Last week it was widely reported that Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s pre-eminent physicist, made the claim that there is no such thing as heaven and that it’s just a fairy-tale. As he put it,
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.
It’s a bit sad to see one of the best minds of the century to denigrate his own mind, for surely he must include his own brain in this model. It’s helpful to realize, however, that modeling the human brain as a computer is just that: a model, and it fails to fully account for the human brain. In fact, to jump to the conclusion that he jumps to takes a much larger leap of faith than it takes to believe in an afterlife of some kind. Why he feels the need to speak out on such an issue is baffling. One would hope that anyone of his stature would exercise more prudence and avoid expressing a viewpoint that is so apparently off the cuff and uniformed as this one appears to be. It seems he hasn’t even taken the time to read up a bit in the field of cognitive science if he really thinks a computer serves as an adequate model for the human brain. One doesn’t have to believe in an afterlife to see how inadequate this model is. He does express the very commendable view that this life must be lived to the fullest. We must do the best we can with it because it’s all we have. However laudable this view is, it’s only half-way adequate. In fact, that very same conclusion that we must live life to the fullest and do the best we can is the conclusion of people who believe in an afterlife. Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived that way and she did so because she believed in an afterlife.
Apart from the ignorance of the science that he demonstrates, he betrays a very shallow and immature understanding of theology as well. There are a variety of theological viewpoints on the possibility of an afterlife, ranging from a simple affirmation based on what the majority of Christian Churches teach to passages in scripture which seem to point to the reality of a life after death. There are also a variety of very vague and general reasons for at least affirming that we simply don’t know what happens to us after we die. We know our body ceases to thrive and begins to decay until we return to “dust”… but what happens to our souls… or consciousness… no one can really say. We can guess and say consciousness ceases when our bodies die because our minds, our consciousness can’t exist without our bodies… but this really goes beyond what science can tell us.
So what can we say about life after death? We can say we don’t know for a fact that we live beyond the death of the body but we CAN say we are confident in the faith that we do. Science doesn’t rule such a faith out. We can speculate about the scientific understanding. Consciousness, for all we know, could be a phenomenon that continues after the death of a particular body. It could expand beyond the individual at death to encompass all that is, as it were, and thereby become enlarged into the cosmos in general. We simply don’t know what the phenomenon we label consciousness really is. The main point: we’re talking about an aspect of reality none if us here have ever experienced: death. Every person who has experienced death is not here to give us a report. Therefore Hawking, like the rest of us, has to rely on faith when it comes to understanding it.