I'm sure we're all aware of Stephen Hawking's recent quote when asked "You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?" in the Grauniad:
"I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I'm not afraid of death, but I'm in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. 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."
I have since heard criticism of this from Christians, for example over at Original Cindy.
I find this criticism confusing though. How on the one hand is Hawking being arrogant, presuming to know that which we can not know and forcing his beliefs down people throats; when, the people criticising him believe in a very specific sub-set of myths, namely, Christianity. Surely any one that lays those claims at Hawking must be an agnostic? They can't presume to know which of the many and mutually contradictory religions are true.
Also, I hardly think expressing one's opinion when asked it is forcing beliefs down the throats of others. Likewise, in writing this blog I am airing my opinions and am in no way trying to shove them down Original Cindy's (or anyone else's) throats, and welcome opposing views in the comments. However, in terms of shoving opinions down throats, I don't think it can be claimed that secular, atheist types are any worse than the religious. I've never encountered any one on the street preaching the words of Grayling.
So why is it fair to say that heaven doesn't exist, and that it is a fairy tale?
Well, you can read this from Johan Hari which is loads better than what I can write, or you can carry on.
It seems ridiculous to me to think that we are anything more than the biochemistry going on in our bodies. Witness how people can change with drugs, a head injury, or an especially traumatic event. On top of that, the conditions of nearly dying and the resultant "near death" experiences can be explained in terms of what's happening biochemically, and can even be replicated with drugs.
All that we are is dependent on a mix of our experiences, the genes we were born with and our health. (You're welcome to lump health in to experiences).
It's easy to think of our mind being separate from our bodies, but as we've just touched on, our mind is totally down to the physical things that are happening to us. So it seems implausible that there's any sort of soul, just biochemistry. But it's pretty neat biochemistry, and it makes me very excited (so excited that at uni I ended up not going down the physiology path with my degree as I intended when I started, but chose nutritional biochemistry).
Saying that we are just biochemistry, to me, doesn't diminish any of the awesomeness that is being alive.
But surely, you might say, there's that special something about us that makes us "alive", can't that be a candidate for going off to an afterlife?
Well, I don't think so. Life arose out of non-living chemicals. How, we're not sure, but it's being worked on, and this is a reasonably plausible idea (better with sound, but not essential):
Those chemicals that made the jump from being not alive to alive, well, that reaction is going on - we are (and this is really cool), the latest part of a 3.7 billion year old chain of survivors.
Being alive is awesome. Enjoy it, here, now. It's the only life we're 100% sure we've got, and it's almost certainly the only one we'll ever have.