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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Philosophy of science, philosophy of religion

CHARACTERS: Stephen Hawking (physicist), Hawking’s relatives and co-workers

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ERROL MORRIS: Gates of Heaven (1978), The Thin Blue Line (1988), Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999), The Fog of War (2003)

SYNOPSIS: Named after Stephen Hawking’s best selling book A Brief History of Time (1988), the film is both a biographical sketch of Hawking’s life and an account of his principal contributions to physics. Hawking was born into a somewhat eccentric English family and did not take his college schooling very seriously. His life changed when he became afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As his body became paralyzed and he could no longer speak, Hawking relied on his ability to visually form mathematical concepts and communicated to others through a computerized voice synthesizer. Much of the physics discussion surrounds speculations about the big bang and black holes.


1. One of Hawking’s early innovations was that particles can escape from black holes. When discussing the implications of this, he states the following: “Black hole radiation has shown us that gravitational collapse is not as final as we once thought. If an astronaut falls into a black hole he will be returned to the rest of the universe in the form of radiation. Thus, in a sense, the astronaut will be recycled. However it would be a poor sort of immortality because any personal concept of time would come to an end as he is torn apart inside the black hole. All that would survive would be his mass or energy.” The issue for physics is that things that fall into black holes are released as radiation. What’s the deal with all the talk about immortality?

2. Hawking states the following regarding the Pope’s attitude about the big bang: “My interest in the origin and fate of the universe was reawakened when I attended a conference on cosmology in the Vatican. Afterwards we were granted an audience with the Pope. He told us that it was alright to study the evolution of the universe after the big bang, but we should not inquire into the big bag itself because it was the moment of creation and therefore the work of God. I was glad that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given: the possibility that the universe had no beginning, no moment of creation.” Galileo once wrote that “I am not bound to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and understanding, does not permit us to use them, and desires to acquaint us in another way [that is, through revelation or religious authority] with such knowledge as we are in a position to acquire for ourselves by means of those faculties.” Who’s right, Galileo or the Pope?

3. Hawking states the following regarding his early views about the big crunch: “I began to wonder what would happen when the universe stopped expanding and began to contract. Would we see broken cups gather themselves together off the floor and jump back to the table? Would we be able to remember tomorrow’s prices and make a fortune off the stock market? It seemed to me the universe had to return to a smooth and ordered state when it re-collapsed. If this were so, time would go backwards when the universe began to collapse. People in their contracting phase would live their lives backward, they would die before they were born, and get younger as the universe got small again. Eventually they would return to the womb.” He confesses later that he made a mistake and time would in fact not reverse. Suppose, though, that his initial hunch was true. Might it be possible that the life you’re living right now is actually being played out in reverse, and how would you know one way or the other?

4. Hawking makes several comments about God’s possible role in creation. For example, he states, “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would neither be created or destroyed. It would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?” Later on he states the following: “Einstein once asked the question, how much choice did God have in constructing the universe. If my proposal that the universe has no boundary is correct, he had no freedom at all to choose how the universe began. He would only have had the freedom to choose the laws the universe obeyed. This however may not have been all that much of a choice. There my well be only one unified theory that allows for the existence of structures as complicated as human beings who can investigate the laws of the universe and ask about the nature of God.” With comments like this he seems to be implying that physics undermines traditional notions of God’s creative power. Should conservative religious believers go to war against Hawking and other such physicists?

5. One physicist in the movie stated that there is something odd about consciousness insofar as the future in some way affects the past – if only by a fraction of a second. He continues, “There’s no reason to believe that one’s conscious experience shouldn’t be part of somebody else at some other stage. I don’t know if it is fair to say what happens after one dies, but its a plausible picture that you could become somebody else, and that somebody could be someone who lived in the past, and not in the future.” Is this an example of an agnostic physicist grasping at straws to preserve some notion of immortality?

6. When discussing the big crunch, another physicist in the move stated that “If it should turn out that indeed the universe is limited in its life, how different is that from the life of each one of us?” Unlike the previous physicist, this one seems to be content with denying both human immortality and the eternality of the universe – a prospect which many of us would find a little depressing. Should our discomfort with this scenario prompt us explore immortality-friendly theories of physics? Consider Jessica Lange’s statement in the movie Sweet Dreams: “People in hell want ice water, that don’t mean they get it.”

7. Hawking concluded the film with the following: “If we do discover a complete theory of the universe, it should in time be understood 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 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.” Suppose that we someday get the story right. How might ordinary people engage in discussions about its implications?

8. Hawking seems to be religiously agnostic or perhaps even an atheist. Still, he continually talks about God. Why?

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