Stephen Hawking: No Time Travel, No Afterlife

This is at the CNET website: Stephen Hawking waxes dismal on time travel and the afterlife.

There’s nothing especially new here, but it’ll drive the creationists crazy. Besides, if it’s Hawking, that’s good enough for us. After some unnecessary introductory fluff, they say:

[I]n a BBC documentary that aired this week, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking offered nothing but bad news. Hawking was speaking with Dara O’Briain, a comedian who also happens to have studied theoretical physics.

That’s an interesting background for a comedian. They provide a brief video from the documentary if you want to watch it: Dara O Briain meets Stephen Hawking. It’s only three minutes long. Then CNET tells us:

O’Briain was keen to know whether time travel was possible, especially the back-to-the-future kind. He mentioned that in 1992 Hawking had offered the “chronology protection conjecture,” which insisted that if time travel were possible, it certainly could never be backwards time travel. O’Briain, therefore, sniffed that Hawking had ruined the Terminator movies.

Wikipedia has a writeup on that: Chronology protection conjecture. We have our own “Curmudgeon Protection Conjecture,” according to which nature allows no tampering with the past because it might interfere with the existence of your Curmudgeon. Anyway, how did Hawking respond? Let’s read on:

Hawking wasn’t impressed. He wasn’t impressed with the idea that we might one day be able to use black holes to travel back in time, either. He said: “If you jump in a black hole, you will meet an unpleasant fate.”

No argument there. The article continues:

Not even messages, said Hawking, could be sent back in time. This led O’Briain to muse, as Hawking was sitting there: “All science fiction is dead. Thank you, Stephen Hawking.”

Humbug! SF writers — and presumably most readers — don’t literally believe in time travel, but it’s a fun fictional concept. Here’s more:

Hawking wasn’t any more optimistic about humans reaching distant planets. He said: “The present breed of humans won’t reach the stars.” The distances are too great. The radiation exposure would be too severe.

That’s depressing. Moving along:

The only hope he offered — one that surely excites many at Google — is to “genetically engineer humans or send machines.”

There’s no explanation about why that idea would excite “many at Google.” Another excerpt:

But then O’Briain reached the subject of God. Hawking explained he wasn’t persuaded that the Earth was created by God in seven days. He prefers the scientific explanation of the Big Bang.

It was six days, but that’s a trivial matter. On with the article:

Hawking has previously declared that he doesn’t believe in God. But what about an afterlife? Couldn’t we still believe in that? Couldn’t we hope that there might be something beyond this absurd existence?

This is Hawking’s answer:

Hawking sniffed: “I think the afterlife is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

So there you are. We’re looking forward to the creationists’ reaction.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Stephen Hawking: No Time Travel, No Afterlife

  1. Holding The Line In Florida

    I imagine Hambone will as you say “froth at the mouth and chew carpet!” It would be fun to watch!

  2. Hawking explained he wasn’t persuaded that the Earth was created by God in seven days. He prefers the scientific explanation of the Big Bang.

    Of course, so did Father Lemaitre, the guy who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang Theory, while also claiming God created that particular type of beginning.

    Leave out the six days/seven days aspect, and many millions of theists assume that God was behind the Big Bang. So it is interesting how some people see the theological explanation and the scientific explanation in conflict and some do not.

  3. Third Prof quite unusually errs – and no less than twice on top. Father Lemaitre was not the first to propose what would become the Big Bang. but the second. The first one was atheist commie Alexander Friedmann.

    That’s why science is so great – how likely is it that Belgian catholics and Soviet atheists agree on anything? But when doing science they arrive at the same result.

    What’s more – Father Lemaitre did not claim that his or any god created that particular type of beginning. He actually warned explicitely against it.

    Of course there are hordes of catholic Ken Hams who conveniently neglect this, but that’s no excuse for folks like us.

  4. My wording was indeed clumsy. What I meant to say was that it was Lemaitre’s (and not Friedmann’s) theory which was first called the Big Bang Theory as the ACTUAL cosmological model of the universe. Furthermore, I was of the impression that Hoyle knew of Lemaitre’s work but not Friedman’s. (But I could very well be wrong about that. I was thinking that it was Lemaitre’s statement about “the Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation” which Hoyle was mocking.) Perhaps a physicist among us here could clarify.

