Stephen Hawking and Pope John Paul II

Stephen Hawking has publicly acknowledged his discomfort with the word atheist to describe his position on God. He has also claimed that he was trying to Know the mind of God in his best-seller, the Brief History of Time. His flair for Physics as well as his compulsive passion to link it with God attracted crowds for his lectures. Hawking became a celebrity scientist and mesmerised the world. We experienced what we may describe as Hawking Phenomena.

1 . Quest to Know the Mind of God

Isaac Newton had already minimised the role of God in the universe. God to him was necessary only at the point of creation. His three laws of motion explained how the universe (Planetary system) behaved after creation. Hence, God to him just had to wind the world and let it go. This scientific eviction of God continued in the work of Fred Hoyle and Thomas Gold when they tried to contest the Big Bang theory introduced by George Lemaitre, a Catholic priest and scientist. Even Albert Einstein had ridiculed him and contested his bold act of removal of the mathematical constant in the theory of general gravity that he had introduced in order to avoid an unstable universe. With the discovery of cosmic background radiation by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson who were subsequently given the Noble Prize, the steady-state theory lost to the Big Bang theory. God appeared to be back at the origin of the universe. Hawking’s contribution comes specifically at this point where he shows that the Big Bang is only a subsequent development of the universe and not really the origin of the universe. He relied on the singularity theorem of mathematician Roger Penrose to arrive at the Big Bang singularity. The fact that known laws of physics collapse at this infinitely high energy point, Hawking came up with what he called no Boundary Proposal where he said that he has eliminated the role of a creator God and said that there was nothing left for God to create. The paradox of Hawking’s work is that while he opens himself up to the mind of God in the making of the universe, he thinks that he ends up making God irrelevant and unwanted. There is still more light that is needed to understand the relation between the origin of the universe and its divine creation. The mind of God is still a mystery to us all.

2. (mis)Understandings and (mis)interpretations

Hawking gave a presentation at a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of sciences at the Vatican in 1981. The Academy has evolved from its earlier incarnations and can boast of the great Galileo to be its member after it was founded in 1603. In 1936, Pope Pius XI opened its membership to leading scientists without any discrimination of race, region and religion. Hawking too joined the august body in 1986. The focus of the 1981 meeting was Cosmology and Fundamental Physics and includes luminaries like Steven Weinberg, Dennis Sciama and Yakov Zeldovich and Matin Rees alongside Hawking. Pope John Paul II in his address to the scientists said, ‘‘Any scientific hypothesis on the origin of the world, such as the hypothesis of a primitive atom from which derived the whole of the physical universe, leaves open the problem concerning the universe’s beginning. Science cannot of itself solve this question: there is needed that human knowledge that rises above physics and astrophysics and which is called metaphysics; there is needed above all the knowledge that comes from God’s revelation.” Perhaps this part of the address of his Holiness disturbed Hawking. Pope in his meeting outside the conference of the pontifical academy may have simply reminded the scientists that it is not Physics that alone can prove or disprove the creation of the universe. The Pope seems to rely on metaphysics and teaches that the material universe needs a creator. Givens its finitude it cannot be self-sufficient. However, his Holiness also did stroke controversy among the conservative Catholics about the simple gesture of kneeling to reach the level of Hawking who was confined to the wheelchair. Unfortunately, Hawking interpreted the above address of the Pope as saying, “He told us that it was all right to study the evolution of the universe after the Big Bang, but we should not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was the moment of Creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of 100 oracles of science Creation. I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo, with whom I felt a strong sense of identity, partly because of the coincidence of having been born exactly 300 years after his death”.

3. From Science Alone to Science in Dialogue

It is clear that Pope John Paul II did not say that the Big Bang was the moment of creation. He appeared to remind the august body of scientists that the scientific approach is limited as it leaves open metaphysical as well as religious questions about the origin of the universe. Virtually almost all scientists agree on this view. The philosophical issue that seems to be prevailing here is confusion with the terms: beginning and creation. Unfortunately, these terms are thought to be synonymous. Hence, when one uses the word beginning particularly, the beginning of time, one may think that one is talking of creation. Science has clearly shown that time has beginning but this beginning at Big Bang is not the beginning of the universe. It is only a later development of the universe. By positioning a beginningless universe, Hawking has also raised metaphysical questions both in his no-boundary proposal and the latest Multiverse position. Hawking has certainly not settled the question of creation and the creator. We are only dealing with the development of the structures of the universe and we still await developments in science to illumine us further on these issues. Besides, the scientific approach being profoundly reductive, we have the challenge to abandon the Science alone approach and embrace Science in dialogue with philosophy, metaphysics and religion.


There is complexity and subtlety in the relationship between the creation of the universe and the beginning of the universe. Science can enable us to understand the beginning of the Universe. It is only in dialogue with Science and Religion that we can understand the creation of the universe/ multiverse. Science is still in the process of letting us know how God seems to have wound up the world and let it go. We need to complement this knowledge with philosophy and deep religious insight to arrive at the understanding of what we call divine creation.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao