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Discounting life after death could hurt believers, scientists


Scientists make terrible theologians.

That’s the opinion of physicist and researcher Scott M. Tyson, who thinks colleague Stephen Hawking was wrong to dismiss the concept of life after death. Hawking recently explained in a newspaper interview his belief that there is no God and that humans should therefore seek to live the most valuable lives they can while on Earth.

“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years,” Hawking told The Guardian.

“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.”

But Tyson believes that Hawking’s comments may serve to do more harm than good for both people of faith and people of science.

“I think that people in general believe that scientists don’t believe in God, and that’s just not true,” said Tyson, author of “The Unobservable Universe: A Paradox-Free Framework for Understanding the Universe.” “History is filled with scientists who were also men of faith, from Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton to Einstein. Now, I do also believe that there are other scientists who would like to prove that God doesn’t exist. These scientists might want to rain on everyone else’s parades with respect to God really, really badly. The problem is that one of the limitations of science is that science simply cannot prove the non-existence of objects and phenomena over the full spectrum of possibilities. So, while scientists may be able to prove in a scientific framework that there is no life after death, they cannot, nor should they even attempt to, prove it in a theological framework, which is the territory of faith. To do so creates unnecessary divisiveness that can serve no beneficial purpose. And that’s the line Dr. Hawking crossed–he essentially discounted the idea in both frameworks, and nothing good could come of that.”

Tyson’s concern is that Hawking’s comments deepen the rift between the scientific and religious communities, erecting hurdles that only diminish the prospects for potential good that science could do for humanity.

“Dr. Hawking is probably one of only a handful of scientists in the world who is a household name,” he added. “In many ways, he’s the captain of the team, he’s the quarterback, so when he speaks, millions of people believe he is speaking for scientists everywhere. That’s part of the weight of his celebrity on the scientific community as a whole. His comments are out of line and further complicate complex issues like stem-cell research, in which faith effectively blocks the use of scientific discoveries that could heal people and ease their suffering–a concept not inconsistent with the tenets of most organized religions,” Tyson added. “But science oftentimes becomes blocked politically and socially, not because the science contradicts religion, but because the argument is framed in an ‘us versus them’ context. We inadvertently challenge people to either believe in science or to believe in God, at the exclusion of the other. It’s an unreasonable and unnecessary position in which to place anyone.”

What’s worse, according to Tyson, is that people who believe in both science and faith get left out or, worse, placed into the difficult situation of needlessly choosing sides.

“Millions of people practice their faith but then also believe in the veracity of Darwin’s evolution,” he said. “Many in the scientific community view science through their faith, rather than in spite of it. When scientists discount theology in a wholesale fashion, they not only insult the faithful who discount science, but also the faithful who embrace it. It discourages and further polarizes the dialogue between the two disciplines and increases the challenges that science must overcome in its quest to better comprehend the nature of our world for the betterment of society, goals that I and many other scientists will continue to embrace.”

Hawking said he is “not religious in the normal sense.” He believes that “the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.” [62] Hawking compared religion and science in 2010, saying: [Some clergy might agree that God does not normally intervene contrary to the laws of science except in the case of such phenomena as miracles.] Hawking continues: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority [imposed dogma, faith], [as opposed to] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

Editor’s note: In some of his earlier work, Hawking seemed to allow at least a limited belief in God: “If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason–for then we should know the mind of God,” he wrote in his book, ‘A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes,’ an international best seller at more than 10 million in sales to date. However, in the same work, he suggested that “the existence of God was unnecessary to explain the origin of the universe.”