Renown theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking made it his life’s mission to explain the great mysteries of the universe, how it came into being—and in his 2010 book, Grand Design, declared that God was not needed for the start of the universe.
In an interview with the Guardian a year later, he dismissed religion. Hawking was a hero for atheists.
The 76-year-old died on Wednesday, after spending most of his life living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a condition he was diagnosed with when he was 21.
Given only a few years to live at the time, Hawking’s longevity was considered somewhat of a miracle—if only one of modern medicine, as his first wife Jane Hawking, a Christian, told The Telegraph in 2015.
“When I think that it has been 52 years since Stephen was first diagnosed, that to me is a miracle. OK, it may be a miracle of modern medicine and Stephen’s own courage and perseverance but it is also quite simply a miracle,” she said.
Hawking, however, did not believe in miracles of any kind, most notably in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in 2014.
The scientist’s position on the existence of God, until then, were seen as somewhat blurred between agnosticism and atheism. In his 1988 book A Brief History of Time, Hawking wrote that achieving a “theory of everything” would be “the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we should know the mind of God.”
This contrasted with his 2010 book The Great Design, in which he said that the idea of God was “not necessary” to explain the origin of the universe as the laws of physics offer enough of an explanation. That statement that was seen as a change from his previous position on God and the universe as, in an interview with Reuters in 2007, Hawking said “I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science,” conceding that “the laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.”
Hawking later allowed for the possibility of identifying God with the laws of nature, but rejected the idea of “a human-like being” with whom one has a personal relationship. “When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible,” he told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer in 2010, a few months before the publication of The Great Design.
In the course of that interview, he also argued for the superiority of science over religion.
“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason,” he said. “Science will win because it works.”
In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Hawking, a father of three, also shared his view on life, death and what comes next. “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
Hawking’s response to El Mundo finally dispersed any remaining doubts as to his beliefs.
“In the past, before we understood science, it was logical to believe God created the Universe. Now, however, science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant when I said we would know God’s mind was that we would know everything that God would understand if he existed. But there are no Gods,” he said.
“I am an atheist. Religion believes in miracles, but these are not compatible with science,” he said.
In the El Mundo interview, Hawking said, “When people ask me if a god created the universe, I tell them that the question itself makes no sense. Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, so there is no time for God to make the universe in. It’s like asking directions to the edge of the earth; The Earth is a sphere; it doesn’t have an edge; so looking for it is a futile exercise.”
“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Hawking began to use crutches in the 1960s, but was eventually forced to use his famous wheelchair. He was largely unable to speak except through a voice synthesiser.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the world wide web, was one of the first to respond to news of his death, saying on Twitter: ‘We have lost a colossal mind and a wonderful spirit.’
Nasa tweeted, saying that ‘his theories unlocked the universe of possibilities that we & the world are exploring. May you keep flying like superman in microgravity’.
Hawking will be remembered not just for his scientific contributions, but for his triumph over perceived disability. By all accounts, his contributions to science were matched.
By Paul W Dennis.