    More importantly, it was my understanding that Lemaitre was the first to propose the Big Bang Theory as the cosmological model–an actual description of the actual beginning of the actual universe. I thought Friedmann only published a series of theoretical mathematical models of theoretical universes to show how they would “behave” if they were expanding and contracting–but that Friedmann never claimed that our universe was started in that way. [I ask those who are far more more knowledgeable in the history of physics to comment on that. Have I stated the distinctions properly?]

    I once heard a physicist on the BBC describe it this way: Friedmann said that it would be possible for an expanding and contracting universe to do thus and so but Lemaitre (without knowing of Friedmann’s complex theoretical mathematics paper) was the first to assert in the physics of this universe that this BBT model explained it’s actual beginning. So I understood that Friedmann provided the math which made it “rigorously believable” but Lemaitre was the first to propose what Hoyle dubbed “The Big Bang Theory”, and Lemaitre was the first to propose it as the cosmological model.

    Now I certainly don’t take any bets on the accuracy of my memory, as my brain is waaaay past its warranty expiration date.

    What’s more – Father Lemaitre did not claim that his or any god created that particular type of beginning. He actually warned explicitely against it.

    No. On this you misunderstood Lemaitre. As a Roman Catholic clergyman, Lemaitre most certainly did claim that God created the universe–and he told a great many individuals that he was very excited about his theory providing scientific validation for what Thomas Aquinas had written about creatio ex nihilo

    Father Lemaitre was a very humble man in terms of concern that any errors which might later appear in his work would reflect badly on the Church and Christian thought. He was therefore especially concerned that the Pope not “bet his infallibility” on a scientific theory which might later be overturned. That is why he begged the Pope and others to contain their excitement about the BBT. But outside of official publications and public statements, he was very excited about (and willing to say so) having discovered how God’s EX NIHILO creation occurred. (I recall some jokes around that time of how Lemaitre could become a “another patron saint of Thomism if there hadn’t already been one”.)

    As to He actually warned explicitely against it., this was his reaction to the Pope et al using his theory as any kind of proof of God or the officially declared Vatican position on creation. (And once Lemaitre and others had exhorted the Pope in this regard, the Vatican did pull back its overplaying the issue.)

    Of course, Lemaitre would never claim that the BBT was a proof of God, any more than photosynthesis or evolution or anything else in science. (Obviously, it is impossible for science to make declarations about topics outside of the scientific method.)

  5. I wonder why creationists dislike the Big Bang Theory. Is it just a matter of it being co-dependent with “deep time”?

  6. Stephen Kennedy

    Freidmann was more interested in the mathematics of Einstein’s Field Equations and managed to find one solution that allowed for an expanding Universe. There is no indication that he claimed that represented actual cosmic reality. Freidmann found the solution that permitted an expanding Universe in 1923. At the time it was believed by nearly all astronomers, including Einstein, that the Universe was static.

    For some reason, even though his paper was published, it does not appear to have been widely read. Friedmann died of Typhoid fever in 1924 at age 37 and nothing more came of his paper.

    Father Georges Lemaitre was unaware of Friedmann’s work and in 1927 set out to solve the Einstein equations with the specific intent of applying them to the origins of the Universe. Fr. Lemaitre found all three solutions to the equations and recognized the cosmic implications of them and published his theory of the primeval atom, later to called the big bang, in 1927. He also derived the equation that would later be called Hubbell’s Law.

    Fr. Lemaitre was very careful to keep his scientific findings and theories separate from his beliefs as a Catholic priest

  7. TomS commented: I wonder why creationists dislike the Big Bang Theory. Is it just a matter of it being co-dependent with “deep time”?


  8. Mike Elzinga

    The concept of time is very much wrapped up with not only the concept of a “clock,” but it is also dependent on a complex system of memories with hierarchies in which there can be memories of memories. Without the latter, there can be no awareness of the changing events in those physical systems that we single out and call “clocks” or any other physical system for that matter.

    The latter requirement is also illustrated by those tragic situations in which people – as a result of disease or damage to their brains – no longer have any short-term memory in which recent events are transferred to long-term memory for comparisons with older recorded events. They lose the ability to sense the “passage of time.”

    As to “clocks,” we usually single out periodic states in physical systems as clocks; this is done for convenience and simplicity in making measurements and tagging events with a “time stamp.”

    However, a “clock” doesn’t need to be periodic; it can be any system that changes and emits radiation or particles that can be sensed by a living organism with hierarchies of memory.

