Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Death, dark, and fairy stories.

Prominent cosmologist Stephen Hawking, in a recent interview to the British newspaper, The Guardian, has said that , "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."

While Hawking, (who suffers from severe motor neurone disease for the last 49 years, and "enjoys" computer assisted communication) , is surely entitled to his esteemed opinion as Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, at DAMTP in Cambridge, UK, I don't see how how regarding the brain as a computer , implies the presence or absence of heaven and/or afterlife.

Comparing the brain and a computer is like comparing the Himalayas with the hill in my backyard, or say, the movements in
Kalarippayattu or Russian ballet , with my dodging actions and hesitant moves, as I attempt to cross the high traffic potholed road outside.

Brains are so superior to computers.

They have a built-in neural plasticity, that allows a particular sense or circuitry in the brain, to take over the functions of a disabled sense or ability, to some degree, and perform new learning. And so you have sightless people who have an amazing sense of hearing or touch, or someone so mathematically incapable, but who can navigate through the intricate alleys of classical music and "taalaa", with impeccable renditions, in languages you don't need to know, to understand them.

When did you last see a computer, where after a virus attack, the CPU remembered and learned to ward of other attacks ? When was the last time, the monitor conked out, and say, the DVD writer circuitry connections on the motherboard, self adjusted themselves to try and get the monitor working ? When was the last time, the engineer was able to repair your computer while you merrily carried on typing the blogpost ?

And have you heard of complicated surgeries , including those of the brain, being done, with the body anesthetized, and partially temporarily disabled musclewise, and that there is no such thing as a human body "reboot" ?

And have you wondered at what is called human will, which sometimes performs wondrous miracles, as yet unexplained by logic ?

And speaking of rebirth and heaven, nobody has been there and reported back. And so no one has the right to get up and make statements about these things in a definitive way.

Religions may or may not believe in afterlife and reincarnation. Many times, religions across the world, have been misused to get power, and divide normally peaceful people. Blind following of rituals, intimidation of folks in the name of religion, and suppression of education for those in need of it , can never be upheld in any society.

But when , as a child, our understanding of religion was restricted to saying prayers daily , and enjoying festivals, it worked, when someone who was fond of frequently making evil faces at someone was told, not to do so, because , in his/her next life, he/she would be granted a permanently crooked mouth. And it was believed.

Sometimes, one gets repetitive dreams, of some unfamiliar structures. Sometimes , you visit a place and feel something familiar about it, a sense of strange comfort. And sometimes, you feel terribly wary of someone you have just met. Such events are yet to be understood.

The feeling and understanding that this is Play 1, Act 1, and there is always a Act 2 possible, sometimes strengthens the individual when faced with the fall of curtains.

X, at 89 , was a formerly active , wiry, very imaginative, wilful person, who was now bedridden. He had a group of friends who would meet every week in some one's house, for reciting some prayers , some interesting talk, and prasad (blessed food). When he was absent continuously for awhile, his friends called to enquire and were unhappy to hear his news. They asked if they could visit, and the family invited them to have a prayer session with him.

X's face lit up on seeing then, and then he looked a bit confused, because , thanks to memory problems, he suddenly couldn't place some of his friend's names. The eldest member, in his nineties, and a veteran of pilgrimage walkathons, sat on his bed, his hands pressing X's legs.

He cleared his throat.

"Tell me, do you fear Death ? " he asked matter-of-factly . No one in the group thought this was odd. They looked at X.

X took a deep slow breath, and with a great effort so he could talk in a loud voice, shook is head and said "No. Not at all"; and then he smiled at his friend sitting on his bed.

The friend started saying a particular Sanskrit verse, and gestured to X, asking if he remembered the next line. He prodded X, and X exercised all his old and tired neurons at will, and slowly came up with the next lines. The rest joined in, and the prayer was completed with smiles on every ones lips, and eyes that were full.

I think X felt at peace. He wasn't worried about death, heaven, hell, afterlife, or anything. It didn't matter. He was happy now.

