Updated: Jul 9, 2020
I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these 'how' and 'why' questions. Occasionally, I find an answer. - Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988
Stephen Hawking is one of the most notable and memorable scientists of the last several decades. Born in Oxford, England, in 1942, he overcame a lot—WWII, Lou Gehrig's disease, Britain's dark and gloomy weather, endless arrays of doctors forecasting his early demise since 1963, 30+ years of Dr. Who, the Spice Girls, mad cows ... etc. His theories on black holes, the big bang, and cosmology earned him much respect in the world of physics; his popular books, TV shows, and speeches mesmerized the public and challenged them to think about big questions that hitherto were either confined to those with PhDs or to the inhabitants of insane asylums.
Given all of Stephen Hawking's accomplishments in physics, did he ever tackle the question, "What is the meaning of Life?". The answer to that is yes! In 2018, BrainPickings wrote an article on the subject. But in the article they highlight only one source, a book titled Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, which by in large consists of interviews conducted by Alan Lightman and Roberta Brawer. Interviews with famous scientists from around the world, that is; and lo and behold, one particular interview was with Stephen Hawking:
Alan: There's a place in Steve Weinberg's book The First Three Minutes where he writes that the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. Have you ever thought about this question of whether the universe has a point?
Stephen: I don't feel like that. I think that human intellectual history is a record of how we have come nearer and nearer to an understanding of the order in the universe. I'm proud of our achievement.
From this, we see that Stephen clearly doesn't envision a pointless universe. But does he find that there is a meaning to our lives? Well, there are a few quotes attributed to Hawking that are transversing the tremendously wonderful interwebs, and the first goes something like this: The meaning of life is not out there but in between our ears. In many ways this makes us lords of creation. However, I have been unable to identify the source. As such, the likelihood he said it is slim. It is equally likely to have been created by an internet troll or an artificially intelligent quote generator. A second quote on the web befalls a similar fate: It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious. Hmm! Be curious. That sounds like something Hawking would say, and in fact did many times throughout his life, but perhaps not in this exact form.
Moving along, the first episode of a 2012 series called Stephen Hawking's Grand Design is titled, The Meaning of Life. Having watched this episode carefully, I didn't find Hawking directly tackling the question. But, all in all, I believe this episode indirectly highlights his solution as of 2012. That is, science, exploration, curiosity—human ingenuity give rise to the emergent phenomenon we know as meaning.
If you were in search of something more from Hawking on the subject, don't be discouraged. He does eventually address the question and his idea on the topic will definitely blow your mind. However, before we get to that mind blowing answer, he also teases a more romantic solution in his 2013 book, My Brief History:
Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing. But shortly after I came out of the hospital, I dreamed that I was going to be executed. I suddenly realized that there were a lot of worthwhile things I could do if I was reprieved. Another dream I had several times was that I would sacrifice my life to save others. After all, if I was going to die anyway, I might as well do some good.
I found to my surprise that I was enjoying life. What really made the difference was that I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met about the time I was diagnosed with ALS. This gave me something to live for.
Now, on to Hawking's truly exceptional and unique answer. In a TV series that came out in 2016 called Genius, two years before he died, he leads a group of three non-scientists to carry out a series of experiments to answer the question "Why Are We Here?". After leading the group through an experiment, The Libet Experiment, an experiment that according to Hawking and other scientists prove that people have no free will, Hawking states:
My opinion is that the brain is made of matter which, like the rest of the universe must follow the laws of nature. There is no special stuff in our heads, no ghost in the machine.
Scary music starts to play in the background and chills run up your spine as you continue watching the episode. No ghost in the machine ... no free will ... damn. What meaning can life have if we are automatons merely imitating autonomous beings? This is not the first time this topic has been addressed on this website. In fact, during a book review in 2017, Paul Thagard's thoughts on the lack of free will were examined. This won't be rehashed here, but what can be said is that Hawking's solution is unlike anything you can imagine.
To give life meaning, Hawking takes things to extraordinary levels. To give life meaning, we must accept the idea of a multiverse, to accept the many world's theory in physics. Rather than explain that here, I'll just post a video from Minute Physics that summarizes the concept briefly.
From this stems Hawking's thoughts on meaning:
Our brains are bound by the laws of nature. These laws imply that there are multiple universes which allow for each and every possible outcome. This leads us to the most extraordinary idea—the universe you find yourself in may be your own unique version. So, here is where I think we can find meaning in our lives, thanks to science. Although we are, each of us, a product of the universe. The universe we live in, is personal to us.
He ends the episode with an even longer quote, which is concluded with: So, no matter how bad things get, I always say, don't look down at your feet, but look up at the stars.
Hawking's reflections on meaning are both humbling and profound. According to him, we have no free will, no ghost in the machine, no soul, and yet, that should not discourage us. Instead, we should view the many world's theory and science as a way to find meaning in our lives, a way for us automatons to find solace—whether we want to or not. Because hey, the universe is unique to you, so go on living life to the fullest, the choice isn't yours ... according to Hawking. In this we should be able to find some scrap of atheistic sacramentality.
Want something more, something inspirational? Check out Hawking's 2012 speech at the Paralympics.
Has Stephen Hawking discussed the meaning of life elsewhere? If so, let us know by commenting below.