Anyone well-versed on the Roman Catholic Church knows that, like every human endeavor, its history is marred by acts of hubris. In the 1630’s, one of the Church’s most flawed judgments may have been the decision to put Galileo Galilei, arguably the father of modern science, under house arrest following an Inquisition.
That incident is spotlighted in the 2017 edition of Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time. Earlier in the book, Hawking explains, “I had no desire to share the fate of Galileo, with whom I feel a strong sense of identity, partly because of the coincidence of having been born exactly 300 years after his death!”
If only the Vatican foresaw how persecuting Galileo would play out. In the attempt to protect Catholic orthodoxy by repressing scientific advancement, the Church created a schism between science and theology that haunts Western civilization 100’s of years later. Without being fully cognizant of it, Hawking seems as much a victim as anyone.
The book is a testament to Hawking’s remarkable command of scientific advancement – from Aristotle’s observation that the earth is round in 340 B.C. to the 1998 recognition that the universe’s expansion may be accelerating, made possible by the Hubble space telescope.
By tracing the arc of theoretical science, Hawking makes it possible for laymen like me to understand how human exploration of the cosmos, subatomic particles, and creation have evolved, from quantum mechanics to string theory. He writes, “Questions about our origins were once regarded as the territory of philosophers and theologians. But gradually the answers have been provided by science; speculations have been replaced by hard facts.”
Yet by making these arguments so zealously, Hawking appears blind to a basic inconsistency in his own ideology. On the one hand, he is a well-known atheist who rejected notions of God and the afterlife as irrational leaps of faith. In a 2011 interview, he dismissed heaven as “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
On the other hand, his audacious certainty that theoretical science alone can deliver ultimate purpose to humanity may be an even bigger leap of faith. By posturing such grandiose notions, which may have no firmer grounding in “hard facts” than the basic tenets of theology and philosophy, he falls prey to the same motivation that led to Galileo’s house arrest.
Perhaps recognizing the hubris in what Hawking portrays as life-changing scientific discoveries may help us to see the religious parallels. When it comes to living lives of purpose, both science and theology prove empty without the willingness to make leaps of personal faith while remaining ever mindful of our basic human fallibility.
Benjamin J. Lindquist has spent the past 25 years pushing for American education to be re-formed as a researcher, writer, social entrepreneur and venture philanthropist. He lives in Denver with his wife of 21 years and their 9-year old son.