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Stephen Hawking professed himself an atheist, a point that journalists and others couldn’t resist making when it was announced last week that the ashes of the great theoretical physicist are to be interred in Westminster Abbey, one of England’s most ancient sacred spaces.
“He was an atheist who said that belief in the afterlife was nothing more than a fairy story for people afraid of death,” was the opening sentence in The Sunday Times account. The story noted that the Dean of Westminster, the Reverend John Hall, was “unconcerned” about Hawking’s atheism. “We believe it to be vital,” said Hall, “that science and religion work together to seek to answer the great questions of the mystery of life and of the universe.”
Certainly Hawking professed no religion, and disclaimed any belief in life after death. “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he said. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers.”
In a 2014 interview with El Mundo, he claimed that when less was known of science it was “natural to believe that God created the universe,” but that “now science offers a more convincing explanation.” At the end of “A Brief History of Time,” his 1988 bestseller, Hawking wrote that if scientists succeed in formulating a “theory of everything” — a description of the universe that would neatly and elegantly explain all its dimensions and interacting forces, at both the infinitely small level of subatomic particles and the immensely large scale of the galaxies — “we would know the mind of God.” What he meant by that, he told El Mundo, is: “We would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
Perhaps he was. But he never displayed the kind of rigid, uncompromising atheism of militant nonbelievers like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens. Over the course of his career Hawking invoked God regularly and respectfully. “I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science,” he told Reuters in a 2007 interview. “The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” That isn’t an expression of atheism, but of deism — the belief in a God of creation, but not of history — a God who set the universe in motion but doesn’t interfere in the affairs of mankind.
On a number of occasions, Hawking spoke almost religiously of the anthropic principle, the mind-boggling, infinitesimal level of fine-tuning necessary for the universe to exist at all. Eric Metaxas explained the principle in a Wall Street Journal essay:
Astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces — gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces — were determined less than one millionth of a second after the Big Bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction — by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000 — then no stars could have ever formed at all.
The late mathematician and science historian Amir Aczel, in one of his last books, quotes a comment of Hawking’s on the implications of the anthropic principle:
In science, the fine-tuning of the parameters required for life has such an incredibly small probability to have arisen that the famous British cosmologist Stephen Hawking has described it as follows: “If one considers the possible constants and laws that could have emerged, the odds against a universe that has produced life like ours are immense,” and “I think there are clearly religious implications whenever you start to discuss the origins of the universe.”
Hawking may not have been a religious believer in any conventional sense, but other renowned scientists certainly have been — for example, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and former head of the Human Genome Project. Others, though drawn to agnosticism, have expressed their inescapable conviction that a supreme power created the laws of nature. Albert Einstein famously wrote: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the law of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort.”
No one can know Hawking’s ultimate views on the subject or exactly how they may have fluctuated over the course of his life. (And no, contrary to an urban legend that made the rounds, Hawking was not converted to Christianity on his deathbed by the pope). But whatever else may be said of his thoughts about God, he was too honest and fair-minded to deny that a deep commitment to science is not incompatible with a deep faith in a Creator who brought the universe, life, and mankind into existence. So many of his fellow scientists, after all, embrace both.
Hawking’s remains will be interred in the nave of Westminster Abbey, close to those of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Newton, who was named to the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge University in 1669 — three centuries before Hawking was named to the same position — was arguably the most influential thinker in the history of science. To call his innovations, discoveries, and calculations revolutionary would be a grievous understatement. Newton discovered the composition of light, deduced the laws of motion, invented calculus, computed the speed of sound, and defined universal gravitation. He laid the foundations of classical mechanics, built the first reflecting telescope, and extended every field of mathematics known in his day.
At the same time, as I wrote in this 2007 column, he was a profoundly religious believer. So preoccupied was Newton with biblical prophecy that he wrote a book titled “Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John.” In his writings on astronomy, Newton reflected on the divine mathematical perfection of the solar system: “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and domination of an intelligent and powerful Being,” he wrote. “He governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done.” For Newton, it was axiomatic that religious inquiry and scientific investigation complemented each other, and that there were truths to be found in both of the “books” authored by God — the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature.
