Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Weight of Days

I'm not sure why it's news, but in a recent interview with The Guardian physicist Stephen Hawking made a claim that's been repeated at a number of news sites as if it were somehow revelatory. Hawking is being quoted as claiming that heaven is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

Well, maybe. Or maybe not. Whether there's a life after this one or not, though, he's very much mistaken about the significance of the belief that there is. It's not so much a story for people who are afraid of the dark (or of death). Rather belief in an afterlife is the best explanation for why we have the existential yearnings we do.

What I mean is that human beings have a deep need for meaning and purpose, for a basis for moral judgment, for justice, for human rights, and so on. If death is the end of our existence then none of those needs can ever be fulfilled. There really is no purpose for life if the world is as Hawking conceives it, nor is there any justice, nor is there a ground for moral judgments and human rights. We are insignificant specks in a cosmos completely indifferent to our existence and nothing we do matters at all. We fool ourselves into thinking our life matters, that moral duties exist, that people have natural rights, and so on, but these beliefs are simply delusions that make our day to day existence bearable.

As Albert Camus once said, for one who does not believe in God "the weight of days is dreadful."

Given all this, none of which is really controversial, Hawking's answer to another question in the interview is perplexing. He was asked, "So here we are. What should we do?" His answer was, "We should seek the greatest value of our action."

This is perplexing for a couple of reasons. First, we might ask "seek the greatest value" for whom? Presumably for oneself, but what if I place a high value on ethnic purity? Would I be wrong if I acted on that value by exterminating the weak and the ethnically other? Suppose you place high value on kindness and I place a high value on cruelty. Which of us would Hawking say is right? If he says you are, then what is he basing that response on, if not just an arbitrary preference?

Hawking's view, in other words, is that death is the end so might makes right, and each man should do whatever he wishes, whatever produces the greatest value for himself.

Secondly, his answer is perplexing because if there's no life after death, if our lives are as ephemeral and insignificant as the light of a firefly on a summer night, then why should we do anything? What's the point? What difference does it make whether we discover a cure for cancer or write books on the structure of black holes? If death brings it all to a close, if death is the big eraser, why should we care about anything at all except maybe getting as much pleasure as we can while we're waiting to die?

Leo Tolstoy, in his Confessions, tells a parable that goes something like this: While walking down a path a man is confronted by a ravenous beast. The man runs from the beast and jumps down a well to escape it. As he falls he grabs on to a branch growing out of the wall of the well. He looks up as he hangs there and sees the beast waiting for him at the top of the well. He looks down and sees a dragon at the bottom with its jaws agape. He can't go up and he can't go down. He then notices two mice, a white one and a black one - day and night (time) - nibbling away at the base of the branch. His situation is hopeless, death is inevitable. But he notices a few drops of honey on the leaves of the branch and so while he waits for his annihilation, he strains to lick the honey.

For Tolstoy, the man's act is utterly pointless and absurd, but that is the predicament we're all in if this life is all there is. We're all hanging from the branch stretching to lick a drop or two of honey before we die, like a passenger on the Titanic scurrying about the cabin making his bed and folding his clothes while the ship is sinking.

Heaven isn't a fairy tale for those who are afraid of death. Rather belief that heaven exists is the logical consequence of believing that human existence is meaningful, that moral obligations do exist, that justice is possible, that people have value, that what we do in this life isn't just licking honey while waiting for time to run out.

If one believes what one does in life really matters one must also believe that death does not end his or her existence. Contrarily, if one believes that this life is all there is then one has no grounds for believing that what one does in the years given him really matters.

People who believe in heaven aren't necessarily afraid of the dark. They just believe that their life matters.

Thanks to Ethan for the link.

From Alarmist to Skeptic

David Evans has impressive credentials. He consulted full-time for the Australian Greenhouse Office (now the Department of Climate Change) from 1999 to 2005, and part-time 2008 to 2010, modeling Australia’s carbon in plants, debris, mulch, soils, and forestry and agricultural products. He is a mathematician and engineer, with six university degrees, including a PhD from Stanford University in electrical engineering.

He is also a man who formerly believed that carbon dioxide emissions were about to cause an ecological calamity via anthropogenic (man-caused) global warming, but he has looked at the evidence and has rethought his former fears. He concludes an article at The Financial Post with this observation:
Even if we stopped emitting all carbon dioxide tomorrow, completely shut up shop and went back to the Stone Age, according to the official government climate models it would be cooler in 2050 by about 0.015 degrees. But their models exaggerate 10-fold — in fact our sacrifices would make the planet in 2050 a mere 0.0015 degrees cooler!
He explains the reasons for his conversion from alarmist to skeptic in the rest of the article. According to Evans there's no reliable evidence that global warming is occurring and the belief that it is is based on a false assumption about how the atmosphere handles water vapor and sloppy temperature measurements.

It's an informative piece. If you're interested in the issue and/or concerned about President Obama's plans to curtail greenhouse gas emissions through green energy and cap and trade, you should certainly read it.