Between the slow emissions from black holes, and the raging unravelling of the Big Bang, locating answers to the other large questions might seem a bit too ambitious. Stephen Hawking’s cosmology, after all, blazed along the path that began with the Copernican revolution. Humans are, as Hawking put it, “just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star.” The universe itself will die, as will life long before it. But, he goes on to say, since we can understand the universe, “this makes us special”.
But, the cleverness of the quote notwithstanding, the problem of morality in an uncaring multiverse remains. Why, if there is no god, no purpose to the cosmos other than its inevitable end, should we be good to each other? For Hawking, as with anyone who does not have a divine, intentional explanation for the first cause, there is an inherent contradiction between ontology and ethics.
But the solution to the conundrum thrown up by Hawking’s model is with Hawking himself.
People, even the planet they inhabit, are but an accretion of atoms and molecules, of stardust from the beginning. On the other hand, a system of ethics, to have any force, must place persons (human and non-human) at its core. That we understand the universe, or are capable of doing so, is not a satisfactory resolution. After all, for all we know, elephants have a great understanding of string theory and the inner narrative of dogs contemplates tera-forming Venus.
The problem of an indifferent, entropic universe’s implications on morality have been dealt with, very broadly, in two ways. First, is to avoid it completely as religion does. Sometimes, cabinet ministers decrying evolution and flat earth-ists do crop up, but religion has, more or less, ceded space and the grand narrative about beginnings and ends to science.
Then, there are those who take on the challenge of locating morality in man head-on. For Jean-Paul Satre “existence preceded essence”. Simply put, unlike say, an amoeba, much of what makes us human is learnt. In the existential scheme of things, then, the starting point is existence and the only certainty is mortality. This is both liberating and constraining: It acknowledges the absurdity of consciousness while still situating the onus of being good on people.
Another moral framework replaces divine intentionality with social forces. When Karl Marx says, “being determines consciousness,” he makes class in the relations of production responsible for “the problem of evil”. The issue many would have with a grand narrative like this is that it is simply religion by another name.
But this brouhaha over gods, cosmology and morality didn’t have quite the same force in the pre-Christian era. Being good was an act and not a system of belief. A good life (eudaemonia) for Aristotle consisted of health, wealth, respect of friends and family and, importantly, luck. For most laypersons, of course, this is likely more in line with what for them too would constitute success. One is good, then, only in as much as it is a useful component of having the good life.
Yet, none of these approaches actually deals with the original problem. Why should Stephen Hawking care about other people given that he knows that life is, in the larger scheme of things, meaningless? Or more generally, for the rest of us, why get out of bed at all? So here it is, the Hawking answer to ennui.
Apart from the obvious inspiration that Hawking’s rich intellectual and public life, despite his debilitating disease, provides, there are two themes that carve out the beginnings of a moral path. Love and Humour.
Within theoretical and applied physics, Hawking’s contributions are considerable and his academic laurels were more than enough to rest on. His choice to be a science communicator to a more general audience can be explained by his sheer love for what he does. In this case, evangelism is born, as it always is, from the desire to share what you know to be good and true. In his personal life, too, by most accounts, he was affectionate caring and understanding. This ability to look outward, it can be argued, was enhanced by his paralysis. But we are limited by our bodies and minds, each in her own way.
The first moral lesson from the scholar of black holes, then, is to love and love outward, to care not from a sense of altruism but a deep desire to share.
Too often, humour can be a way to bully, to put down others and act out insecurities. But it can also be, as with Hawking, a way to navigate the treacheries of life. Many, if not most, young people likely know of Hawking more from his television appearances on The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek. That he did not take himself too seriously and that by laughing at his own condition, he ceased to let it define him, is evident to anyone who has watched him. In the uncaring multiverse, perhaps even more than in the created universe, that ability to laugh is a useful tool. As Albert Camus pointed out, in a godless universe, absurdity is inevitable.
But if you can love and laugh like Hawking you’re probably doing okay.
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