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Theoretical physicist and pop culture icon Stephen Hawking died last week.  I read  his popular book A Brief History of Time when I was in college.  At the time I had a deep fascination for cosmology and theoretical physics ( for example, I read most of the works of Australian physicist Paul Davies while in college and then wrote my senior Honors thesis about his concept of God).

It was during this fascination that I was drawn into philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, where these questions were explored.

The concluding chapter to A Brief History ventures beyond physics into the realms of philosophy, theology, and spirituality. If we can achieve a complete unified theory (or theory of everything) then what role is left for God? The book ends with a most fascinating paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we would know the mind of God.

The “mind of God” here should be understood in the Platonic sense–the highest reality in the Divided Line in the Republic. Only the highest form of knowledge, a type of mystical contemplation, can know the mind of God. From ancient wisdom we have understood that the limits of reason and scientific inquiry take us into the realm of mystical experience. Here was a contemporary physicist developing a similar idea.

I have two basic quibbles, though, with Hawking’s concluding idea.  First, the God of the theoretical physicists isn’t Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. For Yahweh is a person who loves and desires and is actively involved with the world and God’s creatures.

The other disagreement is philosophical in nature. I don’t think a theory of everything is possible.  Hawking’s idea is based upon a philosophical misunderstanding of the laws of nature (many scientists are ignorant of the philosophy of science, by the way).  Consider Nancy Cartwright’s How the Laws of Physics Lie wherein she reveals that “Rendered as descriptions of fact, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their fundamental explanatory force.”

But a complete theory is still a grand hope and something to aspire to. Hawking is correct that could we do it we would achieve the “ultimate triumph of human reason.” I’m more inclined to think that to achieve that highest form of knowledge we must transcend reason into the mystical.

A toast to Stephen Hawking for his brilliant mind and insightful ideas. I thank him for helping to inspire me and launch the course of my intellectual life.



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