“Heaven is a fairy story”: Stephen Hawking

Sometimes a statement is significant because of what is said, rather than who said it. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Stephen Hawking’s statement that there is no heaven and that it’s just a fairy storydoesn’t belong to any of the above categories. It is significant for both the content and the speaker.

Documenting the history of time and design in the Universe

Physicist Stephen Hawking, director of research at the Physics department at Cambridge and noted for contributions in black hole physics, has always managed to create quite a stir – be it by writing a record-breaking best seller or by making certain statements. He came out with the book A Brief History of Time in 1988, which smashed all known best-seller records. In that book, he tilted slightly towards the accomodationist’s view of religion, regarding science and religion as being compatible with each other.

In his recent book, with co-author Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking dismisses the need for a Creator in order to explain the order in Nature. In that book, he explains physical topics such as sum-over-histories and M-theory, while also delving into the arguments about the necessity of a creator God. He explains why scientists, like Newton, believed in God and also discusses Einstein’s pantheistic belief. The apparent signs of design, such as the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant, find a lot of space in the book. Compared to A Brief History…’, Hawking seems to have hardened his stance against religion, maybe compelled into non-belief by his five decade long struggle against personal handicap. (I would request the reader to read both books if you haven’t read them already- they are gems.)

Personal struggle and the key statements

At the age of 21, he was struck with Motor Neurone disease (or ALS), due to which he lost control of almost all voluntary muscle actions. When he was informed of the disease, his first reaction was to complete his PhD fast, before he died. Today, after surviving for nearly 50 years with the disease, his attitude remains pretty much the same, but with a crucial difference he’s no longer afraid to die:

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.

Speaking on the notion of life after death, and rejecting that idea outright, 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.

In reply to a question How should we live our life?‘, Hawking said:

We should seek the greatest value of our action.

When someone asked, Why are we here’, obviously hinting on the religious undertones of the statement, Hawking replied,

Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

This is a significant shift in the mindset of a scientist, who has been comfortable with the notion of God, at least in the metaphorical sense, like Einstein. Many modern scientists have let gone of even that connecting thread between science and religion. Hawking may be the newest addition to that growing list.

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.