Joyce McMillan: Hawking was an Enlightenment giant for 21st century

Professor Stephen Hawking was a beacon of reason, humanity and scientific progress, writes Joyce McMillan.

The physicist detested Brexit, was passionate about fighting climate change and sought to protect the NHS (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

In December 2016, just 15 months before his death in Cambridge this week, Stephen Hawking wrote a powerful column for The Guardian about the Brexit vote earlier that year, and how the world’s elites should react to it. He made no bones about his professional and personal opinion that Brexit would be a disaster – bad for universities, bad for the economy, bad for young people, bad for Britain.

Yet he also understood that there was something going on that made his opinion – as a Cambridge professor, and one of the world’s leading physicists – less important in the debate than it might once have been. “The recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone,” he wrote. “I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward; and the electorate – or at least a sufficiently significant proportion of it – took no more notice of me than any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice, to the rest of the country.”

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And it was wholly characteristic of Hawking that he went on not to bemoan the stubbornness of Brexit voters who failed to heed his words, but to urge the elites of Britain and the world – whether academic, political, or financial – to recognise their error in creating or condoning an economic system that leaves so many people without dignity or hope, and to strive to address the sense of anger and disaffection that led so many British voters to lash out at the establishment by voting to leave the European Union.

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Any death, of course – particularly of a well-known figure like Hawking – marks a moment for re-assessment and appreciation. Yet there’s something about the passing of Hawking at this particular moment, when the world seems locked in a new battle between scientific rationalism and a new wave of militant unreason and belligerence, that seems particularly resonant. Hawking, after all, was born in 1942, raised in the age of the NHS and free university education, and dedicated to the cause of scientific research, which he combined with a strong moral sense of the value of every human life. What’s more, his own life, shaped from his early 20s by a slow-burning form of motor neurone disease that left him increasingly disabled, represented a tribute to the power of medical science, not only to keep him alive, but to enable him, for most of his life, to live fully and productively.

Hawking was, in other words, an enlightenment figure par excellence; a believer in reason and humanity, a mighty scientist, an atheist with powerful moral views, a man whose own day-to-day life demonstrated what human intelligence and political goodwill can achieve, given a chance. And the very reaction to his death – greeted by some with astonishingly bitter comments about how Hawking must know by now how wrong he was to reject the idea of God – demonstrates how close we may be, in these times, to losing all the present advantages and future potential of a society founded on the values Hawking represented.

There is no avoiding the truth, after all, that many of the opinions to which Hawking’s sharp intelligence led him are controversial in the political climate of 2018. He was passionately committed to the battle against climate change, and the transition to a low-carbon economy. He detested Brexit, and all that it stands for. He was a socialist and a life-long Labour voter, although not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn; some of his recent contributions to public debate warned that we should be afraid not so much of the robots and artificial intelligence that might take our jobs, but of the capitalist system that creates the financial incentive to sack and discard human beings. And he believed so passionately in the National Health Service that he joined the group currently seeking a judicial review of the conduct of the UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, over the general introduction into NHS England of “accountable care organisations” – private providers by another name.

Yet although he was involved in struggles to protect the best legacies of the age of enlightened modernisation in which he grew up, no one could truly accuse Hawking – with his immense track-record of innovative thinking on the outer limits of physics – of being backward-looking, or a mere nostalgist. He held firmly to the enlightenment ideals of scientific progress, reason and humanity; but he was also brilliant enough to reimagine them for the 21st century, and to understand how reason without humanity and compassion makes science complicit with the elite thinking that voters across the West have begun to reject.

And to the end, Hawking retained the precious sense of hope that comes with that forward-looking set of values. Three years ago, he sent a message to the 2015 World Economic Forum at Davos, summing up his view. “We are here together,” he said, “and we need to live together with tolerance and respect. We must become global citizens, our only boundaries the way we see ourselves, our only borders the way we see each other. Let us fight for every woman and every man to have the opportunity to live healthy, secure lives, full of opportunity and love. We are all time-travellers, journeying together into the future. But let us work together to make that future a place we want to visit. Be brave, be determined, overcome the odds; it can be done.”

It may have been Stephen Hawking’s brilliance as a scientist that gave him a public platform and voice, along with his huge determination and courage in achieving that eminence despite his disability. In the end, though, I think his greatest legacy will lie in his gift for combining that brilliance with a passionate moral commitment to humanity and its future; and in his encouragement to us all to use our minds and our hearts to the full, in navigating the dangerous times we face now, and building a future worth the journey, for all of humanity.