    When understood in these terms, time travel makes no sense in any context. If the order of the states of various systems and phenomena were to reverse or take on some other arbitrary order throughout the universe, then, presumably the same would be true of brains and the neural networks of living organisms. There would thus be no awareness that anything changed; we would still perceive time as passing in the “forward” direction. There is no such thing as traversing a set of external events “backwards” while the events taking place in the hierarchy of memories continues to run “forward.”

    The way events happen in our universe is in the direction of the spreading around of energy (second law of thermodynamics). We exist and take in stimuli that then get transferred to memory and memories of memories because there is a flow of energy that allows the physical states of our brains to change. We exist in a temperature range that allows that to happen. If memory states couldn’t change – cool them below a certain temperature, for example – there could be no memory and hierarchies of memory. Memory systems wouldn’t be able to change state; awareness would cease and there would be no “passage of time.”

  9. I’m rather more sanguine about time travel than Hawking is.

    The way I see it, the black hole is a red herring. It would be so difficult just to reach such an object that an alternative is needed, and one may exist that doesn’t require such huge gravitational fields. By way of analogy, in the 1930s the only known method of releasing nuclear energy was via huge cyclotrons, which always consumed more power than they produced. This convinced even Einstein that nuclear weapons and nuclear power were impossible. Then along came uranium fission and the realization that a fission chain reaction was possible, and . . . !

    As for the “chronology protection principle,” that strikes me as philosophical fluff. There are at least three ways I can see of getting around it: either you can’t change the past because whatever you might do there would already be part of it; or arriving in the past would cause a new timeline to bud off from the old, leaving the original untouched; or there are an infinite number of timelines which have always existed and going “backward” in time inevitably means going “sideways” as well, so that you arrive in an alternate world in which your appearance seemingly from nowhere is simply part of history.

  10. Hawking sniffed: “I think the afterlife is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

    In his typical weak tu quoque fashion, I predict Hambone will say something to the effect of: “But really!!!!!- the religion of naturalism is just a fairy story for people afraid to face God’s judgement.” And then he will throw something in about “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” just for good measure.

  11. genetically engineer humans

    Even Hawking cannot shake the shackles of “Intelligent Design” on thought.

    Evolution is cleverer than you are.

  12. TomS, I think I understood your last post….but I’d be interested in your elaboration on it.

  13. In the course of arguing that people like us will not be able to reach the stars, he said that we – or our machines – would have to be intelligently designed. That unnecessarily excludes the possibility that some product of evolution would be able.

  14. @Third Prof: “I was of the impression that Hoyle knew of Lemaitre’s work but not Friedman’s.”
    Perhaps, but it seems unlikely to me. See, one of Friedman’s pupils was

    Note that Wikipedia here repeats your error. My bet is that Hoyle was familiar with the work of Gamow.

    “Perhaps a physicist among us here could clarify.”
    I hope a teacher of math and physics – ie me – will do.

    “Have I stated the distinctions properly?”
    Not according to my understanding. See, Friedmann found one solution implying that our Universe had a beginning; Lemaitre found all three. It’s rather unfair that Hawking – and here we are back at the original topic – only mentions Friedmann in A Brief History of Time.

    “he told a great many individuals that he was very excited about his theory providing scientific validation for what Thomas Aquinas had written about creatio ex nihilo”
    I need original sources for this, because the quote I provided came from Father Lemaitre himself (early fifties or something) and is quite inconsistent with your claim. So either you (or rather your sources) are wrong or Father Lemaitre was inconsistent.

    @SK: “For some reason …”
    My understanding was that Friedmann’s paper was published in a rather obscure German scientific magazine. But according to German WIkipedia that’s incorrect.ür_Physik

  15. Btw, Third Prof, you’re victim of creationist language. Unlike they claim there is no such thing as The Big Bang Theory, for a few reasons.
    1. The Big Bang is an historical event. It has been observed, even if indirectly.
    2. The Big Bang as an observation was predicted by all three Friedmann/Lemaitre models.
    3. All models of physics are mathematical models. Theoretical Physics is nothing but math.
    4. Since say WW-2 several more Big Bang Theories have been formulated after those three models.
    5. Besides Friedmann and Lemaitre two other physicists were involved in developing the first Big Bang Theories:–Lemaître–Robertson–Walker_metric

  16. @mnbo
    “Big Bang Theory” or “Theory of the Big Bang” can be misunderstood as an apposition, as often happens to “Theory of Evolution”, when they are better understood like:
    *theory of flight
    *theory of a/c circuits
    *theory of the Earth
    *theory of everything
    That is, a theory about such-and-such.