Death of Stephen Hawking

Prof. Stephen Hawking passed away yesterday 14/3/18 at the age of 76 and by all accounts he died peacefully in his home. Prof. Hawking was a world renowned physicist not only for his work on big bang cosmology (originally theorised by Catholic priest George LeMaitre) and his work on black holes, but he also popularised modern physics to a general reading public.

Whilst a research student I read A Brief History of Time and his interpretation of big bang cosmology such that there are no boundary conditions and so no beginning of the universe. I then read uncomfortably his suggestion that with no beginning of things there was no need for a cause. This was uncomfortable for me because as a philosophy student schooled in logic it appeared to me that Hawking committed a clear fallacy of denying the antecedent: if x has a beginning it has a cause, x does not have a beginning therefore it does not have a cause. Recognising this fallacy I then related it to the medieval discussion, particularly of Thomas Aquinas, of the possibility of a beginningless created universe. This is to the effect that the universe could be without a beginning and yet have a cause; the typical metaphor for this is that an eternal foot is the cause of an eternal footprint on an eternal sandy beach.

Realising that Hawking’s remarks brought him into dialogue with medieval views in philosophy prompted me to do research on the metaphysics of creation which in turn prompted me to investigate more in depth Aquinas’s proof for God in the De Ente et Essentia. The former work led to the publication, ‘A Thomistic Metaphysics of Creation‘, Religious Studies (2012), 48 pp. 337 – 356, and the research into the proof of God led to a book with Oxford University Press, Aquinas’s Way to God: The Proof in the De Ente et Essentia.

Stephen Hawking had a real gift for presenting modern physics to a contemporary public, and perhaps unknown to himself his engagements have brought him into dialogue with perennial themes in the philosophical tradition, particularly in this case the medieval tradition represented by Aquinas. Hopefully part of his legacy will be that more people take seriously the task of thinking about the origins of the universe and our place within it.

Dr Gaven Kerr