Big Answers to the Brief Questions

Big Answers to the Brief Questions October 28, 2018

I’ve been seeing lots of mentions of Stephen Hawking’s posthumously-published book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, and thought I would comment. Getting particular attention is Hawking’s more direct statement of his atheism in comparison with earlier publications. Hemant Mehta and Rob Picheta shared brief quotations:

We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God.

It flies in the face of everything we know in science. I think that when we die we return to dust.

But there is a sense we live on, in our influence, and in the genes we pass to our children.


For centuries, it was believed that disabled people like me were living under a curse that was inflicted by God. I prefer to think that everything can be explained another way, by the laws of nature.

It will be a pity if the focus of attention is on Hawking’s view of religion, and not the scientific work that he was engaging in right up until the end. But his view as someone who experienced the unfairness of the universe, the reality of human suffering, as well as studying its mysteries in depth and detail, is deserving of consideration, even when he opines about theology.

If the options were to believe that those who suffer are cursed by God, or that the term “God” does not denote anything meaningful, then the latter would indeed be the way to go. But there is a much wider array of theological options, just as there are multiple possible understandings of the origin and history of the cosmos.


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  • “…then the former would indeed be..”

    I think you meant “latter”.

    • Indeed I did! Goodness me! Thank you so much for pointing this out!

  • John MacDonald
    • John MacDonald

      Another article I just read quoted Hawking as saying “For me… there is no possibility of a creator, because there is no time for a creator to have existed in.”

      – Hawking here seems to have run afoul of the Cosmological argument. If the Big Bang “was” in some way or other, should we not ask how the material that made up The Big Bang got there in the first place? Some researchers certainly entertain Pre Big Bang “somethings” :

      For instance, the Wikipedia article on “Pre Big Bang” says:

      Pre–Big Bang physics (PBBP) are physics which can be speculated to have existed prior to the Big Bang. PBBP may have been radically different from the current laws of physics.

      Although theoretical speculation on possible PBBP have only begun, research into the field could hold incredible implications for the makeup of the universe, and numerous possibilities beyond the limit of the current laws of physics in possible existence prior to the Big Bang.

      Stephen Hawking has said that “Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them.”

      However, pre-big bang singularity might have emerged or preceded by possibly certain events, such as:

      A white hole, a hypothetical body which emits massive energy and matter rather than absorbing it in.
      A big crunch, a cycle of big bounce comes after the universe expansion.
      A cyclical universe, an event happens when two extra-dimensional membranes, or branes, collide in a zone outside our universe; in relation to string theory. (Wikipedia)

      Then, as per the Cosmological argument, could we not ask how the hypothetical Pre Big Bang stuff got there in the first place?

      • John MacDonald

        One last thought:

        What is Time? If Hawking is so confident that there is no “Time” where God could have existed before the Big Bang, has Hawking given a Philosophical clarification of what he means by Time? Knowing practically nothing about Hawking, just encountering his ideas briefly it seems that he uncritically adopts part of Aristotle’s interpretation of Time as proceeding as an infinite sequence of “nows” moving out of the past toward the future (“Time” begins with The Big Bang and moves forward). I would ask how Hawking would reconcile this interpretation with an understanding of time that comes in the reverse, coming to us out of the future, moves into the present, and toward the past, such as when we say on December 20th that “Christmas” is coming? Moreover, how can these two understandings of time be reconciled with the stretching out of time in boredom (langweil in German), such as when we punish a child by standing them in a corner facing the wall as a “Time Out,” where they have to endure a “stretching out” of time?

        If anyone is interested in a brief Phenomenology of Time, I talk about it a bit in my Master’s Thesis, especially pages 1-16, published online for free here: file:///C:/Users/John/Downloads/Brock_McDonald_John_2002%20(18).pdf

        The site link to my thesis is here:

        • I may have to wrestle with the notion of God being outside of time again sometime soon…

          • John MacDonald

            Time is very interesting. On the one hand, we say “I just have to make it through a few more days of work and I’ll make it to Christmas,” as though Time simply proceeds forward as a endless succession of Nows moving from the indeterminate past onward to the future. On the other hand, we also say the reverse, that Christmas is coming, as though Time moves in the opposite direction from the future, into the present, and passes away into the past when Christmas is over. And conversely, we say Time is like an extended present, such as when we are enduring the drawing out of time in boredom (langweil, as German aptly conveys).

