Stephen Hawking: A bold and brilliant life

Nick Herman
Nick Herman

Stephen Hawking’s passing last week was largely under-reported and under-recognized. The contributions of this physicist and cosmologist — perhaps the most brilliant of our time — should not be lost on us.

Stephen contributed greatly to our understanding of the weird interplay between space and time, the role of black holes, the creation of the universe, how we and everything else came to be, the role of science in relation to philosophy, the role of religion, and the future of our planet.

He told us, among other weird things, that before the “big bang” there was “Nothing,” just as there is “nothing” south of the South pole. (Think of that analogy!). He believed philosophy is dead because the universe is governed only by the laws of science, and that therefore religion (and philosophy) has no real relevancy.

Stephen provided the physicists or cosmologists among us with formulae and (perhaps) real truths about how many things “work” in our universe, even as those weird truths (consider the interplay of “space and time” and the notion of “nothingness” before the “big bang”) elude us ordinary folks and make our heads spin. But, the current and future physicists and cosmologists will sort all of this out — over time — to confirm, reject, or revise his thinking. His contributions to our understanding of matters such as these is extraordinary, essential, and long-lasting — even as so many questions remain unanswered.

What Stephen was never able to adequately explain was “WHY” things are the way they are. In this sense, he essentially punts on the “WHY” question because, to him, there is no “scientific” answer to the question. Hence, relegated only to the paradigm of “science,” philosophy and religion are, to him, essentially “dead” or irrelevant.To him, there is no “observable” realm of philosophy or religion, both of which embody the elusive realm — or dimension — of “meaning.”

This is where I depart from this brilliant thinker. I could be wrong. But it seems to me that, just as the physical world includes the weird but “true” things like a confluence of “space and time”and notions of things like a “singularity,” there is a dimension of “meaning” in the cosmos which, though we might not fully understand it, exists by virtue of the millennia of evidence in the thought of human society and culture that has recognized the concept — and therefore, the reality — of “meaning.” That is, there is a “purpose” to matters, and thus there is even a “purpose” to what Stephen has described as “nothing before the big bang.” This “purpose” is the answer to the “WHY” question that Stephen has never been able to answer nor has sought to answer.

In an important way, Stephen’s contributions to physics and cosmology inform and contribute to our wonder about “meaning.” From him, we recognize that the earth is but a miniscule speck in an almost unimaginably vast universe, and each of us is yet an even finer, miniscule speck within the miniscule speck of our earth. But, “who we are” is not dependent upon our size (i.e., whether we are as big as a galaxy or giant black hole, or whether each of us is, in the scale of things, tinier than the smallest constituent of an atom or some particle smaller than an atom). In short, “meaning” has nothing to do with physical size or physical properties of any kind or anything “scientifically observable” by a mathematical formula or otherwise.

So, I vote that we properly honor Stephen and the unique and brilliant ways he has helped us to understand our world and our cosmos. And, we should ask and expect that our young physicists and cosmologists build on his work and understanding of our physical universe.

At the same time, we should continue to explore, both individually and together, the elusive dimension of “meaning” in our mortal lives, on our earth, and throughout our cosmos. This dimension is beyond even Stephen’s thinking, as he himself admits. But this dimension has not been strange to human thinking for as long as our species has been alive, and it is not strange to our personal experiences.

In the end, we might not be able to grasp this “meaning” fully. But, perhaps we can glean, at least, a shadowed glimpse of it to pass on to future generations (whether physicists, cosmologists, or ordinary folks, including our children) to have a better grasp of that dimension on our earth and throughout the cosmos that Stephen explored in his bold and brilliant life.

Nick Herman is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Elon University and an adjunct professor of law at Campbell Law School and NCCU Law School.