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Remembering Christopher Hitchens

Also take a look at Lawrence's interview on CNN - Friend of Hitchens remembers his life

The world, which Christopher Hitchens would have happily admitted was already pretty dark, just got a little darker. With his death, it also got a lot emptier.

Christopher was a beacon of knowledge and light in a world that constantly threatens to extinguish both. He had the courage to accept the world for just what it is, and not what we would like it to be. That is the highest praise I believe one can give to any intellect. He understood that the universe doesn’t care about our existence, or our welfare, and epitomized the realization that our lives have meaning only to the extent we give them meaning.

For Christopher, this came through the credo that guided his life: the courageous defense of the simple proposition that skepticism rather than credulity is the highest principle the human intellect can use to ennoble our existence.

He embodied the delicious possibilities of existence and the profound sense of satisfaction that intellectual exploration, integrity, and bravery can bring, especially when confronting power with knowledge, even as he openly recognized that the possibility of a successful outcome in any such battle is always slim.

In that regard, he was always willing to speak out against injustice and ignorance wherever he saw it, no matter whose sensibilities he might ruffle in the process. He was a true contrarian, and he even wrote a guidebook for the rest of us on how to follow his example.

The moment one entered the Hitchens’ demesne, one was overwhelmed by a single obsession: books. Books were everywhere, on every available wall, on the floor, on tables, couches and bathroom counters. But as becomes clear during the course of an evening of conversation, unlike for many of us, the books on Christopher’s wall were far more than window dressing. They were arranged according to subjects and ideas in a way that makes it more than clear that the books were regularly read and consulted, that the knowledge contained within them was used in a sense that few of us really adequately exploit. It was humbling to witness, close up, an intellectual that was so capable of surrounding a subject, relishing it, exploring it for its own sake, critically soaking up everything that is worth knowing. He was ever ready to incorporate this wisdom to shed light on old ideas or critically examine new ones with the full weight of a lifetime of intellectual exploration combined with the playful and curious excitement of a child in a candy store.

The last time I saw him, our discussions ranged from subjects relating to the nature of nothingness, quantum mechanics and a multiverse (subjects of a new book of mine for which Christopher was writing the foreword before his illness intervened), to the obscenity that is capital punishment, the madness that governs the religious fanaticism infecting both sides of the Middle East conflict, the embarrassment that is Catholicism, and a related subject: the intellectual laziness and pretentious nonsense that encompasses so much of religious faith and theological noise in our popular culture.

Christopher was not a scientist, but he was fascinated by the power of science—not merely its possible impact on human affairs but, more importantly for him and for me, the remarkable ideas that it generates. He was wise enough to recognize that the universe is far more imaginative than we are, and as one who craved experience of all aspects of intellectual life, he was as eager to learn from the universe as he was from the oeuvre of the world's great writers, philosophers and historians.

Through his questions and reflections he extended my understanding of the implications of my own work. After I talked to him about the dismal future of an accelerating universe, he later used this idea to point out something remarkable about a universe that could come from nothing. For those who think something coming from nothing is terribly improbable or impossible, just wait: nothing arising from something can happen just as easily. In the far future, the universe will be cold, dark, and empty. As he put it, when musing on our universal future: nothingness is heading straight toward us as fast as can be.

That idea didn’t terrify him. He realized that knowledge is not to be gained for comforting our soul but for enhancing the awareness of being alive.

Just before leaving his company the last time I saw him, in one of those poetic accidents that makes life so unexpectedly enjoyable, I was reading a newspaper piece at his kitchen table about an emerging effort to ensure that young people at elite institutions preserve their Catholic upbringing during and after College. When describing the temptations to depart from piety, the author wrote: “Exposed to Nietzche, Hitchens, co-ed dorms and beer pong, such students are expected to stray.”

I reflected on what a remarkable tribute to the man this simple sentence represented. To be so overpowering in one’s cultural impact that one can be mentioned without explanation is one thing, but to be sandwiched between Nietzche and beer pong is an honor that very few of us can so hope to deservedly achieve.

Lawrence M. Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His newest book, A Universe from Nothing, will appear in January 2012.



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