I’d stake my life that Stephen Hawking is wrong about heaven

Hawking says some admirable things, but the idea that I believe in life after death because I’m afraid of the dark is insulting

Michael Wenham

Like Stephen Hawking, I have been living with motor neurone disease (MND). Like him, I’m one of the lucky few not to have died within months of diagnosis. I’m nine years younger than him and have had the symptoms of the disease for only 10 years, compared with his 49. However for those 10 years I’ve "lived with the prospect of an early death" also. Unlike Professor Hawking I am not a superstar scientist. I’m simply a small-time writer, who used to be a teacher and a vicar.

Professor Stephen Hawking ‘Professor Hawking surely knows better than that some notion in your head, whatever that notion might be, makes the frustrations and pains of a terminal illness somehow more bearable.’ Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

It seems to me that, while some things Stephen Hawking says in the interview as it’s reported are unarguably true, some are also admitted hypothesis, and some are merely tendentious. One of the features of MND both for him as for me is that it affects your ability to speak and hence pares down what you say to the bare bones. (That’s not of course the case when you have time to type a script.) Hence sometimes you are frustrated by your inability to nuance your ideas. And so it may be that his very categorical answers are the nub of his opinion, but not the full expression.

For example, there’s something of "nothing-buttery" about his comments about death: "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 unarguably true that there’s no heaven for broken down computers, as I have found to my cost when I poured fruit juice over my laptop. The brain may be nothing but a most remarkable computer, yet there’s something generically different from a computer in a brain which, when it starts to malfunction as happens in MND, can begin to love Wagner’s music and "enjoy life more". That, I would say, is irrational, but not uncommon. Human beings, it would appear, are something more than machines. Maybe science will one day describe what the difference is.

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