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Stephen Hawking, the biggest brain among the big brains of physics, took the star turn here for the recent World Science Festival. That he is now spending several weeks at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., is a feather in the cap of Canadian science.
But before he left New York this week, he gave a widely noticed interview to Diane Sawyer, in which she asked him about the biggest mystery he would like solved. “I want to know why the universe exists, why there is something greater than nothing,” Hawking explained.
That is, as the ancient Greeks did not say, the granddaddy of all philosophical questions. Why is there something rather than nothing? No matter how clever you are, if you don’t have a compelling answer to that question, you can only aspire to knowledge — albeit impressive knowledge — but not wisdom.
It is a question for which natural science — astronomy, physics, mathematics — offers no help. In order to do science, there has to be something to observe. Science explains a great deal about how things behave, but nothing about why things exist in the first place. Moreover, science presupposes a certain order in the natural world in order to apply the scientific method. How order can emerge from nothingness is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. It is, as the ancient Greeks did say, beyond physics. The word for that is metaphysics. And Stephen Hawking, a master of physics, is perfectly in line with the ancient philosophers when he acknowledges that physics itself points to the deeper questions of metaphysics.
Hawking does not believe in the personal God of Abrahamic revelation, whose creative love is the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing. That’s fine insofar as metaphysics does not have to be theological. Metaphysics is simply the point to which human reason, applied in rigorous research, arrives. The study of how things develop and change must drive the even mildly curious intellect to ask why things exist at all. As Hawking acknowledges, his discipline cannot provide an answer to that “mystery” — but it forces the question.