He never thought about Death normally, and would not do so now.

It was important to live in the moment, and live it honestly, truthfully and well.

That was heaven for him, in this life.

He would worry about afterlives later. His daughter was reading a book by Brian Weiss, and he was curious. He had noticed the title. "Many lives, many masters ". He would talk to her about it, sometime..... For the moment, he needed to take some rest.

Mr Hawking is supposed to have said, "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. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark. "

X was never afraid of the dark.

He never battled death. He didn't even play hide and seek.

He just went smiling, facing the bright lights at the end of the tunnel......


  1. Great, great post Ugich. The way I see it is that a computer needs software to work and our bodies need spirits to do likewise. My Dad was not afraid of death either. I so loved this line best of all, "The feeling and understanding that this is Play 1, Act 1, and there is always a Act 2 possible, sometimes strengthens the individual when faced with the fall of curtains." Its the only thing we can hang onto sometimes, particularly those who have such difficult and troubled lives. Hawking may well be autistic as well is he which might also explain his views being so black and white.

  2. Very interesting and thought provoking post. The older you grow, the more complex your questions become, and the more you are willing to accept abstract as an answer. On a similar topic, (not existence of heaven or afterlife, but existence of god) I wrote this post - which was my own attempt to answer my childrens' questions on the big one. Please do read, and comment if possible.


    But, I have come across two types of people - the ones who are very objective - black and white - matter of fact. The other are the artistic ones - very colorful and shades of all colors. Everyone else lies on this spectrum - more or less of the two extremes. How they deal with the difficult times/events in their lives is very interesting to observe.

    Anyway - getting into the vague territory - so stopping here. :-)

  3. So agree with u on all those points Suranga! That comfort we feel in some places, that feeling of having met someone before - all points expressed beautifully in this post.

    Loved reading abt X!

  4. Thanks for this post Suranga. Nobody knows if death is the end of a person, I would like to hope (and maybe believe) that there could be something after death. I mean, there is no reason to reject that possibility.

  5. 'And so no one has the right to get up and make statements about these things in a definitive way'.

    Absolutely. This is the one thing that each living creature has to find out for itself.
    There is so much about the world, the universe, as well as life and death,that is yet unknown.
    Such a statement doesn't add to Hawking's stature is a scientist.

    Such a beautiful depiction of the old gentleman's meeting with his friends. Was this your father?

  6. Hi, I'm a stranger to this blog. I read through your blog post. I found it to be very well written (even though I don't agree with it). Being an atheist, of course, I'm unable to refrain from asking you a couple of questions :). You mentioned - "And speaking of rebirth and heaven, nobody has been there and reported back. And so no one has the right to get up and make statements about these things in a definitive way". This sounds like a very admirable, reasonable, balanced stand. However this statement begs two questions.
    1. If no one has been there and reported back, then why do you assume about the existence of an after-life in the first place?
    2 Also, if your religious environment was anything like mine, you must have heard dozens of people saying with absolute, complete certainty that there is a heaven, hell and an afterlife. Did you tell them as well that they don't have the right to make statements about these things in a definitive way? Somehow, I doubt it.:)

    This stand by Mr Hawking is entirely in keeping with his stature as a scientist. A basic principle of science - 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'. So far there is no ordinary evidence of an afterlife, let alone any extraordinary evidence. Another principle of science - Occam's razor principle. Given two competing explanations, the simpler explanation is more likely to be right. Scientifically, 'simpler explanation' is defined as the one with the least number of unverifiable assumptions. The concept of an afterlife is, in itself, one big, unverifiable assumption!
    Please don't think I'm trying to convert you or anyone else to atheism here. Your beliefs are none of my business. But when I saw a scientist like Mr Hawking being maligned for simply being rational, I thought I'd poke my nose in. If my comments have been entirely unwelcome, I apologize! :)

  7. Hi Suranga ...this is the first time i am commenting here although i read your blog occasionally.
    IHM directed me towards this post and i want to add my two paisa worth ...
    I was also disturbed by this comparison of human brain to computers when i read this article first thing in the morning today ( with my morning tea off course ) and this thought has been disturbing me the whole day ...i absolutely agree with your objection on this.

