Thursday, 19 May 2011

Hawking heaven

I am always bemused at the seriousness with which certain people’s words are taken when they are talking about subjects outside their own particular discipline. Richard Dawkins opens his mouth about religion and the media goes into a frenzy, unable or unwilling to spot the weaknesses and at times blatant ignorancehawking beneath the froth of the headline quotes.  Another media favourite is the eminent cosmologist Stephen Hawking. A couple of days ago The Guardian reported an interview with Hawking covering a wide range of issues. The quote that got the headlines was when Hawking declared that heaven is just ‘a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’. Here is the full quote:
"I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first," he said.
"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark," he added.
wenham An excellent response to Hawking was offered by Michael Wenham, a fellow sufferer of motor neurone disease, again published in The Guardian. Wenham challenged Hawking’s comment about the brain as a computer:
It's unarguably true that there's no heaven for broken down computers, as I have found to my cost when I poured fruit juice over my laptop. The brain may be nothing but a most remarkable computer, yet there's something generically different from a computer in a brain which, when it starts to malfunction as happens in MND, can begin to love Wagner's music and "enjoy life more". That, I would say, is irrational, but not uncommon. Human beings, it would appear, are something more than machines. Maybe science will one day describe what the difference is.
And with regard to Hawking’s remarks about heaven Wenham comments:
Finally, Stephen Hawking's headlined observation about death, that an after-life "is a fairy-story for people afraid of the dark" is both sad and misinformed. Openness to the theoretical possibility of there being 11 dimensions and fundamental particles "as yet undiscovered" shows an intellectual humility strangely at odds with writing off the possibility of other dimensions of existence.
For someone "facing the prospect of an early death", with probably an unpleasant prelude, the idea of extinction holds no more fear than sleep. It really is insulting to accuse me of believing there might be life after death because I'm afraid of the dark. On the contrary, sad though I shall be to leave behind those I love, I suspect the end of life, whatever happens, will be a relief. And, like Pascal making his wager, if it is dark, I really won't mind, because, of course, there won't be a me to mind.
Wenham’s response continued with an affirmation of his own faith, founded on his belief in the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, before concluding:
As for the idea that belief in an afterlife is a consolation, it is not just about heaven. Most faiths in fact have a notion of judgment, which is hardly comfortable for anyone, although it does focus the motivation not to waste one's life. Moreover in our situation Professor Hawking surely knows better than that some notion in your head, whatever that notion might be, makes the frustrations and pains of a terminal illness somehow more bearable. That's the nonsense of those who have not been there. I can't prove it of course, but on good grounds I'd stake my life on it, that beyond death will be another great adventure; but first I have to get finish this one.
Another response to Hawking’s views about heaven and the afterlife was offered today by Tom Wright in the Washington Post.
It’s depressing to see Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant minds in his field, trying to speak as an expert on things he sadly seems to know rather less about than many averagely intelligent Christians. Of course there are people who think of ‘heaven’ as a kind of pie-in-the-sky dream of an afterlife to make the thought of dying less awful. No doubt that’s a problem as old as the human race. But in the Bible ‘heaven’ isn’t ‘the place where people go when they die.’ In the Bible heaven is God’s space while earth (or, if you like, ‘the cosmos’ or ‘creation’) is our space. And the Bible makes it clear that the two overlap and interlock. For the ancient Jews, the place where this happened was the temple; for the Christians, the place where this happened was Jesus himself, and then, astonishingly, the persons of Christians because they, too, were ‘temples’ of God’s own spirit.
Hawking is working with a very low-grade and sub-biblical view of ‘going to heaven.’ Of course, if faced with the fully Christian two-stage view of what happens after death -- first, a time ‘with Christ’ in ‘heaven’ or ‘paradise,’and then, when God renews the whole creation, bodily resurrection -- he would no doubt dismiss that as incredible. But I wonder if he has ever even stopped to look properly, with his high-octane intellect, at the evidence for Jesus and the resurrection? I doubt it -- most people in England haven’t. Until he has, his opinion about all this is worth about the same as mine on nuclear physics, i.e. not much.
Wright goes on to a more general critique of Hawking and others who share his worldview:
As for the creation being self-caused: I wonder if he realises that he is simply repeating a version of ancient Epicureanism? i.e. the gods are out of the picture, a long way away, so the world/human life/etc has to get on under its own steam. This is hardly a ‘conclusion’ from his study of the evidence; it’s simply a well known worldview shared by most post-Enlightenment westerners…
The depressing thing is that Hawking doesn’t seem to realize this and so hasn’t even stopped to think that there might be quite sophisticated critiques of Epicureanism, ancient and modern, which he should work through. Not least the Christian one, which again focuses on Jesus.
My own comment is this: I do wish that those who clearly have a brain (computer or not) would use it to think through what they say about faith with the same measure of rigour that they apply to their own areas of expertise.

1 comment:

paul said...

Yeah, I have noted both Wenham and Wright's contributions on Facebook links...