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Stephen Hawking Lets Loose

This week, Stephen Hawking (a.k.a. “that smart wheelchair guy”) made the following statement in an interview with The Guardian: “[Heaven] is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” The timing couldn’t be better—the Rapture is scheduled to take place in four days’ time.

So, of course, some people find this shocking and controversial. I suppose people with high profiles are expected to toe the line. After all, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be suspected of having independent thought than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

But I don’t find Hawking’s comments surprising (or offensive) at all. Indeed, I can relate to them all too well.

I’m also a wheelchair guy (though “smart” may be pushing it). Like Hawking, I’m involved in science and technology in academia—my field is computer science, however. And, like Hawking, I seem to be living on borrowed time, with some doctors in the past predicting my demise would occur about 22 years ago.

If you’re a scientist with a death sentence always hanging over your head, you quickly find that there’s no solace to be found in easy answers and pleasant fictions. Not only is there no evidence for an afterlife, the dualism of a mind (or soul) independent from a body makes no sense in a modern scientific context. Unlike the White Queen, I can’t believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Hawking equates the human brain with a “computer which will stop working when its components fail”. Now, most people would probably balk at this idea, since computers seem to lack one crucial component: consciousness. But, as with any computer, physical damage to the brain impairs its function. As many real-world cases have demonstrated, who “you” are can change radically depending on where the damage in your brain occurs. So consciousness is obviously dependent upon the functionality of the brain. Why is that?

The answer is simple: the mind—consciousness—is an emergent property of the brain. If you build a computer that is as complex as the brain, with the ability for self-referential thought, consciousness comes along for the ride. Brains aren’t just like computers; they are computers—conscious computers. And, just as you can’t have redness apart from a red object, you can’t have consciousness apart from a conscious computer.

So it really makes no sense to talk about your consciousness leaving your body and wandering off to some other-dimensional realm where you get to hang out with Jimi Hendrix. I’m not prepared to spend my life anticipating a spiritual payoff that will never come.

Instead, every day I marvel at the wonder of the universe and the powers of the human mind. My life may not continue after I’m dead, but life in general will. If you go beyond the personal and towards the general, you find that each of our brains are but single CPUs in the biggest computer that has ever existed.

Remember Deep Thought, that giant supercomputer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? It suggested building an even greater computer—Earth—in order to calculate the ultimate question to Life, the Universe and Everything. Well, that’s thinking a little too small: quantum pancomputationalists such as Seth Lloyd see the universe itself as a quantum computer, and we’re all running around inside one big information processing system. (It’s a bit like Tron—I’ll return to that another day.)

The output of this quantum computer is the universe we inhabit, but it may not have been this way in particular. As Hawking says, “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.” Lloyd’s notes on algorithmic information theory, where he suggests that random quantum fluctuations can produce order quite readily (just as random bits will encode strings that are more ordered than not), are interesting to consider in this regard. While this universe could have been totally different, an ordered, apparently “designed” universe was always the most likely outcome.

So, we’ve got no reason to believe in a spirit or a soul, and no reason to require a designer. But we do have a universe that is elegant and beautiful all on its own. To me, the awe that science brings to the world is far greater than pre-scientific myths.

I love the poetry and imagery of the world’s myths. At one point, I considered studying world religions as a postgrad—I’m not at all “anti-religion”. But people like Hawking and (especially) the late Carl Sagan have given me a richer, more uplifting view of the universe. Myths are projections that tell us about ourselves; science reveals the truth in all its glory.

Like Hawking, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in a Creator. But I do believe that there are wonders yet to be discovered: I’d rather spend this life probing the true mysteries than wait for all to be revealed in the next life instead.

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