    At the same time i see some hints by Mr Hawkins himself...the strongest being , black holes emit radiations . He is the one who has put forward this theory and the proposed 'theory of everything' - a set of equations that described every particle and force in the entire universe ..he says it will be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we should know the mind of God ..

    In the same article i found that he was talking about the M-theory which predicts the possibility of supersymmetry , an idea that says fundamental particles have heavy , and as yet undiscovered, 'twins', with curious names such as selectrons ans squarks .

    Don't you think it might be a hint of the possibility of the unknown and unseen ? Dr. Hawkins is a physicist and he cannot propose a hypothesis to become a theory until some explanation and proof can be worked upon ...at least this is how i see it.

    Particle theory still has no answers for will power , as Deepak Chopra says ..we can always rewire our nerve endings to get a new self ( the exact words i forgot) ...and the case of Dr. Hawkins is not much different as he was not supposed to live this much but his zeal for doing more n more work is keeping him alive and active . I feel his hints of the presence of radiations from black hole is reason enough to be open to a possibility ...

  8. Srips

    (Answering in two parts due to character limitations.)

    (Your statements in italics and bold)

    Thank you for visiting my blog. Welcome .

    I normally look for a blogger profile, so I may get to know the person who has taken the trouble to comment. Unfortunately, I did not find any profile here.

    To answer your first question :

    1. If no one has been there and reported back, then why do you assume about the existence of an after-life in the first place?

    Life is not geometry or algebra, where there is a given and you prove something, that holds forever in a 3-dimensional world. It is a continuum, where at the end of the day, your beliefs are made up of your experiences, stories you hear from older folks who have seen more, your ability to pick and choose your beliefs based on your family background, education, and most important, something that appears to give you answers. Many times you subscribe to beliefs that help you handle stress.

    You see , there may or may not be heaven, gods, afterlife et al. It is an individual belief which has lots of paremeters and is not a binary kind of belief. If I make a statement tomorrow, it will have zilch value to those who do not know me, or of me. If Dr Hawking makes a statement, it is publicised widely because of his imposing stature in the world of science. Spirituality, theology, religion, and culture, are not his subjects, and it is unfortunate that he brings in concepts and beliefs from these in his declarations.

    I am not mailgning Dr Hawking at all. I just question his qualification to talk about these subjects. Has a study been done by him, or has he done a survey on research done on paranormal psychologies, after death experiences, instances of transferred memories etc ?

    2. Also, if your religious environment was anything like mine, you must have heard dozens of people saying with absolute, complete certainty that there is a heaven, hell and an afterlife. Did you tell them as well that they don't have the right to make statements about these things in a definitive way? Somehow, I doubt it.:)

    I grew up in a very enlightened hindu household, where being hindu was not about rituals but about living a certain way with certain values. Our questions on the topics you mention, were welcomed, discussed, and we had the right to differ. I had certain views about menstruation, and doing pujas, and when I explained them to my mother (who held different views), she accepted that I had a point,allowed me to do things they way I wanted, but also convinced me that keeping quiet about this vis-vis my grandmother, who had a vastly different life background, was something to be done out of respect for her age and beliefs. The non binary nature of the manner in which we thought out things , made for an ability to seamlessly mix in , in a community, with so many varying thinking styles.

    Yes I questioned things, had the freedom to do so. But I also gave others the freedom and right to think the way they wanted, in matters concerning religion, belief, life events, Gods, heaven hell, afterlife and what have you.

    When you get to be my age (61), and see as much of the world as I have , and had close friends from almost every religion, you realize that religion is a way of life you follow, according to your own beliefs, and not by the decree of some well known chap. If the two overlap, great, if not, you are still doing OK.

