Friday, December 23, 2011

Stephen Hawking on the heavenly fairy tale

I wrote this in May of this year (a couple days before the last post) and then abandoned it. I also stopped writing in general then too. It's been a crazy year, but I hope that tide begins to turn. I added a couple things, but not much. I meant for it to go in a different direction but I'm not really sure what that was anymore! I hope you enjoy it:

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue greater than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can
compare with her...

...The LORD by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.

-Proverbs 3:13-15, 19-20 (NRSV)

It had been almost a year and half before I watched the final episode of The Tonight Show with Conan O' Brien. It sat on my DVR until the day we decided to switch to Verizon Fios from our regular cable provider. In the January of 2010, things didn't look good for Conan. Seven months after inheriting the Tonight Show from Jay Leno, NBC succeeded in an underhanded attempt to wrench the show from Conan and giving it back to Jay. It was an ugly and shameful episode for NBC but Conan emerged with humor and grace.

Now, the whole ordeal is almost forgotten. From our vantage point, Conan made it out okay. But the few weeks where this story was the top news were oddly dramatic and legions of people from a generation that is amidst a long ambivalent drift from traditional television embraced Conan as a folk hero. By a year later he was on back on television with a new show fueled by those same fans whose feelings of that bizarre January still loom, at least if the laughter that Conan gets nowadays when he jokes about it are any indicator.

Conan's final message to the Tonight Show audience was this:

"All I ask of you, especially young one thing. Please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism -- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you, amazing things will happen."

I thought a lot about Conan's message this week when I read an interview with physicist and supergenius Stephen Hawking where he refers to the idea of heaven as a "fairy story". And I certainly wasn't the only one who read it.

In the interview he says:

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist,"


"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."

Right now, minds both lesser and great are wrestling over what Hawking has said. Hawking's views on the matter have evolved since his book "A Brief History of Time", where he remains open to the idea of a Creator. Last year, there was a stir when his book "The Grand Design" (co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow) was published. In it, the authors present a more thorough presentation of what Hawkings stated above. The idea of God is not necessary in explaining the origins of the universe. Existence is due to chance, not purpose.

There's one serious temptation that comes with hearing something that is as potentially devastating as this, and that's to come out swinging. I know where my place is on the totem pole this of debate. I don't have much to contribute to this conversation by way of astrophysics and even if I did, no one would be listening. People who do have a more thorough understanding of Hawking's position criticize him for his strictly materialistic worldview. I would agree with them.

On the other hand I'm wondering why anyone is surprised that someone who is such an advocate for the scientific method (even to the level of seeming to adopt it as a personal philosophy) would be such a strict materialist. Science is by its nature materialistic. It is also a tool, a methodology employed by as humans in the quest for understanding. As such, however, it also has a personalistic dimension. It is not merely the laying out of data, but requires comprehension and interpretation. Even when things come together 100%, we are the ones making that judgement. In such cases, our minds are striving to cohere with the order of reality. And even through that lens, the understanding is that over the course of trillions of years, out of a universe that emerged by pure chance by a set of predetermined laws, evolved an eye and a mind capable of profound self-reflection, struggling through the question of (or more cynically, creation of) meaning. That evolution happened in a humanistic milieu, from the Greeks to the Middle Ages, from the renaissance to the Enlightenment, from the Industrial Revolution to the Atomic Age and the Space Race, from the Internet and Quantum Physics to beyond. I find it a supreme irony that in the quest for meaning man finds that he is ultimately meaningless. And, if he is not himself imbued with meaning, he is forced to create meaning for fear of losing his mind.

It's interesting that these questions ultimately turn philosophical. That is because they are intimately philosophical. It is no surprise that we find no god peering out from the edge of the universe because truthfully no god can be seen there. It is not a surprise that the idea of a god doesn't balance out in the equation, because no god lives in an equation. I wonder why we feel so proud and so brave for not finding him in certain places without questioning why we expect him to find him in those places to begin with. Is the god we are expecting not to find Ptolemaic? a Copernican? Is he Keplerian? Kantian? Is this god quantifiable? or is this God cosmic? What traces, what evidence would this god leave? What god are we expecting to find before we actually go out searching for him?

It's a very important question. Most often, I'm confused by attacks on religion and belief in God because I don't recognize the "god" that is under attack. The "god" of lesser public debate bears little resemblance to God as He is. The term "God" is itself slippery, evading strict definition. This is because the term for "God" is, in a sense, a catchall. It's a term that makes sense of mystery. But most importantly, it's a term that makes sense of mystery as a presence, not an absence. For religious people, it's not a term used in place of a more rational explanation. It doesn't impose order when no order should be found, just as religion is not the creation of meaning where no inherent meaning exists.

The oldest of the world's religions that are still in existence today all emerged as mankind began to ask deeper questions of its own existence and its place in the cosmos. It not only exists on the same trajectory of the historical search for self-understanding that the sciences are on but is also a perpetual source for renewal and perfection when the entire enterprise veers away from what makes us human: When strict materialism violates our collective conscience because deep down we can sense a "spiritual dimension" to our existence, even if we may be ashamed to say so. Or when rationalism and pragmatism dissuade us from compassion towards others, or in challenging the secular call for compassion when it fails to recognize the historical origins of our sense of obligation to even the least among us, something to prevents any common ground work that tries to make this world better.

While I can't help but appreciate Stephen Hawking's insight on the question of our ultimate origins, I also sense another order at work. It's the same order that guided us over the course of our cultural evolution, stirring us to ask the deepest questions and refusing us satisfaction with simplistic answers. It is also the same order that formalized our sense of compassion, transforming our definition of human greatness. It's not that we wouldn't be where we are today if not for our religious tendencies. That is clear. But those qualities stir us still, and we will never be satisfied with answers that ignore than which gave us the ability to ask those questions to begin with.

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