For Darwin, too, religious feeling was no impediment to scientific rigor. The notion that his theory of evolution exploded all basis for belief in a God who created life on Earth is not one Darwin himself gave credence to. For the eponymous father of Darwinian natural selection, evolution is the mechanism devised by God to produce the extraordinary diversity of the plant and animal kingdoms. The closing passage of Darwin’s great work, “The Origin of Species,” makes precisely that point:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
Among those “most beautiful and most wonderful” creations was the mind of Stephen Hawking, who yearned all his life to “know the mind of God.” Perhaps it is only now, in death, that he has finally edged closer than he could ever have imagined to the fulfillment of that dream.
The abominable omnibus
On Friday morning, President Trump threatened to veto the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill Congress had just passed. On Friday afternoon he relented and signed it anyway, tweeting: “I will NEVER sign another bill like this again.”
I wish he had stuck to his original threat. I hope he sticks to the new one.
Everything about this appropriations bill was revolting.
It was unveiled on the evening of Wednesday, March 21. The House of Representatives passed it — all 2,232 pages of it — one day later. For a few hours in the Senate on Thursday, Rand Paul of Kentucky forestalled action on the bill as he tried to read at least some of the legislation and call attention to a few of its more obnoxious provisions. But eventually he stood down, and the Senate passed the abomination shortly after midnight on Friday.
From every point of view, this bloated bill is a disgrace and a fiasco. It is an exercise in budgeting without even a hint of discipline, in legislating without even a hint of deliberation, and in bipartisan logrolling without even a hint of principle. It increases discretionary spending — i.e., the part of the budget not already committed to entitlement programs or interest on the debt — by a stunning 13%. The tens of billions of dollars in spending that it adds are offset by no reforms or reductions. Over the next 10 years, it will swell the national debt by an additional $2 trillion.
If this is what Republicans have achieved after just 14 months of controlling both the legislative and executive branches, the mind reels at the thought of what they might achieve if they retain control of Congress after the November elections.
This isn’t an original observation, but it bears repeating: When Republicans are out of office or in the minority, they are the party of fiscal discipline. When they regain office or are in the majority, there is no party of fiscal discipline. Virtually every earnest vow they make about how budgeting will be different on the GOP’s watch go out the window once they take the helm. As the Washington Post reported, the massive spending package:
abandons GOP claims of fiscal discipline in a stark reversal of the promises many Republicans ran on in capturing control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 as they railed against what they described as a profligate President Barack Obama. And in another about-face, GOP leaders tossed aside their own rules and past complaints about Democrats to rush the legislation through the House ahead of the Friday midnight government shutdown deadline. Lawmakers of both parties seethed, saying they had scant time to read the mammoth bill, which was released less than 17 hours before the House voted.
Well, if Republicans “seethed” at being given no time to read such a gargantuan bill, why did so many of them vote for it? Because of the threat of a federal government shutdown? That’s nonsense. Everyone knows that the federal government never shuts down. At most it sometimes goes through a few hours or days of shutdown theater, during which Washington doesn’t become a ghost town, Social Security checks don’t bounce, US Marines don’t lay down their weapons, and the Federal Register keeps spooling out rules and regulations.
Some of us are old enough to remember 2010, the year Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections during President Obama’s first term. The GOP swept to victory in part on the strength of its “Pledge to America,” which contained numerous unambiguous promises to clean up Congress’s act. Among them were commitments to “put government on a path to a balanced budget,” to “pay down the debt,” and to “cut Congress’s budget.” Republicans swore that if they were given power, they would “fight to ensure transparency and accountability in Congress” and would “fight the growth of government and oppose new stimulus spending that only puts our nation further in debt.”
And there were these promises, too:
We will “read the bill” and require legislation to be publicly available at least 3 days before voting on it.
We will ensure an open and bipartisan debate on all spending bills.
We will advance legislative issues one at a time and end the practice of massive bills that address unrelated issues.
Ah, well, that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Meanwhile, even if lawmakers couldn’t be troubled to go through the abomnibus, others did.
Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog, discovered that the bill requires the Pentagon to spend $6.8 billion on equipment and research that military officials don’t want and didn’t request. It even includes a provision — Section 8120 — prohibiting the Defense Department from proposing, planning for, or carrying out the closing of any military base. Reason’s Eric Boehm flagged the $500 million in ongoing subsidies to Planned Parenthood — there’s another oft-repeated GOP promise broken — and the increase in funding for Head Start to $9.8 billion, despite years of government studies demonstrating that the program’s effects are at best few and fleeting. In Politico, Michael Grunwald noted that the omnibus bill, far from killing programs that the Trump administration recommended zeroing out, enlarges them.
