Sunday, September 12, 2010
A Tale of Two Paradigms: Stephen Hawking on God and Pretty Shallow Babes
I am watching the afternoon news on TV while eating lunch. There is a piece on a sexy, blonde woman who is in trouble with the law. While the newscaster is relaying the story (without ever really getting to the substance of the accusation and issue), various short videos of our blonde, smiling, posing, dressed in expensive and revealing dresses, are being shown. I am thinking to myself about all the air time and attention (albeit negative) that this pretty shallow babe--this cultural icon of our time--is getting. Who cares what she has or hasn’t done? Why on God’s earth give her any air time at all? But indeed, she periodically, over the last few years, gets lots of air time. Almost everyone in our modern, media saturated culture could tell you who she was if you showed them a picture of her.
And she is not the exception to this focus on the inane. In the same week on the news there were two other young women who were in the spotlight--media celebrities--who were given lots of attention and vapid, empty commentary for being sentenced to “time” or “community service” for doing dumb and shallow things. How much can you say about the shallow and the stupid? Apparently a lot.
On the other hand, Stephen Hawking, cosmologist and physicist, has just released a new book, in which he argues that God is not necessary in order to explain the existence of the universe. Now--I am sure--that Hawking gets a lot less air time than our pretty shallow babe and, in fact, in the sample of days that I watched the news this last week, there was a lot more attention given to the blonde than to the genius. And of course, in terms of significance, one could ask if it is more important to determine if a shallow woman stuck drugs in one of her bodily orifices or not, or if God created the universe…
I have frequently stated in my presentations on the future and our present social-cultural reality that our cultural icons--our heroes and heroines--are athletes, movie stars, and pop singers (I should also include in the list, rich shallow people) to the absolute exclusion of great thinkers and humanitarians. Where are the wise and intelligent in our brain depositories of well known, familiar faces? How many people would recognize a picture of Hawking? I may not agree with Hawking as to whether God is necessary or not, but at least he is grappling with an issue that far exceeds in importance what color dress or pair of shoes to wear out that evening.
I saw an email this week, written by someone who had read a news release on Hawking’s new book, and this person stated that given Hawking’s physical state and appearance it was no wonder that he didn’t believe in God; he was undoubtedly angry at God for his physical affliction. Not only did I find this commentary insulting and shallow, but I immediately asked myself who was the uglier and more disabled human being, Hawking or the shallow babe. Of course, my answer was the latter. In spirit and vision and mind and intelligence, Hawking lives in a different universe--a different paradigm of existence and value--than the media grabbing blonde. (No one seems to like this woman, but they keep running stories on her. Maybe our news stations—or rather our news commentators--don’t know what to say about Hawking since he is a person of ideas rather than eye shadow.)
I am in the middle of a dialogue--actually a debate--with a fellow philosopher over whether one should be optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world. (This was a question discussed at a session this summer at the World Future Society.) He strongly believes that the more valid and appropriate attitude, given environmental deterioration, power politics, money hungry mega-corporations, and excessive consumption and waste, is to be pessimistic; he thinks I am too optimistic about things--present and future. Our debate got me thinking about the opening lines in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” Contrary to my fellow philosopher’s assessment of me, I can see numerous reasons for being pessimistic as well as other reasons for being optimistic about things. But regardless of our differing opinions--assuming we are at different points on the optimism-pessimism continuum--he and I live in the same paradigm, the same mind set, the same universe of discourse, perception, and value. We agree (to a degree) on what is important—on what deserves our attention. I am sure that both of us would see the excessive attention to the trivial and the shallow as grounds for being pessimistic about our present culture. (I suppose we would both like to see more news items on Hawking, Spinoza, and Sartre--fat chance, God forbid, since Sartre was cross-eyed.)
I would propose that there are two “cities” (sort of like Augustine’s cities of God and Man). I would call one “The Paradigm of the Shallow” and the other “The Paradigm of the Deep.” Should one be pessimistic or optimistic about this cultural state of affairs? Should one focus on the light or the darkness? Perhaps this is too simplistic a question, too either/or. It is important to see both the light and the darkness, to be a realist about things. I must say though that my philosophical friend worries about power, greed, waste, deceit, etc. in our world, and though I do not discount such factors/problems, I tend to worry about the shallow and the superficial. (He worries about 1984 and I worry about Brave New World.)
This coming month I will be presenting a three-part series on the state of the world and a preferable direction for the future at the Life Long Learning Center in Surprise. See the announcement on the right side bar of the blog. In part one, I will be discussing Dickens’ opening lines within a contemporary context: Is it the best of times, the worst of times, or some Yin-Yang mixture of the two? And what indeed is bad and what indeed is good? Deep questions.
I thought that perhaps my juxtaposition of a male (Hawking) and a female (pretty shallow babe) might sound sexist. (The male is laudable; the woman is a bimbo.) Hence, I want to close with the question: How many people would recognize a picture of Riane Eisler? Well, who’s that? Of course, many fewer would recognize a picture of her than even of Stephen Hawking. Well, Riane Eisler (and some of you will know this) is a beautiful, highly intelligent, supremely sharp, erudite and scholarly eighty-year-old, far-from-shallow, woman philosopher and writer. She is (in my mind) wiser and philosophically more sophisticated than Hawking (though she suffered through the Holocaust, which should have made her angry at God too). And she is, with all her heart and soul, trying to make the world a better place. See her website. But, of course, she gets almost no air time and only a small percentage of our population knows who she is. (She has never been accused of some soap opera misdeed.) She is a role model for women--for all of us--a cultural icon we should know about and aspire toward. But given what I hear and what I see, it is the pretty shallow babe who has more of an effect on our psychology and behavior. We are what we eat.
There is a new book out by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows. I need to read it before my talk next month.