  9. Srips Part 2 of answer continued....

    The stand by Dr Hawking is entirely in keeping with his great stature as a scientist.

    You know what, I agree.

    But I also realize that many things cannot be approximated by partial differential equations, spectral studies, and chemical strucures . Like social beliefs, cultural beliefs, history, religion, anthropology, dreamtime of the australian aboriginals etc etc and so on.

    You talk about Occams Razor principle , and how the acceptable premise is the one which has the least amount of unverifiable assumptions. By definition, an assumption is a convenient belief. The problem here is what and who defines "convenient".....

    I have seen the slow slide into death of many close people across ages. I have interacted with them greatly in their last days, as well as for some, in their last moments. Dr Hawking's depiction of death as a conking out of the brain computer system, and ridculing of folks as fairies who are afraid of the dark, maybe typical of someone so "discretely" mathematical, that he fails to see the beauty of us ordinary people who live in a conitnuum , populated, with Gods, religions, cultures, beliefs, dreams, wishes, and an education that keeps us in a fine balance.

    You are most welcome to your atheism. Just as I have a right to belive in what works for me.

    This world is capable of holding all types. And in my world, a disagreement is not only allowed, it is encouraged as a right.

  10. I think you said it very well and it's how I feel. We don't know and I don't know why some feel the need to tell others they do. It's fundamentalism to me whether it's as an atheist or a believer in some religion. I am content with mystery for it all.

  11. One Woman's Journey Thank you...

    Lilly Thank you. I so love your analogy between software and spirits. ! As you mention it is about sometimes being a propnent of black and white, and sometimes thriving on all the colors in life....

    PoetMamma Thank you. And yes , I did go over and read the post you indicate. Have left my comments there. Something you said about how people deal with difficult times in their lives struck a chord. Non binary thinking processes, often allow us to investigate attitudes, and beliefs that bring us peace. It is an individual decision , and I dont think scientists can decree what we should think then.....

    Swaram Thank you ! Its really about reflecting on one's experiences, and learning, na ?

  12. IHMThank you for the comment. This post was an effort at standing up (in the face of genius level scientific statements of great weightage) for us ordinary people, who tend to really immerse ourselves in the "wave" rather than "particle" aspect of our lives. Interpersonal respect,belief and learning often helps us see ourselves through in stressful times, and this human attitude has developed and held over centuries. Whether it's afterlife, heaven , hell, or whatever, I think we , are equally entitled to have a opinion , believe in it, and follow our minds, and I really think scientists who tend to discretize knowledge should not interfere.

    Dipali Thank you. And its nice knowing that so many friends think along similar lines. And the answer to your question is, Yes.

    Sangeeta Thanks for commenting and welcome ! I've seen you in some of the photos of blogger meets which IHM/Ritu have put up occasionally, so I feel that I kind of know you !

    I am always wary of anyone (regardless of how big and great he/she is) who says he has a theory of everything, and that will reveal to us the mind of an entity, that we regard as God.

    Throughout history, theories have been postulated, held, doubted, then corrected, sometimes so much, that it became a new theory altogether. There is a duality of things being treated as waves or particles in science, there are also "principles of uncertainity" which have been postulated for "observers". (by Heisenberg).

    While all societies in history have never been 100% LiberalArts/Humanities or 100% Scientific types, it has always been a circumstance-related mix of rigid science tempered in some fields by human sensible common sense thinking.

    The comparison between the brain and the computer is unfortunate. That will be the subject for possibly a separate post.

    Neural plasticity of the brain is something that I am in total awe about. (Thats Dr Chopra's rewiring of neurons, for you). There hasnt been a time when we have been able to say, "we know everything about the brain, and can simulate it manually". It is ongoing learning, sometimes aided by lots and lots of willpower, of the person whose brain is being studied.

    God is not mathematical. We ordinary people, are sometimes quite happy, thinking of Him, as part CEO, part HR person, part mother, part friend, part teacher, sometimes, even part-spy, and so on.