            So Time seems to mean 1 thing, its reverse, and something completely unrelated to the first two meanings – lol

            It is my understanding of the problem that this issue would be difficult for us to see because we say, for instance, in the judgement “The dog is white,” that no temporal sense seems to be implied, and further that no relation to our comportment to an entity at-hand is implied because the only thing being intended in the judgement is essential/whatness, not the existential. We cannot see what, for Aristotle, was completely obvious, that the existential must be expressed here.

            Why do we only see the essential/whatness? Because for us the existential, as Kant said, does not pertain to the thing, to the ‘res,’ is not a real predicate. I, for instance, might say that the lecture tonight is what is ”then,’ not yet ‘now.’ Since ‘then’ does not belong to the being of the lecture as such, its whatness, the ‘then-ness’ or not-yet-nowness of the lecture brings nothing whatsoever to the concept of lecture, and in this regard it would be the identical case if the lecture was now, or the ‘at that past time’ of retention. A concept is supposedly what did not originate in time, and what will not pass away in time, has no future or past, but simply is, as though the concept is in a kind of extended now that never began and will never end.

            However, phenomenologically, the “present-at-handness” of a being is revealed or produced when we are in dispute about the being (e.g., in disagreement whether it is heavy, red, etc.), and so we resolve the dispute by appealing to the being “at-hand” and “right now.”

            It’s interesting how people ask whether and when X is ‘in’ time without clarifying ‘what’ and ‘how’ Time is …

          • John MacDonald

            One other thought:

            Regarding Time, I guess we could have recourse to the history of Philosophy to determine what, if anything, essential about Time is uncovered (a-letheia) there. But people often say Philosophy is esoteric and irrelevant. Perhaps. Conversely, Captain Picard said “Nothing is more challenging than the pursuit of Philosophy.” Perhaps.

            The history of Philosophy certainly deals with the issue of Time.

            For instance, Hume said we see one thing following upon another (there is one state of affairs, then there is a different state of affairs), but we do not “see” one thing following another according to a rule: “causing” the other. We see water boiling at 100 degrees celsius at normal room pressure enough times and the mind associates one with the other. Seeing the boiling of the water “following upon” the application of the heat doesn’t equate to seeing the heat “causing” the water to boil – that applying the heat to water MUST result in the water boiling.

            What does this have to do with Time?

            Kant took this insight and said we see one thing following the other (e.g., I go from being bored, to being sated, when I start drinking beer), and the mind supplies the experience of the “irreversibility” of the sequence from one thing to another in the event – not just that there are two different states. But the irreversibility of time, as Hume showed, is not read off of experience. It is supplied by the mind, since all we see is one thing, then something else, then something else, etc. Nothing in the things and processes of experience implies irreversibility – this is supplied by the mind.

            The (1) irreversibility of time as it flows from past to present, to future (I will make it to Christmas vacation in a few days), just as (2) the irreversibility of time as it flows in the opposite direction from future, to present, and passes away (Christmas will be here soon – Christmas has passed) is furnished by the mind, not read off of beings as a characteristic of them.

            These things we can learn from the history of Philosophy. But, are these thoughts more originary than what the Greeks already un-covered (a-letheia) about time? But it is said the ancient Greeks are primitive and irrelevant. Perhaps. Perhaps not.

          • John MacDonald

            One last thought:

            Newton said “absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external” Given what I said above, this is problematic, to say the least. Einstein rightly corrected him. In Einstein’s model of relativity, time is certainly an integral part of the very fabric of the universe and cannot exist apart from the universe, but, if the speed of light is invariable and absolute, Einstein realized, both space and time must be flexible and relative to accommodate this. However, It is another question as to whether Einstein, and Stephen Hawking after him, simply uncritically appropriated certain characteristics of Newtonian Absolute Time into their interpretations of Time?

          • John MacDonald

            I had another thought.

            Heraclitus said physis kryptesthai philei, Being loves to hide

            Phenomenologically, we can coax the creative, constructive power of the mind in creating the experience of time out of hiding (a-letheia) in the “privative” (in the absence of time). So, we say, and experience, that “Time flies when you are having fun.” Also, when you go under general anesthetic for minor surgery, you drift off to sleep, and awaken the next instant an hour or so later, not having experienced any passing of time.


