Stephen Hawking passed away earlier today at the age of 76, leaving behind a legacy that few scientists — or anyone in general — could ever dream of matching. Not only was he a brilliant physicist who brought us closer to understanding the universe we inhabit, but he had a gift for triggering ferocious debate and critical thinking.
Many years ago, while a naive boy in my 20s, I would read a great deal about the concept of existentialism. A number of the great minds of the time were openly non-religious and would talk about how there was no afterlife, no supreme deity guiding our lives, and no ultimate purpose for our existence or the universe's in general. Vociferous debates would be had in newspapers, magazines, and coffee shops on the subject. I read or participated in as many as I could. In 2010 the topic once again became a matter of debate when Hawking's book The Grand Design argued that there was no requirement for God to exist to set the universe in motion.
People argued for months over this idea.
Irrespective of correctness, the concept of existentialism and my understanding of its consequences are very much rooted in the arguments put forward by well-regarded thinkers like Stephen Hawking and the debates that came after each resurfacing of the topic. In 2011 he said during an interview that the brain is "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." Perhaps he is right. Perhaps he is wrong. I don't have the answer and won't pretend to have reached any conclusions myself. If his consciousness continues to exist, then he knows the truth. If it does not, then he is correct. Either way, it's beyond our ability to answer for the time being.
The world has lost one of its most unique minds, but there will always be more who will come along to question everything from the structure of the universe to the existence of the supernatural to the purpose of life. So while Stephen Hawking may no longer be with us to trigger debates on highly cerebral topics, his passion and curiosity will not be forgotten.