Science, faith and the world’s most famous physicist

June 22, 2010

Eye on Faith and Science


Pope Benedict XVI blesses British physicist Stephen Hawking during a meeting with science academics at the Vatican in 2008. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Stephen Hawking certainly is a brilliant man. The renowned scientist and author of the best-selling book “A Brief History of Time” has given us new perspectives on how the universe works, popularizing complex ideas much like astronomer Carl Sagan did in the early 1980s.

But when it comes to the question of why the universe exists, even Hawking admits he doesn’t have the answer.

In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News, Hawking said knowing why the universe exists, “why there is something greater than nothing” is a mystery he would like solved.

He evidently is looking for a scientific explanation. But questions about the universe’s meaning are more appropriate for the realms of philosophy and religion, not science. During the interview, Hawking went on to share some of his thoughts on that topic as well:

“What could define God [is thinking of God] as the embodiment of the laws of nature. However, this is not what most people would think of that God,” Hawking said. “They made a human-like being with whom one can have a personal relationship. When you look at the vast size of the universe and how insignificant an accidental human life is in it, that seems most impossible.”

As a person of faith, I look at things differently than Hawking. In one sense, I agree with him: If you consider human life in the context of the immensity of the entire universe, we are like a drop of water in an infinitely large ocean. But, to me, that fact is evidence that we are special, not that we are insignificant.

Science certainly isn’t equipped to pass judgment on the significance of our existence. It is my Catholic faith that helps me to understand that we humans — uniquely endowed with intelligence and the ability to love — are reflections of a loving Creator who gives meaning to our existence.

In the ABC interview, Hawking went on to say that “there is a fundamental difference” between religion and science and that “science will win because it works.” He sets up an apparent conflict between faith and science; but in reality there need not be any conflict between the two.

Both faith and science — in their own separate ways — help us to understand our world, our universe and our place in them.

In 1988, Pope John Paul II issued an important letter stressing the need for an ongoing dialogue between faith and science. Here is a key passage from that letter illustrating his point:

“Turning to the relationship between religion and science, there has been a definite, though still fragile and provisional, movement toward a new and more nuanced interchange. We have begun to talk to one another on deeper levels than before and with greater openness toward one another’s perspectives. We have begun to search together for a more thorough understanding of one another’s disciplines, with their competencies and their limitations, and especially for areas of common ground. In doing so we have uncovered important questions which concern both of us and which are vital to the larger human community we both serve. It is crucial that this common search based on critical openness and interchange should not only continue, but also grow and deepen in its quality and scope.

“For the impact each has and will continue to have on the course of civilization and on the world itself cannot be overestimated, and there is so much that each can offer the other.”

About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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