Thursday, 22 March 2018

Understanding Hawking on Religious and Spiritual Life

Exploring if Hawking may be read as an ally of genuine religion

Should Hawking’s much publicized atheism bother truly religious souls? No, because it leaves the problem that religion basically addresses – the question of suffering/ignorance/alienation or meaning or God understood as the Meaning of Life – untouched. Hawking himself advocate a sort of intellectual/spiritual life that echoes/is parasitic upon the “worldview” of Religion. God talk is ultimately more about life lived here and now than enquiring about past or future dispensation or bothering about some account of what happened at the beginning of time. The most important question for religion is not of boundaries or edges of the universe or who began the show or whether it is self sustaining or what is the precise address of the Creator if there is one (as against none or two or more as if nondual Reality that grounds every inquiry or judgment is numerical question) or the structure of His Mind. It is, instead, how one takes the gift of life – whether one is grateful for it or not (disbelief is most fundamentally ingratitude for the gift of being or life and its cost is losing hope or despair – and how far we pursue excellence in moral, intellectual and spiritual spheres and if one is truly appreciative of the grand design (for man dies “for want of appreciation”/wonder/beauty/love). The question of explaining the world with or without personal God (that interests Hawking and many other atheists) may or mayn’t interest religions and if it interest them it isn’t vital to their core project. The question and answer for both Religion and Hawking is of sustaining hope, embracing life without being in any hurry to die, of not being afraid of the unknown or dark and of recognizing limitations of finitude.
      The very fact that man is able to ask the question of Being or seeks to comprehend the world or turns himself into a question constitute irrefutable proofs of the thesis that man is intelligence that transcends him as ordinarily conceived a spatiotemporal entity or evolved monkey or computer. These also imply that man can’t evade or dissolve the understanding of God identified with transpersonal depths of being – Being – and this is how metaphysics understands God. The question or the issue every man or scientist must confront (on the pain of denying himself or denying the Question that he is) is not the theological or cosmological question of genesis of being or Being of being but the existential question of being or Being of being as such. A few moments of meditation on the term Dasein (used by Heidegger) for man is enough to unsettle the popularized perception that science has supplanted philosophy and theology and we should celebrate shallow, naïve and unthinking confidence of scientism that the task of thinking may one day come to an end. Heidegger was indeed right when he said science doesn’t think and “the most thought provoking question today is that we are still not thinking.”
      We now comment upon some less commented upon statements of Hawking to state the case why Hawking is nonpathogenic for religion except in the eyes of those whose concept of religion is indissolubly tied to certain conceptual scheme such as that of theism of a certain sort and popular view of creation ex nihilo taken as contradicting alternative account of emanation. Hawking states: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” Religion does invoke authority of intellect over reason, of disciplined self over wayward self, of objective order of reality over subjective whims of passion or ego, of the undisputed Book transcribed in the very heart of being or self over texts that might be disputed, of what stays over what passes away, of the sage (whose heart and brain are both developed) over the saint or philosopher, of the prophets who are, de facto suns at the centre of various cultures and it is thanks to their light that countless followers have found reason to live. Revelation is best defined as objectivization of universal intellect that is, theoretically  potentially accessible for every normal man and it is the light and fire of intellect that lights up the torch of reason that seeks to comprehend the universe. Mulla Sadra illustrating this point in the case of the Quranic revelation has thus put it: “The Quranic revelation is the light which enables one to see. It is like the sun which casts light lavishly. Philosophical intelligence is the eye that sees this light and without this light one cannot see anything. If one closes one’s eyes, that is, if one pretends to pass by philosophical intelligence, this light itself will not be seen because there will not be any eyes to see it.” (None including Hawking can veto philosophy as has been noted that philosophy is the art of reasoning or analysis that scientists are ever employing.) Religion’s invoking of authority is ultimately the authority of experience/reality over interpretations coloured by desiring self’s distorting lenses. God whose authority is invoked is the ground of being/laws/objective order/intelligible