In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking discusses scientific inquiry against the wider background of humanity’s search for meaning, in which religion has played a large part. While he represents religion as being increasingly confined to the corners of modern perceptions of the world, primarily occupying the spaces that science cannot yet explain, he does not distain or criticize people’s continued belief in the supernatural. Rather, he shows that people’s interest in both science and religion is driven by the same desire for understanding. Thus, the two concepts are not necessarily in direct opposition, although tensions of course remain between them. Nevertheless, he shows that religion is becoming increasingly irrelevant in our understanding of the universe, and indeed, even lay people could one day have as exhaustive knowledge of everything as God himself.
While Hawking takes pains to avoid scorning religion, he does show that religious organizations have largely placed themselves on the wrong side of scientific history. In 1514, for instance, Polish priest Nicholas Copernicus proposed a simpler model of the universe which featured the sun in the center, with the earth orbiting it. Hawking notes, “At first, perhaps for fear of being branded a heretic by his church, Copernicus circulated his model anonymously.” The punishment for unorthodox teaching could be brutal, characterizing his church as stubborn and unyielding. As such, Hawking argues that religious dogmatism had slowed the progress of scientific discovery. Even in more recent times, Hawking shows, religious leaders have been hesitant to allow science to question traditional teachings: “[The Pope] told us […] we should not inquire into the big bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God.” Yet this is exactly what Hawking has dedicated much of his life’s work to, revealing his disagreement with such an approach to life’s big questions.
Nevertheless, Hawking has certain sympathies with religion, and never outright scorns the idea of God, because both science and religion are seeking answers to similar questions. Both physicists and religious believers are concerned with the beginning of the universe—essentially the question of where human beings came from. “The beginning of the universe had, of course, been discussed long before this [discussions about an infinite static universe in the mid-1800s],” Hawking writes. “According to a number of early cosmologies and the Jewish/Christian/Muslim tradition, the universe started at a finite, and not very distant, time in the past.” While Hawking does not agree with the conclusions drawn by such beliefs and indicates the probable influence of the Ice Age on their calculations, the direct parallel he draws reveals his sympathy with those grappling with the same questions, albeit with different approaches.
Elsewhere, Hawking says explicitly that we cannot throw out the idea of a God just yet: “An expanding universe does not preclude a creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!” Under some theories of the universe, there is still room for a creator figure. As such, science is simply getting closer to understanding how God might have carried out the task. Hawking thus reveals he is not an outright atheist and has not totally discounted the possibility of an omnipotent deity.
While Hawking leaves room for religion in his understanding of the universe, he suggests that such beliefs have decreasing influence in modern science and perceptions. In some models of the universe, which Hawking himself has backed, there is no boundary to the universe, thus leaving no room for a creator figure: “The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.” While Hawking does not argue this is certain, he does suggest that if humans were to one day prove such a theory, the room left for a creator god in modern science would become ever smaller.
Not only could humans discover there is no basis for a creator theory, they could even become so intimately familiar with the workings of the universe that there would be no desire or need for religious theory at all: “If we find the answer to that [why we and the universe exist], it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.” Hawking’s point here is that if humans can understand the “mind” of an omnipotent and omniscient being, humans would surely be as powerful. That is, if humans can thoroughly understand the universe and its workings, there is no need for a God figure at all.
While obvious tension exists between science and religion, their rivalry comes from the fact both are approaches to answering similar questions. Hawking makes plenty of room for religious thought in his scientific discussions, even including how a creator god would fit into various models. Ultimately, however, he suggests that humankind will move past its theories of creators and omnipotent beings, as we come closer to total understanding ourselves.
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Science and Religion Quotes in A Brief History of Time
Aristotle thought the earth was stationary and that the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars moved in circular orbits about the earth. He believed this because he felt, for mystical reasons, that the earth was the center of the universe, and that circular motion was the most perfect.
It is an interesting reflection on the general climate of thought before the twentieth century that no one had suggested that the universe was expanding or contracting. [...] this may have been due to people’s tendency to believe in eternal truths, as well as the comfort they found in the thought that even though they may grow old and die, the universe is eternal and unchanging.
Newton was very worried by this lack of absolute position, or absolute space, as it was called, because it did not accord with his idea of an absolute God. In fact, he refused to accept lack of absolute space, even though it was implied by his laws.
Many people do not like the idea that time has a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention. (The Catholic Church, on the other hand, seized on the big bang model and in 1951 officially pronounced it to be in accordance with the Bible.)
The Catholic Church had made a bad mistake with Galileo when it tried to lay down the law on a question of science, declaring that the sun went round the earth. Now, centuries later, it had decided to invite a number of experts to advise it on cosmology.
The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner […] they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. […] There ought to be some principle that picks out […] one model, to represent our universe.
Most sets of values would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty.
So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? […] Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?
[…] if we do discover a complete theory […] Then we shall all […] be able to [discuss] why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.