For more than 50 years, death was a poignant part of Stephen Hawking’s remarkable life.
The physicist, who died Wednesday at age 76, wasn’t expected to see his 25th birthday, after being diagnosed with the incurable neurodegenerative condition ALS at age 21. Though Hawking beat the odds for more than five decades, the scientist told the Guardian in 2011 that death was never far from his mind.
“I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years,” Hawking said. “I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
Here are some of Hawking’s most interesting thoughts about death, the afterlife and God.
Hawking didn’t believe in heaven
The scientist took a pragmatic view of what happens to the brain and body after death.
“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” he told the Guardian. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
He believed in an ‘impersonal God,’ but not a creator
Hawking invoked the name of God in his seminal book A Brief History of Time, writing that if physicists could find a “theory of everything” — that is, a cohesive explanation for how the universe works — they would glimpse “the mind of God.”
But in later interviews and writings, such as 2010’s The Grand Design, which he co-wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking clarified that he wasn’t referring to a creator in the traditional sense.
“Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist,” he wrote in The Grand Design. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”
Using language about God, Hawking told TIME after the book’s release, is more figurative than literal.
“God is the name people give to the reason we are here,” he said. “But I think that reason is the laws of physics rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God.”
Hawking considered himself an atheist
Hawking spoke more plainly about his thoughts on God in an interview with Spanish publication El Mundo.
“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation,” he said. “What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
But still thought the universe had meaning
Though Hawking rejected the conventional notion of God or a creator, he fundamentally believed that the universe and life have meaning, according to the New York Times.
“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,” Hawking said of the meaning of life. “Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”
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