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Stephen Hawking's last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, was published posthumously. His first big question is, “Is there a God?” He believed there is not. So, his book gives us a look into the mind of an atheist who is also a self-declared optimist. To me, his book reveals the difficulty of merging optimism and atheism.
He departs from the universal concept of cause/effect to declare, “… it is possible that nothing caused the big bang. Nothing.” He describes how the scientific undermining of the steady state theory, that the universe was unchanging, was troubling to atheists. He is satisfied to replace it with what he calls “the ultimate free lunch.” It is the idea that the universe erupted out of nothing. That could certainly remind us of Genesis 1:1 with “God” replaced by “nothing.”
Throughout the book, he brings up difficulties that make it challenging for him to maintain a positive outlook. In the context of nuclear weapons, he says, “… our world is more politically unstable than at any time in my memory.” Though I also lived through the Cold War of the 1960s, I had not even considered that the present might be more politically unstable. His logic here stems from the number of nations that either have or may develop nuclear weapons, and the extremists that may be able to access them.
In a sobering discussion of multiple difficulties, he says, “Mankind has presented our planet with the disastrous gifts of climate change, pollution, rising temperatures, reduction in polar ice caps, deforestation, and decimation of animal species.” He believes that science can develop pathways to overcome these problems. However, he also says, “With Brexit and Trump …, we are witnessing a global revolt against experts, which includes scientists.” He never addresses the question of how science can get past this social/political revolt to make progress toward an extended peaceful existence.
After addressing the problem of human aggression, which he says served a purpose in the past, he adds, “… we will be able to change and improve our DNA … during this century people will discover how to modify both intelligence and instincts like aggression … there will be a race of self-designing beings.” I am not sure how that can move past the problems of failed eugenics of a century ago. Yet, that is a crucial element of his optimism that humanity can endure.
For humanity to have a long-term existence in the universe, he says, “I am convinced that humans need to leave the Earth.” This demands the scientific invention of space travel. Since he does not believe that curved space or “wormholes” will provide any shortcuts, he perceives all space travel to be limited to some fraction of the speed of light. Light from the nearest solar system takes 4.3 years to reach Earth. At our present speed of space travel, it would take three million years to get there. He describes some possible ways to increase that speed.
In addressing some problems associated with how our DNA could endure extended space travel, he suggests that we might be able to engineer more stable DNA. He then states that it would be easier to send machines and envisions machines that would be a new form of life, avoiding DNA problems. Later, he worries about the potential problem of creating something that could surpass humans. Earlier, he called computer viruses the first human-created life.
I know there is a scientific difficulty in defining life, but his definition is extremely inclusive. One of Hawking's own unanswered questions is variously expressed as the unknown pathway to DNA's origin. “How did life begin on Earth?” Certainly, the Bible presents God as the originator of life (see Genesis 1 and Nehemiah 9:6). In spite of all our advances in genetics, the sixty-plus-year-old words of physicist A. W. Dicus, in his song “Our God, He is Alive” still hold — “Secure, is life from mortal mind, God holds the germ within his hand.”
Hawking envisions a robot invented by humans that is capable of self-replication and surpasses human intellect. Who is going to put the heart into this tin man? Earlier in the book, he said, “But it would be an empty universe indeed if it were not for the people I love, and who love me.” I like the words that concluded Pierre Grasse's Evolution of Living Organisms and which irritated his secular colleagues: “Perhaps in this area, biology can go no farther: the rest is metaphysics.” This implies that there is a reality beyond science. Hawking's vision might end as a universe without metaphysics, without love — indeed, an empty universe. In other words, humans might invent the self-replicating machine, but where is there a shred of evidence that we could make it love?
In Hawking's view of the universe, he thinks earthlike planets could have gotten a billion-year head start on life compared to Earth. He wonders, “Why hasn't Earth been visited …?” Next, he cautions that if they do contact us, “We need to be wary of answering back … .” We might be expendable in their intent to colonize Earth. Apparently, there is a chance of them getting this far without getting rid of the aggressive gene.
Near the end of the book, he lists the big unanswered questions: “How did life begin on Earth?” “What is consciousness?” “Are we alone in the universe?” He envisions our greatest needs as exploring space “for alternate planets on which to live” and to “use artificial intelligence to improve our world.” From there, he hopes that there will be “billions of years of life flourishing in the cosmos.” I understand that being the best an atheist can hope for, but to me, it seems ultimately purposeless.
In 1962 and at 20 years old, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also Lou Gehrig's disease) and was expected to live only a few years. He exceeded that expectation by many fold and used modern science techniques to share the discoveries and insights of his brilliant mind. I wonder if his personal struggles influenced his atheistic conclusion. The only hint I found in this book was the sentence: “For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God.” If we could take the afflicted by the hand and lead them to the blind man in John chapter 9, we could show them Jesus' answer to that heartless concept.
At one point in the book, Hawking mused, “… if there were such a God, I would like to ask however did he think of anything as complicated as M-theory in eleven dimensions.” Maybe a person or two match Hawking's understanding of the complexity of the universe. I cannot grasp how one could envision asking an intelligent maker a question about the complexity and yet conclude that nothing suffices to explain it.
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