings. Notice in the following excerpt how Dr. Hawking comes to a conclusion, somewhat tangentially, that it is better to be responsible and helpful rather than aggressive to each other. He comes at this through ruminations on evolution and physics, but he concludes with a veiled warning to us that in some ways parallels the scriptural notions of the love and care we should have for each other.
“So as we cannot predict human behavior, we may as well adopt the effective theory that humans are free agents who can choose what to do. It seems there are definite survival advantages to believing in free will and responsibility for one’s actions. This means this belief should be reinforced by natural selection. Whether the language-transmitted sense of responsibility is sufficient to control the DNA-transmitted sense of aggression remains to be seen. If it does not, the human race will have been one of natural selection’s dead ends. Maybe some race of intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy will achieve a better balance between responsibility and aggression. But if so, we might have expected to be contacted by them, or at least their radio signals. Maybe they are aware of our existence but don’t want to reveal themselves to us. That might be wise given our record.” Ibid pp. 138-139
So anyway, I am sad that we have lost him. I am grateful for his brilliance and his example. I mean no disrespect to his reasoned and well thought-out conclusions, but as an avowed and experiential non-atheist, I picture Dr. Hawking meeting God, and God being glad to see him, and congratulating him on all the hard work, and thinking, and computing, and writing, and all of that. I Picture Dr. Hawking either being thrilled at being able to walk, or even fly – or perhaps not caring about all that or even not being shocked that God exists, or that he himself still exists, but then just jumping right into a conversation with God as if he had just seen him yesterday, “Ok, here is some new data, this is interesting, this is great! Now I have some questions, how does my newly eternal spirit and resurrected body withstand spaghettification in order for me to be able to get a look inside one of those black holes and be able to come out the other side again? I am ready to learn, I am ready to go, now there are really some interesting things I need to see… time to get moving!” And at this point, God smiles and says, “Ok, let’s get moving indeed, I do have some neat things to show you.”
Good-bye Dr. Hawking, and thank you. Lona.