Why and what next? The questions Stephen Hawking couldn’t answer

Mar 20, 2018 by

by Jules Gomes, TCW.

Did the universe have a beginning? How did it begin? Why did it begin? The world’s most iconic cosmologist and mathematical physicist answered two of the three most fundamental questions of existence. The first two questions are cosmological. The third question is philosophical.

Stephen Hawking became a blazing symbol of how a tenacious human spirit can triumph over a frail body. He refused to let motor neurone disease disable his prodigious scientific mind. Sadly, the genius who was elevated to Sir Isaac Newton’s chair of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge at the age of 37, ended his existence without answering the third question.

Should a professor of physics attempt to answer a question of metaphysics? Evolutionary biologist and atheist Stephen Jay Gould was emphatic that science and philosophy (or theology) were two separate conceptual domains. The Harvard professor coined the acronym NOMA (Non Overlapping Magisteria) to describe the Berlin Wall of separation between the two disciplines.

‘Science can work only with naturalistic explanations; it can neither affirm nor deny other types of actors (like God) in other spheres (the moral realm, for example),’ he wrote. Science can tell us how we behave not how we should behave. Science can tell us what is, not what ought to be. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Science can tell us how the heavens go, not how to go to heaven. Science can tell us if the universe had a beginning and how the universe began. Science would struggle greatly to answer the philosophical question of why the universe began.

Hawking dared to transgress the boundaries between physics and metaphysics and boldly address the question of ‘why’. He attended the Vatican Conference on Cosmology in 1981 where Pope John Paul II was addressing the ‘unanswered problem concerning the beginning of the universe’. Hawking’s biographers White and Gribbin describe how ‘Hawking sat impassively in his wheelchair listening’. At this conference Hawking announced his ‘no-boundary’ theorem – a scientific attempt to explain the origin of the universe.

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See also: Did Stephen Hawking prove that God does not exist? By Will Jones, Psephizo




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