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Hawking and Heaven

May 21, 2011

Stephen Hawking has been saying for a while now that here is no divine being and no heaven, and that belief in them is a fairy story for those afraid of the dark. Of course i am interested in the classic use of the symbols of darkness (which inspires fear and the dread of there being no order to, nor reason for, the universe) and light (which, it is implied, is what belief in said articles of faith brings). But this story also impinges upon the great tradition of the fairytale (and of course on myth) as well. Hawking uses the term fairy story as a pejorative – it is for ignorant children – which is a commonly accepted usage in popular parlance. But of course the fairy story is about magic too. If science has brought us an enormously expanded notion of the universe, the laws of nature, indeed of ‘the heavens’ (in the sense of the other galaxies etc), it has also undone so much of traditional belief systems that… well, we all know the term ‘spiritual malaise’ comes about in response to the way modern society leaves us feeling like we live in a mechanical, impersonal universe, where we are ‘merely’ an evolved primate life form building cities and lighting fires on the edge of a nondescript solar system on the outer arm of an average spiral galaxy hurtling through space in an unimaginably vast void, possibly alone as consciously self-aware life…. such a disenchanting story claims there is no magic, or that the only magic we can trust is that dissected to death and appropriated on behalf of the world transforming, eminently reasonable science of logos, the reasoning mind, clear of faith and recognising in nature only fodder for our uses.

So what replaces theistic religion or belief in the spirit/s of nature? If there is no room for deity or heaven in a scientific world – i agree with Hawking here in regards to traditional belief systems – is there space for spirituality without compromising rationality, critical thinking, empirical evidence? Can there be a new myth that doesn’t offend our intellects but does find magic in the world?

My answer is that there is, there always was, that it ‘shadows’ the great story of light and offers deep insight into the way we live, which still follows ancient mythic patterns but is relatively unaware of it. Science once bred a myth that we were capable of objective perception, as if we looked upon the world from a distance, as if we were not part of nature. Evidence to the contrary is both immediate – we inhabit bodies and, unless there is a heaven, there is nowhere else the human race can currently exit to if we ruin the earth upon which those bodies depend – and compelling – nature reminds us we are part of it in everyday appetite and in cataclysmic weather, in drought and flood as well as in the provision of food and shelter.

Physics once bred a myth that we were part of a clockwork mechanism, that the universe operated according to classical laws and that all else was illusory. This works fine at a very important level – getting stuff done, shifting the course of rivers, felling forests, making new hearts and undertaking mining operations and offering dental care – but it does not constitute the ultimate laws of the universe at all (light cannot be adequately defined according to these laws, which also fail at subatomic and astronomical levels). The idea of the mechanical cosmos that we objectively observe is a myth. We look from the inside, uncertain, grasp at whatever facts we can divine, and hope for the best. This story is far from over and the truth is still a mystery.

So what is heaven to the nonbeliever in religion, who accepts the revelations of science? Is it the well-lit shopping mall, open 24/7 and offering plenty of low-hanging fruit ripe for the plucking, a paradise of consumption where the darkness is banished forever? If so, we see a logical consequence of the spiritual vacuum allied with a mechanical clockwork universe – we have to feel good somehow! And if god won’t provide us with succour – and if we don’t truly ‘belong’ in nature anymore – then we must take our revenge by making and consuming everything we can, right here and right now – by making our own heaven to replace the one we lost with science.

There is a middle ground, though. We can accept science and reason and logic and the loss of old beliefs without becoming suckers for the latest bling that will make us feel better, console us against the long, dark night of loneliness at the edge of the cosmos on a planet that doesn’t care. We can regain our relationship with the nature that we are – even in our hyper/techno/scientific postmodern societies – and remember that even if this enormously majestic cosmos doesn’t care, we do.

It’s our job, as self-aware, evolved primates. To look into the skies and wonder – something that powerful telescopes only make more special, not less – and to take care of each other and the planet and all its other creatures, as we fly through space to a destination unknown, on an adventurous journey through the stars, complete with forests and deserts, mammals and sea creatures, birds and trees and air and soil. This is the greatest opportunity in the universe we know of. Embrace that fully and you have the new myth. Or magic, or fairy story… without desperate grasping and clutching, without self-deception; with hope.

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