It’s a superficial bore when people take strikingly deviant positions on a subject for the obvious purpose of being controversial, suggesting some intellectual flare, and drawing attention. That is not my impression of Philip Ball in Prospect, in his The Hawking Delusion. And it is, on the other hand, always a refreshment to read someone genuinely breaking through the usual recitation of uncritically received wisdom.
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….
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.
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