entities and is not external to things but their very life. The Universe doesn’t stand confronting Him as an object but is His behavior as Iqbal would put it. We are ever experiencing God or we, alongwith the universe aren’t there as God alone is there to be experienced. God is a percept as sages like Shaykh-i Akbar declare rather than a concept that can be dethroned. One doesn’t say about the sun or No-thing that it needs to be proved. God has been described by religions as No-thing or That what Is or That of which no analogy could be given and thus nondeconstructable Suchness or whatever is called the Origin and the End or the Meaning or the Centre or the Principle of Order. Science itself gains legitimacy by invoking the “authority” of reign of reason and laws of science and it is no charge against it. Religion’s invoked authority is similarly the authority of the that which is presupposed in every discourse – it is the authority of the Word or Vak or Primordial Speech or Logos that frames every communicative activity. This authority is paradoxically what realizes freedom that every free man affirms (and Hawking in his own way: “Although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free.” ) This awareness of freedom (expressed through various activities including in Hawking’s case creative work) distinguishes man from every computer we know. Hawking should have appreciated that religions counsel accepting mortality and accepting that non-self/Being is underlying immortal reality whose closing and opening of eyes constitute this wondrous show of the universe. (Against the mortality of soul is to be distinguished the immortality of spirit that is not ours but in us – projection of Being – and that is co-terminus with the special gift of understanding that distinguishes humans or more precisely the fact of awareness of itself and accompanying consciousness of joy that refuses the idea of limit or boundary that life seems due to the “event” of death).
      Religion’s basic project is to save us from estrangement from ourselves here and now and its great playingfield is this world or samsara. Heaven  is to be earned here and now or never. Postulated posthumous Heaven is an afterglow of what is won here in the form of disciplined/satisfied soul and hell is the darkness of a lost soul that is terribly felt here and extends, for religions, in posthumous dimension. Hawking would take the battle ground seriously and seek excellence even if it appears purely secular one but can’t be divested of certain permanence that intellectual life has by its very definition or nature participates in.
      The fundamental claims/demands of religion are that we recognize that there is something in man that makes him special, that meaning question is vital and must be addressed, that we should be grateful for the opportunity to live and one must not lose hope and must pursue excellence or better perfection in what he does. Hawking seems to concede all these claims explicitly in his published work and interviews and one’s disagreement with him is in degree rather than kind. His is a rather impoverished vision of man’s great potential to pursue excellence in both intellectual and spiritual spheres. Compared to the heights on which sages like Aquinas, Abhinavgupta, Mulla Sadra, Sankara, Lao Tzu and others are situated, Hawking’s estimate of what he calls essentially an advanced breed of  monkey is limited. With Hawking the dialogue should be  on  anthropology/anthroposophy or what does it mean to be truly a man, what is it to know the mind of God through discursive conceptual route that he employs and how far he succeeds in understanding the significance of the alternative route of prophets/sages to such an objective. Since every disciplined pursuit of intellectual life is a species of spiritual one which essentially consists in undistracted attention or sharp unwavering awareness– and morality itself is a fruit of proper attention to the other and thus not unrelated to intellectual life – we better respect Hawking’s  mode of worship that recalls partly Spinoza’s or Einstein’s and though admittedly is of a different order compared to that of sages, we better focus on what he has to teach us – that any dualistic concept of God that imagines absolute separation from the world  is passé, that God of gaps is rather awkward for mature spiritual vision, that aesthetic contemplative attitude with regard to grand design is what is to be cultivated. Hawking’s essential take home advices that echo teachings of essential religion and great poets include, among others, the following: 

  • The universe is not pointless in the sense Weinberg would have it and that it is an ordered universe and we can say that universe and life do have meaning.
  • “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
  • “Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist” and “Be curious.”
  • “I like physics, but I love cartoons.” (If we understand cartoons as allusion to spiritually uplifting playful, artistic activity)
  • “And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

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