May 16, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Cosmology, Mythology, and Heaven

Stephen Hawking’s recent comment that heaven is a fairy tale (see The Guardian) started blogger keystrokes clicking.  But one might ask, what does he know about it?  Are the opinions of a cosmologist any better than those of a theologian?
    Hawking told The Guardian that he considers the brain like a computer that stops working when its components fail.  It was timely that PhysOrg just reported that Jian-Jun Shu, an engineer Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, thinks that the next stage of computing should imitate genetics.  “For some problems, DNA-based computing could replace silicon-based computing, offering many advantages.”  Its potential for parallel processing and fuzzy logic are attractive.  Shu is wondering, though, how to plug a monitor into DNA.
    Returning to the topic of heaven, the science blogs are focusing not on the evidence for it, but on whether or not belief in heaven is innate, or is useful to human beings.  PhysOrg told about 40 studies in 20 countries that indicated belief in an afterlife is “hardwired” into the human brain.  “The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.”
    The 57 researchers were not out to establish the validity of beliefs but to determine whether they are innate or learned.  One researcher commented, “Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact.”  Even so, why would an unguided evolutionary process produce belief in god or heaven that do not exist?  Echoes of Anselm’s old Ontological Argument for the existence of God may come to mind.  The article did not discuss how evolution would produce belief in heaven, but a lively debate arose in the reader comments.
    Stephanie Pappas at Live Science weighed in with her take on Hawking’s statement, saying that his opinion doesn’t matter, because belief in heaven offers benefits.  Pappas invited responses from Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, and Nathan Heflick, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Florida, who has investigated beliefs in the afterlife.  Kruger noted that belief in heaven provides hope, staves off fear of death, and promotes a sense of fairness that stimulates society to produce just laws.  Heflick pointed out that heaven enables people to think of themselves as more than their bodies.  “If you think of your body as a machine, it’s kind of hard to believe in life after death,” Heflick said.  “You’re not going to be able to think of yourself as a spirit.”  Nevertheless, such thinking might well raise questions about the Inventor of the Machine, based on our common experience that machines come via intelligent design.
    Thus far, we have watched scientists trying to analyze a theological question.  But how firm a grip does science have in its own domain? – on reality, even so-called observable reality, or natureNew Scientist posted an intriguing article on the many ways our eyes fool us.  Our brain is filling in information and predicting the future for us, reporter Graham Lawton pointed out, producing in us a “grand delusion” that we see what is really there.  Speaking of cosmology (Hawking’s specialty), Live Science reminded us that cosmologists are still looking for 96% of an assumed universe about which they are clueless.  It would seem premature for Hawking to rule out heaven when the reality he believes in is mostly hidden – even if he could trust his senses.  There might be much more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in his philosophy (naturalism).
    Scientists do best when they stick with the observations.  PhysOrg, echoing a press release from Cardiff University, provided a mix of news and history in an article about the Herschel Space Observatory, describing not only the latest observations, but giving a history of the Herschel family – William, the father of stellar astronomy, who discovered Uranus and infrared light and catalogued thousands of objects in space (and many comets) along with his faithful sister Caroline, and John, his son, who extended the observations into the southern hemisphere.  Professor Matt Griffin said, “Two centuries on, I think William and Caroline would be intrigued and certainly quite pleased to see how what they started has developed.”
    Hawking might take note of the fact that excellent scientific work, both observational and theoretical, was done by the Herschels who were strong believers in heaven.

Immature Christian to scientist: “if you will just keep your nose out of our heaven, we’ll keep our hell out of your labs.”  That emotional response should be discarded for a more charitable dialogue, in which we first invite the scientist to consider his own limitations, such as flawed eyes, logical fallacies, and tendencies to believe in his own fairy tales (like 96% of a reality that cannot be seen).  Then we turn to his attention to his undeniable sense of justice and truth, and ask how that could evolve.
    Once we get him to admit that justice and truth make reference to universals that are necessary and timeless, we help him to discover that his own reasoning depends on the assumptions of theology.  Having lifted the hapless soul out of his naturalistic slumbers, we can begin asking the right questions about eternity, taking advantage of innate knowledge of such things that had been buried under the academic dusts of unreasoned assumptions.  The response might be heavenly.

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