    I am in awe of all those discoveries of black holes, radiations, clockwise and anticlockwise spins, symmetry particles/antiparticles, and bend my head in respect .

    I really don't see where God, belief, and mind come into all this mathematically postulated stuff. The world is made up of scientists, skeptics, smart people, fools, simple god fearing types and atheists , just to name some varieties. Each one has to find his or her own balance. Hawking may rely on equations, others may rely on life experiences. Both both exist with equal importance.

    I am totally awed by the entity who came up with the human body system Spending innumerable hours at the bedside of a terminally ill close relative, with a dedicated doctor(s) who answered every stupid question I asked, , I was totally stumped by what I observed and wrote a post on it once. You might be interested to read it here

  13. Thank you for the post!
    I'd rather believe in fairies than say that our brain is a computer...
    ( Have i said that i love your music?)
    Kisses from Greece!

  14. The 'Theory of everything' i want to believe in , is the one which would have answers for everything . And not a single equation based on wave or particle nature of the things ... and yes, i absolutely agree that all theories need to be be doubted , corrected and.....

    I just wanted to say that if Dr. Hawkins says there is a possibility of something unseen , i would like to see it as a sign for a possibility of a new world opening up to the existent pool of knowledge ( his own theory for instance ) . Supersymmetry , i would like to believe in and may there will be more answers for us.

    You so rightly said about neural plasticity , i quoted Deepak Chopra just to show off i am well read ( a fallacy in fact :) ) i see my own observation through my years more reliable .

    I am actually in awe of Dr. Hawkins work and most of the times his 'popular views' too , but his comparison between the human brain and computers came as a shock . Disappointing.

    Thanks for guiding me to a valuable post of yours.

  15. And I do agree with you and Swaram regarding that comfort we feel in some places, that feeling of having met someone before - and you have expressed them beautifully indeed! Hope your week is going well, Suranga! Enjoy!


  16. Heaven and Hell are here and now - what we make of the present. And I guess Dr. Stephen Hawking expressed what he felt - he did not ask it to take it or follow it - fair enough for me.

  17. Thats so beautifully written Suranga. Theres nothing to match the human mind....its of course this mind which made the computer....so to compare the computer with its creator is just too much...not agreeable for me.
    We have so many self-repair systems in our body - we have so many symptoms to one problem - Certainly computers are no way nearer....
    Beautiful yet touching story of X....loved it.

    I've to tell u - I had a gud laugh at that header pic.... :D

  18. I understand that human brain made the computer and programmed every single program, but how come I depend on it to look up for so much information? Is it our fear of loosing our position as the superior that is making us deny the value of computers?

  19. This touches on a soft spot and a fear. With everything going on with my Dad, it's a subject that I shy away from. I don't want to think of death as an option. I want and need to believe in Dad's recovery, which I'm sure is understandable :) After his third surgery (yes, he had to have a third surgery), we are thinking he is on the better end of this recovery. I say that, yet, I remember Dad's words to me right before he went into the first surgery, "Death is a given. It doesn't matter. What matters is how you how you live your life."

    Ask a computer to understand that.

  20. evagelia Thank you .

    Snageeta Thank you..

    Sylvia Thank you ! Hope you enjoy the weekend too !

    Aativas All people may be equal , but they are not heard equal. Which is why I feel Hawking is making comments about something which is not his field. (This may work in our ministers , but shouldnt and doesnt elsewhere)

    Umas Thank you. Stuff was getting too serious so I thought I needed to put up a fun header ....

    Munir Welcome to the blog . You look upon the computer to search, because it can do repetitive actions (triggered by a human), with differing boundary conditions. You also look upon it to search thanks to networking technology developed by some of our best brains over the years. There is no superior and inferior. The computer is a contraption. The human brain is not. You can only compare similar things, and not apples and oranges.

    Aleta What a great philosophy your Dad has ! I hope and pray that he gets well soon, and is able to enjoy a wonderful healthy life with his family soon !