I imagine what happens to human consciousness when we die is much like turning off a computer. I don’t believe in a heaven for computers. I think the after-life is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.
– Stephen Hawking, dubbed the world’s most famous living scientist.
The interesting part for me is the context within which Hawking said these words. Any idea who posed the question? Pik Botha, in Muizenberg nogal! Yes, our former cabinet minister had met prof Hawking in Cambridge in the 1990’s. Along with a few others these two gentlemen were the guests of mathematical science professor Neil Turok, founder of AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.
All photos used by permission from David Block. See more photos of his meeting with Stephen Hawking here.
Botha’s question, aired 7 July 2008 on the South African environmental television programme 50/50, was:
What happens to human self-consciousness when one dies?
On last night’s (2 Feb) edition of 50/50 it was announced that although 50/50 is not a religious programme, it will speak to various religious leaders next week, 9 February about the question of life after death. This was prompted by the overwhelming response of viewers to prof Hawking’s statement about the subject.
I am looking forward to next week’s discussion but it also triggered a few other questions in my mind: Firstly, it would be sad if Christians were only interested in this programme to get a clear-cut, once-and-for-all proof that Hawking is wrong on this point. Secondly, I fear that many of my fellow believers’ obsession with their interpretation of the truth might blind them to the significance of Hawking’s visit to South Africa for the kingdom of God. He has demonstrated his support for the development of science in Africa by travelling here.
One of the other conversation partners was our very own world-renowned scientist and outspoken Christian, professor David Block. Read about prof David Block’s faith journey here. Block asked Turok about getting Hawking to come to South Africa:
Prof. David Block’s question to Neil Turok:
What does it take for a South African in Cambridge to persuade the world’s greatest scientist – with his disability – in coming all this way? What brings Stephen here?
Well! Maybe people in South Africa don’t realise the esteem with which the country is held worldwide. It was a very easy case to make, because Stephen has been following the progress in South Africa for years. He’s a huge admirer of Mandela. He’s written to Mandela… there’s this connection with Pik Botha. So I just go to him and I want to start an institute in South Africa, attracting students from all over Africa – the best lecturers in the world – will you support us? And he said of course I will.
If ever there was a time for Africa to lift its head high, to solve its own problems and to take responsibility for this continent and its people, it is now. The opportunities, technology and expertise have never been more readily available. And when somebody of the stature of Stephen Hawking actively engages in developing science in Africa, the church should be excited. Instead of resorting to a who-is-right and who-is-wrong attitude about life after death, let us rather embrace every opportunity to discover the beauty and mystery of God’s creation while we are still alive! The sooner we realise that these kind of developments have everything to do with our God-given purpose of working the earth and caring for it, the better. The more we regard science as a tool for meeting the needs of humankind in an environmentally sustainable way, the more we will see the kingdom of God established in real tangible ways on this earth.
Here is another interesting excerpt from the conversation with Hawking, the full transcript of which can be read here:
Professor Hawking, an issue we didn’t discuss during our first meetings has been this one: Is the present observable universe the first universe?
The universe seems to have begun in a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. All the evidence is consistent with the universe having been spontaneously quantum created out of nothing at the Big Bang. So there would be no earlier universe. This would be the only universe of which we have knowledge.
Prof. David Block Speaking to Pik Botha:
That’s one of Stephen’s greatest contributions – is that the universe has had a definite beginning, and simply not the result of a bounce – but the beginning of the cosmos.
I love it when people start engaging issues regarding the origins of the universe, our species and ultimately our life purpose in a spirit of non-threatening dialogue. I find it fascinating that the same scientist who believes that there is no life, or consciousness as he puts it, after death, is also the one who uses the term created out of nothing when talking about the origin of the universe. Granted, he might not attach the same meaning to it that I would, but at least I can spot some common ground here.
In the spirit of a previous post, Hardwired for God? I am calling on Christians, other theists and atheists / agnostics alike to engage in dialogue about the origins of our universe, the nature of our self-consciousness and the purpose of our existence. Could we do it, even passionately and with conviction, but with respect for each other and with an attitude of seeking to understand before seeking to be understood?