“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.

Published by

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.

  • chance

    “It is a matter of chance which we are in.”

    So there you have it. The man himself has said that the birds, trees, water, humans, etc. are all simply here due to chance. I know it’s just a small excerpt from his recent book but I admire Mr. Hawking. I cannot say I’m a believer in God but I just cannot buy into this “chance” thing either as I look around this crazy world. I guess we are all entitled to an opinion but Mr. Hawking is a genius and I just wish someone would give me an answer based on indisputable fact. I’m reminded of a quote from a movie I saw a while back, “there are no answers, only choices.” Maybe there is more truth in that movie quote than I realize. I wish for an answer but I’m afraid all I will ever have are opinions.

    • Moloth

      I am also an atheist and would suggest that you rad some of richard dawkins books if you would like more concrete evidence of god not existing. We are just advanced organisims and when we die we are worm food. The world is here by chance although thare are probably trillions of earth like bodies in the univse they are also there by a tiny chance. When working with incredibly large numbers even the tinest of chances results in a huge number.

      • Debjyoti Bardhan

        I’m happy to meet someone recommending Richard Dawkins’ books. Yes, I have read a number of his books and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them. I work on physics, but have a keen interest in evolutionary biology and that can be almost entirely attributed to Dawkins and his books. The Selfish Gene and the Blind Watchmaker are classics, and so is the recent ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’. And, yes, I have ‘The God Delusion’ and have enjoyed it.