Saturday, 21 May 2011
Once upon a time there was a famous physicist called Stephen...
SHOCK story of the week: “Stephen Hawking says heaven’s just a fairy story for those who are afraid of the dark.”
Or, to put it another way: “Famous scientist states the bloomin’ obvious.”
Now, if the Pope, say, had made that statement it might have been news. Or if Hawking had claimed his debilitating motor neurone disease was a curse from the Devil.
Hawking has spent most of a brilliant life trying to discover the way things actually are, how we got here, the way things work.
The answers he and his fellow leading physicists have come up with so far may or may not be the right ones. The best anyone can say is that they’re the best answers we’ve got so far.
They have at least been arrived at by intelligent inquiry, scepticism and careful, repeated experiment. Not by either wishful thinking or taking old stories as gospel.
To Hawking, the question of whether there’s really a heaven, in the common religious sense, is surely an old chestnut long ago cracked and discarded.
I’d like to think that if I’d been interviewing him I’d have had more interesting questions to ask. If only I’d have had a chance of understanding – properly understanding – the answers.
And there, of course, lies at least part of the problem.
I know just about enough of both astral and quantum physics – the big picture and the little picture – to find them fascinating, compelling and a bit weird. But nowhere near enough to claim I really understand them.
I know that without some of the weirdness your telly, your computer, your mobile phone wouldn’t work. But if it comes to explaining HOW they work… Well, could you?
So much easier just to listen to the fairy stories. Especially if you’ve got that night-phobia thing.
But hang on. Whoever said it’s going to be dark when you die? You can’t experience darkness if you have no senses to perceive light.
The idea of eternal darkness is just as much a fairytale as winged harpists sitting on clouds, luscious damsels plying martyrs with intoxicating drinks – or evil-smelling demons torturing sinners forever with red-hot tongs.
They all assume, contrary to all verifiable evidence, that consciousness will somehow continue after your body is no more.
If you really want to know about the after-life, the person to ask isn’t Stephen Hawking. Unless by “after-life” you mean the projected future of the planets, stars and galaxies long after our species – all species – have ceased to exist.
If it’s visions of Paradise (or everlasting darkness) you’re after, the chap to consult is John Casey, author of the book After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
In which you will find, among other delightful titbits, that the ancient Egyptians’ idea of heaven was just like a better Egypt, with plenty of bread, pastry, beer and wine.
Unfortunately, at least in the early days, only the pharaoh and his family had any hope of getting there. The idea of an afterlife for all came later.
As for hell, with fire, brimstone and torments eternal, that came later still.
It was, in fact, essentially a medieval invention, contrived to frighten the populace into obedience.
Like so much of Christian tradition it owed little to Christ, or to the book upon which all was supposed to depend.
The Bible has 622 instances of the word “heaven” but only 13 of “hell” – all from the New Testament, all but two of them from the gospels, and more than half of them from the Book of Matthew.
But if there is a heaven, or a hell, where are they?
Attempting, in 1727, to reconcile old religious notions with new scientific ones, Tobias Swinden published An Enquiry Into the Nature and Place of Hell.
In which he took around 500 pages to conclude that hell must be in the sun – the only place with enough fire to last forever.
It would seem the idea of space travel, which Hawking is broadly in favour of, is not so new. Travelling to the sun, though? That would be hell.
NICK CLEGG was momentarily taken aback. The petition he’d just been handed came in a heavy box containing 385,747 names (including mine).
Addressed to the government, it said: “Our NHS is precious. We won’t forgive you if you ruin it.
“Don’t break up our health service and hand it to private healthcare companies.
“Listen to the real experts – doctors, nurses and patients – when they give warnings about these plans.”
Maybe the LibDem leader was in the mood to start distancing himself from the Tories anyway. Maybe he already had it in mind to stand up for the NHS against the grubby hands of free enterprise.
Or just maybe he was swayed by the clarity and strength of feeling shown in the petition and its presenters. In which case, perhaps there is hope for democracy.
And, if Clegg’s party is at last prepared to show some spine, hope for the survival of the NHS.