The Hawking Delusion

Hawking is extremely smart, but so are others, and he is a long way from being Einstein’s successor

September 08, 2010
Stephen Hawking will deliver the Reith Lecture in November
Stephen Hawking will deliver the Reith Lecture in November

It’s a harsh reality of journalistic life that you will sometimes have to write up "news" that is neither new nor significant, simply because your editor knows that everyone else will do so. That is the generous interpretation of the blanketmediacoverage of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement that God is no longer needed to create the universe.

Hawking has form in this arena, having previously been accorded oracular status when he uttered some comment about a Theory of Everything permitting us to "know the Mind of God," the kind of idle metaphor that only someone lacking any serious interest in the interface of science and religion would employ. Hawking clearly had not read Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning, which wisely declares that "if any man think, by his inquiries after material things, to discover the nature or will of God, he is indeed spoiled by vain philosophy." Although it is unlikely such pieties show Bacon as a closet atheist minding his back, he did at least have the good taste thus to dispense with God at the outset.

Let’s not be too harsh on Hawking: the man is one of the best physicists in the world. The problem is that, in the public view, this statement probably seems as absurd as saying that Messi is a good striker: a lame way of acknowledging incomparable genius. Most people will be astonished to hear that Hawking is not rated by his peers among the top ten physicists even of the 20th century, let alone of all time. They probably imagine he has so far been denied a Nobel prize out of sheer jealousy. Hawking is extremely smart, but so are others, and he is a long way from being Einstein’s successor.

More importantly, Hawking has no reputation among scientists as a deep thinker. There is nothing especially profound in what he has said to date about the social and philosophical implications of science in general and cosmology in particular. There is far more wisdom in the views of Martin Rees, John Barrow or Phil Anderson, not to mention the old favourites Einstein, Bohr and Feynman.

Hawking’s latest remarks on the redundancy of God have little depth, as Paul Davies showed easily enough in the Guardian: if you have any kind of law-like regularity in the universe, the door is always open for those who like to attribute it to God. And Mary Warnock (no religious apologist) points out—or reminds us that Hume pointed out—that the Biblical God is not simply or even primarily a God who made the universe. It’s a sterile debate, as Bacon already saw.

This makes it ridiculous, then, that Hawking’s pronouncement in his new book, The Grand Design, (there’s a title that is hostage to fortune) has been greeted as though it is the final judgement of science on the Biblical creation: Hawking Has Spoken.

Even atheists must feel some sympathy for the likes of Rowan Williams having to comment on such a shallow assertion, as though Hawking is supposed to have set the foundations of their faith quaking. Hawking is speaking about the God of Boyle and Newton, not the God of contemporary theology. (This is not to deny that millions still believe in this anachronistic, childish vision of God, who waved his fingers and made the world, but just to say that it is a bit silly to pander to it.)

So why does Hawking get awarded this status by the idolatory press? It’s time to stop being squeamish and take the bull by the horns. The Cult of Hawking is the Cult of the Great Mind in the Useless Body. It is attributable in part to a simple, ghoulish fascination with the man’s physical disability, but more so (and more troublingly) to the unspoken astonishment that a man with such severe bodily impairment can be intelligent. It speaks volumes about our persistent prejudices about disability.

It is disturbing that the media plays along with this idea so readily, even while now seemingly keen to feign blindness to Hawking’s condition. It is hard to know whether Hawking recognises this situation himself. He has always seemed inspiringly stoical, even gently self-mocking, in the face of the extreme challenges of his affliction. If he knows that his fame and reputation stem from his illness, no one has any right to expect him to comment on it. But as for the rest of us: the more we turn Hawking into a guru, the more we do a disservice to everyone else whose minds are vibrant while their bodies are impaired.