The whole thing is atrocious, and proof — as if proof were still needed — that the system is irredeemably broken.
“One of Congress’s most basic, constitutional duties is to pass the annual appropriations bills in a timely fashion, with lawmakers fully understanding the content of these bills,” writes Brian Riedl, a senior researcher at the Manhattan Institute who has followed Washington budget-making for years. But it doesn’t come close to fulfilling its responsibility:
Specifically, Congress is required to pass 12 appropriations bills each year before the October 1 fiscal new year. In reality, this has happened only twice since 1985. The other 31 years saw an average of just one annual appropriations bill enacted on time. And between 2009 and 2015, not a single appropriations bill was completed before October 1. . . . Instead, Congress typically merges all 12 appropriations bills into one mammoth “omnibus bill” and, in 2018, will have waited to enact it until the fiscal year is nearly half over.
Riedl offers a list of common-sense reforms, including shifting the start of the fiscal year to January, switching to a biennial appropriation process, and barring a vote on any bill the text of which hasn’t been publicly available for at least 72 hours.
Identifying necessary reforms is easy. The hard part — the impossible part — is getting members of Congress to adhere to them. As the federal government spends trillions of dollars it doesn’t have, most Republicans and Democrats have neither the desire nor the will to break the habit, and most voters have neither the desire nor the will to rein them in. As recently as the 1970s, the national debt equaled less than 40 percent of the country’s annual economic output. Today it has soared to more than 100 percent. We are headed for a terrible fiscal crash, and we keep reelecting the same reckless drivers.
Site to see
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of drivel, some websites are charming islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I call attention to one of these online treasures.
This week’s site is the online home of Westminster Abbey [URL: http://westminster-abbey.org/ ], the storied Anglican church in London where 3,300 notable Britons are buried or commemorated (soon to be joined by Stephen Hawking). Westminster Abbey is, first and foremost, a house of worship. It is also an important center of choral and instrumental music — a place that “ has resounded to music every day for over one thousand years.” Moreover, Westminster Abbey has been the site of every coronation since 1066, as well as of numerous royal weddings, christenings, proclamations, and funerals. The Abbey’s walls are adorned with fine art, its library contains a vast collection of books and manuscripts, and among the great bells that peal from its tower is one dating to 1310.
For anyone with an interest in English history, religion, or royalty, the website is a cornucopia of material — including short descriptions of hundreds of the famous Englishmen memorialized within its walls. Here is a sample, from the entry on Edward VII’s coronation:
[C]oronation day was set for 26 June 1902 and guests were invited from all over the world. However, the King suffered an [attack of] appendicitis a few days beforehand and developed peritonitis: unless he postponed the coronation and had an operation immediately he would die. The King, though hugely reluctant, finally relented and 9 August was chosen as the new date. By then he was much recovered and the service proceeded as planned. The ageing and almost blind Archbishop of Canterbury had the prayers printed in large letters on card so he could see them. He still mis-read some of them and at the moment of crowning (after he appeared to drop the crown) he placed it on the King’s head the wrong way round!
Want to recommend a website for this feature? Send me the link (email@example.com) , and put “Site to See” in the subject line.
My Sunday column, written as part of a special issue on dreams in the Boston Globe Ideas section, told the stories of two American inventor/entrepreneurs who were stymied by a problem and found the answer in a dream. Elias Howe, inventor of the lockstitch sewing machine, and Madame C. J. Walker, creator of a line of hair-care products, became famous and wealthy as the result of an insight that came to them, quite literally, in their sleep.
My column last Wednesday described a new form of capital punishment coming to the state of Oklahoma: nitrogen hypoxia, or death by inhaling nitrogen gas. While nitrogen, the main component of the air we breathe naturally, is not toxic in itself, breathing it in pure form induces death by displacing oxygen in the lungs. That leads to unconsciousness within a few breaths and to brain death soon after. Executing a condemned murderer with nitrogen would involve no needles, bullets, or electrical jolts. The inmate would simply pass out painlessly and expire — as humane a method of death as has ever been devised.
The last line
“So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” — Philip Roth, “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969)