          • John MacDonald

            Many patients report that undergoing general anesthesia is a surreal experience—and practically no one remembers anything between when the medication is administered and waking up in the recovery room.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t mean to post again today (I’ve already posted a few times, sorry James), but I just read this quote by Einstein about time and I really liked it and wanted to share it. Einstein said:

            “…for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

            Einstein is correct, of course. As I said above, whether we experience (1) Christmas as “to be arrived at in a few days” (where time is experienced as the present simply marching forward into the future), or, (2) In the reverse, where we feel that Christmas is coming (time is experienced in the opposite direction, coming from the future, into the present when Christmas arrives, and then Christmas passes into the past), these contradictory irreversible flows point to what Kant said, namely, contra Newton, time is not a feature of reality that we sense, but is the way our mind structures our experience of reality. As I said above, following Kant and Hume, the experience of the irreversibility of the flow of time (present into future; or, future into present into past) is a feature added by the mind, since all we ever experience is bare succession, not irreversibility.

            This makes me think of the example I gave of general anesthetic, which is basically a brief drug induced coma. When under general anesthesia, the patient does not experience time, but simply drifts off into unconsciousness, and revives in the recovery room in what seems like an instant, even though an hour may have passed.

            We experience time in two ways: (1) Consciously, and (2) Unconsciously in dreams. One of the effects of General Anesthetic is that it cancels out both the conscious and unconscious experience of time, lending credence to Kant’s claim that, Contra Newton, Time is not a feature of reality we sense, but rather is a way our mind structures experience.

          • John MacDonald

            Einstein was always in constant dialogue with Kant. I think where Einstein went wrong is that he saw the fusion of space and time, and inferred this to be the actual structure of reality. Einstein missed the full implications of Kant’s insight about the constructive nature of the mind when it comes to “temporalizing” space. Space and time aren’t fused because there are 4 dimensions to reality, but rather because the mind processes spatial information in a temporal way.

          • John MacDonald

            I just wanted to add one last thought. This is a very exciting topic!

            Where Einstein was right and Kant was wrong is that there is some objective temporal element to reality. It’s just that the overwhelming majority of what we mean by Time is the structuring of reality by the mind. The rest, where we do sense time, is like a feminist interpretation of a piece of literature. The mind has its temporal thematic approach to time (which is mostly constructive), and so zeros in on those elements of reality that are temporal. But the extent of the actual temporal nature of reality is trivial compared to what the mind produces.

          • Nick G

            Funny, I thought this was James McGrath’s blog!

          • John MacDonald

            Sorry, I get excited some times about ideas!

          • Nick G

            I think where Einstein went wrong is that he saw the fusion of space and time, and inferred this to be the actual structure of reality.

            Well up to now, Einstein’s work on relativity has survived the most rigorous experimental examination. But since you’ve now shown it to be wrong, when do you collect your Nobel prize?

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not sure I understand your point? We are allowed to critique great geniuses like Aristotle, Newton, Marx, and Freud, so why wouldn’t we be able to admire Einstein, and yet tweak him a little? Imagine where we would be if Einstein thought he had no business challenging Newton’t model?

          • Nick G

            Sure, we can critique anyone (I’m not sure what the pseudo-scientist Freud is doing in your list of “great geniuses”), but we need to have the relevant knowledge first, if we’re not to make ourselves ridiculous. It’s quite clear that you don’t, when it comes to Einstein, who of course did, when he challenged Newton’s model.

          • John MacDonald

            What makes you think I don’t understand time? I wrote my Master’s thesis on time.

            Here, briefly, are some of my thoughts, which I have posted a number of times here:

            (1) On the one hand, time seems to “march on” as a present headed toward the future, like when we say “I’ll make it to the weekend if I can just endure one more day.” But can we generalize from this lived experience to what “objective time” is?

            (2) On the other hand, time presents itself in the opposite direction, coming out of the future, into the present, and then passes away, such as when we say “the weekend is coming; is here; has passed away”. Again the same question arises: Can we generalize from this second type of lived experience to what “objective time” is?

            (3) On the other hand, we experience the ‘stretching out of time” in boredom. Can we generalize from this third type of lived experience of time to what “objective time” is? Time, for instance, is commonly identified as a stretching that allows for counting of transition from one place to another, or one state to another, in an irreversible sequence. This concept of irreversibility is supplied by the mind, because, as Hume observed, we only ever see transition, not irreversibility.

            (4) Or, is it perhaps just dogma when we abstract from the lived experiences of time to what time is like apart from our minds?

