On the occasion of Stephen W. Hawking’s 60th
trip around the sun, we consider a social phenomenon
that reveals something deep about human nature
In 1998 God appeared at Caltech.
More precisely, the scientific equivalent of the deity, in the form of Stephen W. Hawking, delivered a public lecture via his now familiar voice synthesizer. The 1,100-seat auditorium was filled; an additional 400 viewed a video feed in another hall, and hundreds more squatted on the lawn and listened to theater speakers broadcasting this scientific saint’s epistle to the apostles. The lecture was slated for 8 P.M. By three o’clock a line began to snake around the grassy quad adjoining the hall. By five, hundreds of scientists flipped Frisbees and chatted with students from Caltech and other universities.
When Hawking rolled into the auditorium and down the aisle in his motorized wheelchair, everyone rose in applause — a “standing O” just for showing up! The sermon was his customary one on the big bang, black holes, time and the universe, with the theology coming in the question-and-answer period. Here was an opportunity to inquire of a transcendent mind the biggest question of all: “Is there a God?”
Asked this ultimately unanswerable question, Hawking sat rigidly in his chair, stone quiet, his eyes darting back and forth across the computer screen. A minute, maybe two, went by. Finally, a wry smile formed and the Delphic oracle spoke: “I do not answer God questions.”
What is it about Hawking that draws us to him as a scientific saint? He is, I believe, the embodiment of a larger social phenomenon known as scientism. Scientism is a scientific worldview that encompasses natural explanations for all phenomena, eschews supernatural and paranormal speculations, and embraces empiricism and reason as the twin pillars of a philosophy of life appropriate for an Age of Science.
Scientism’s voice can best be heard through a literary genre for both lay readers and professionals that includes the works of such scientists as Carl Sagan, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and Jared Diamond. Scientism is a bridge spanning the abyss between what physicist C. P. Snow famously called the “two cultures” of science and the arts/humanities (neither encampment being able to communicate with the other). Scientism has generated a new literati and intelligentsia passionately concerned with the profound philosophical, ideological and theological implications of scientific discoveries.
Although the origins of the scientism genre can be traced to the writings of Galileo and Thomas Huxley in centuries past, its modern incarnation began in the early 1970s with mathematician Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, took off in the 1980s with Sagan’s Cosmos and hit pay dirt in the 1990s with Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which spent a record 200 weeks on the Sunday Times of London’s hardcover best-seller list and sold more than 10 million copies in 30-plus languages worldwide. Hawking’s latest work, The Universe in a Nutshell, is already riding high on the best-seller list.
Hawking’s towering fame is a result of a concatenation of variables that include the power of the scientism culture in which he writes, his creative insights into the ultimate nature of the cosmos, in which he dares to answer ersatz theological questions, and, perhaps most notably, his unmitigated heroism in the face of near-insurmountable physical obstacles that would have felled a lesser being. But his individual success in particular, and the rise of scientism in general, reveals something deeper still.
First, cosmology and evolutionary theory ask the ultimate origin questions that have traditionally been the province of religion and theology. Scientism is courageously proffering naturalistic answers that supplant supernaturalistic ones and in the process is providing spiritual sustenance for those whose needs are not being met by these ancient cultural traditions. Second, we are, at base, a socially hierarchical primate species. We show deference to our leaders, pay respect to our elders and follow the dictates of our shamans; this being the Age of Science, it is scientism’s
shamans who command our veneration. Third, because of language we are also storytelling, mythmaking primates, with scientism as the foundational stratum of our story and scientists as the premier mythmakers of our time.