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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Heaven and Stephen Hawking

I haven’t read a single book by Stephen Hawking and one might say I’m horrible for laughing at various jokes at his expense on Family Guy, but I remember when he posited a year ago in The Grand Design that we didn’t need God to explain the beginning of this universe, but instead can refer back to the most basic force of gravity. I faintly recall the explanation being something to the effect that gravity initiated the Big Bang itself because of the nature of quantum singularities, etc. I’ve never been one to be able to focus much on mathematics or science, but I can align with Hawking’s naturalistic approach to cosmology. I can respect people’s right to believe that God intervened in the Big Bang in some way or started the processes or abiogenesis or biological evolution, but Stephen Hawking’s declaration is a more explicit rejection of these sorts of partnerships on an intellectual level of religious beliefs and scientific theoretical models. For people to believe these things is their liberty, but to say that it even makes philosophical or scientific sense seems to miss the point that God and heaven by association are not scientific, they are experiential and psychological. People may believe they experience God or have gone to heaven/hell and returned, and I cannot contest their interpretation by personal experience, but one can observe brain chemistry and neurology to see that there are quite impressive processes going on that can conceivably generate these experiences, particularly NDEs (Near Death Experiences). Hawking himself actually said a bit before his famous statement thrown around these days; “heaven…is a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark,” that the brain is likened to a computer that will cease to function when its parts break down. Many people in my own discipline may recoil in disbelief that someone could believe this, feeling that the human mind cannot be compared to something created by humans in a similar way people think humans cannot be compared to God in terms of ethical judgments. But when you start thinking about the complexities of a computer from a basic understanding of its parts and functions as they interact, the human mind is not a far cry from being just as awe inspiring without involving “God,”

When we don’t know everything about something, we’re motivated all the more by our wonder and amazement in our ignorance to remedy that problem by learning as much as we can. Hawking’s claim doesn’t reduce our amazement at the world around us, or even our own minds and the complexity of memory, cognition, emotions and the like; in fact it can make someone tear up at the prospect that we might begin to understand it more. And there’s no arrogance in that pursuit of knowledge any more than any pursuit of new information is somehow trying to take on the position of “God” or asserting oneself as the greatest human being who ever existed. People read way too much into science and come with varying degrees of willful ignorance or outright idiocy about what a scientist pursues. It is not absolute power or knowledge, but simply more and more comprehensive knowledge that we can acquire and use to structure the universe in some way, however limited it might be in reality or history as a whole.

There are probably also those who accuse the Cambridge professor of being afraid of death and lashing out at everyone who believes in heaven with his hostile statement that everyone who believes in the afterlife is a frightened child who doesn’t know any better. But Hawking has been in a state of potential death for almost 50 years since he was given 3 years to live at 21. He himself says he’s not afraid of death, though he implies he’s accepted it. But like any person on the verge of death in any form, he says we should make the most of the life we have, which I can wholeheartedly agree with. For people to take potshots at a man crippled by a disease that for all knowledge we have of it, should have killed him around when he was my age, is as shameful as criticizing Michael Fox for having Parkinson’s, though again, I’m guilty of laughing at Family Guy’s jokes about him. Not to mention the argument that an atheist doesn’t believe in the afterlife because they’re afraid of death is no more logical than saying theists believe in the afterlife because they’re afraid of death. Any person willing to be a martyr and go to the afterlife is clearly not afraid of death so much as they’re attached to the concept of heaven. I suppose when you invert the analysis that theists could be said to be attached to and clinging to life as they do their own existence one can make a more reasonable claim that they’re in some way afraid of death and use heaven as a buffer to suppress that fear or otherwise remove its threat. But if atheists are truly afraid of death, wouldn’t they do something similar to theists in using technology instead of beliefs in heaven to extend their lives to near immortality, such as through nanomachines or advanced medical treatments? But Stephen Hawking is not in any way unwilling to die when his disease completely destroys his motor nerve functions and stop his brain, thereby stopping his heart as well. In fact, one might say Stephen Hawking is a representative of that tendency in science to be very willing to accept your death and annihilation on some level, similar to Christopher Hitchens, still suffering from throat cancer. Theists don’t seem to be willing to believe that animals have souls because of some false sense of entitlement, as if God only gave them souls.

It’s when you recoil at the thought of death being the final end to a person’s life, only survived by memories, that you seem to be less appreciative of life, since you believe that people will get justice in heaven or hell, in an almost Hindu karmic sense that God will reward good and punish bad in an afterlife. If you believe that when people die they are gone, you can truly mourn their death in some sense. If you merely bewail that they aren’t with you now but will be with you in the future, it’s a pitiable sort of funeral, since you don’t really believe there’s anything to be sad about except that they are no longer physical. But then, the notion of heaven as spiritual seems to go over people’s heads and they think heaven will be as physical as it is now, just improved on some level. Christian metaphysics seem to suggest that the spiritual body of heaven might be better understood as a perfected body, but then that seems to just go along with the fear of death in general. I don’t see why you must believe you go on in order to make yourself feel less affected by someone’s physical death. If you really want to appreciate people’s lives and memorialize their deaths, saying they are gone forever seems the best way to do it, as terrible as it might sound at first. But then, emptiness from a Buddhist perspective has a similar misconception I hope to confront eventually when I run out of stories like this. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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