            (5) Einstein famously said the distinction between past, present, and future is an illusion …

            I’m curious as to what error you are finding, because each of my points can be understood by appealing to experience (keep in mind that Einstein wasn’t just brilliant because of his math, but because he offered precise analogies illustrating his points)?

            As for Freud, Dr. Phil referenced Freud on projection on today’s show!

          • John MacDonald

            Aristotle noted when we experience motion or change we necessarily experience along with it suneches, continuity, and in this continuity itself ek tinos eis ti, dimension in the original sense, stretching out. Change takes place from some state/place to another, in this irreversible sequence. In time, we understand the irreversibility of the earlier (the prior, the away from there) moving toward the later (the posterior, the toward the here or hither), that is, the ‘was now’ to the ‘not yet now,’ where the ‘now’ is understood relative to these. The ‘nows’ are countable and themselves count, which is to say they count the places that have been traversed in motion/change. The “now” itself is transitory, and can be stretched more or less at will, which is why the ‘now’ of the hour is just as much ‘now’ as the now of the second, etc..

            Aristotle said particular limitations of the “now” (into seconds, hours, days, etc. – the particular kind of “now” as limitation is determined entirely arbitrarily and does not belong to what is ownmost as time) is only possible because of he transitory character of the now as such. The conception of a time line as an infinite succession of “nows” is possible only derivatively, that is, if we think of the “now” as such as a stretching.

          • Neil Brown

            Surely time is simply an hypothesis we use to explain memory.
            By “memory” I include both my subjective memory and various physical phenomena, like ripples in a pond or gamma rays from a super-nova. Or the background microwave radiation.
            Your comments about whether time moves forward or backward seem to be just a confusion in language, or an example of relativity (ordinary everyday relativity, not the Special or General kind). My whole life is before me, but my birth was before now. If the king is already standing, can you “stand before the king” – the confusion is purely linguistic.
            Have you read “The end of Time” by Julian Barbour? I found it somewhat heavy going, and somewhat inconclusive, but I also found it to be a useful challenge to look at time from a different perspective.

          • Nick G

            Your comments about whether time moves forward or backward seem to be
            just a confusion in language, or an example of relativity (ordinary
            everyday relativity, not the Special or General kind).


            The equations expressing both general relativity and quantum field theory (QFT, which combines quantum mechanics with special relativity) are time-reversible, which I think is why Barbour (who I haven’t read) and Einstein have suggested time is an illusion. Other physicists with relevant expertise, such as Lee Smolin (Time Reborn) and Sean Carroll, disagree. I suspect this disagreement will persist at least until general relativity and QFT are subsumed into an overarching theory (should that ever come about). I’m pretty sure* phenomenology (in the sense of the school of philosophy associated with Husserl, Heidegger etc.) has nothing to contribute to resolving it.

            *Well, OK, absolutely certain 😉

          • Nick G

            Einstein wasn’t just brilliant because of his math, but because he offered precise analogies illustrating his points

            True, but he did actually understand the maths necessary to formulate his theories, and indicate exactly how they could be tested experimentally. I see zero evidence that you do. Your babbling about phenomenology is simply irrelevant to Einstein’s work, and that you don’t recognise this is itself evidence that you’re not competent to discuss the latter..

            Dr. Phil referenced Freud on projection on today’s show!

            Oddly enough, a reference by a talkshow host doesn’t change the fact that Freud’s notions (unlike Einstein’s), were for the most part pulled out of… well, since James McGrath doesn’t like vulgarity, let’s say “the air”, and have fared very poorly at those few points where they are amenable to empirical test.

  • Focusing on Hawking’s scientific legacy doesn’t require that we pooh-pooh his views on religion. He clearly had every intention of being heard on the subject. I’m interested in what he has to say in both areas.

    • John MacDonald

      He was clearly one of the great geniuses in history. It’s unfortunate his physical ailments made it so difficult for him to work. I loved his guest appearances on Star Trek: TNG!

  • Neil Brown

    “… it’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God.”
    A statement like this seems to imply that there is a clear and generally agreed understanding of what the word “God” means in this context. I don’t think this is the case at all.
    Judging from the rest of the quote, the implication seems to be that the God being denied is an all-powerful being who can manipulate the universe at whim.

    While the bible does seem to suggest the Yahweh fits that description, it is not for me a particular interesting part of him, and it wouldn’t bother me to find that his super-natural powers were overstated – he has changed my life with apparently using them.