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Is Stephen Hawking Modern?:
A Study of A Brief History of Time in Relation to the Theories of Bruno Latour

Maureen Madison
The George Washington University

In 1988, Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time. It became an instant bestseller, spawning a documentary movie and a 10th anniversary edition. In the book Hawking describes his cosmological search for the origins of the universe to a general audience. He uses anecdotes and analogies to explain the complex principles of general relativity, quantum mechanics, the laws of thermodynamics and other ideas associated with theoretical physics. His discourse makes what is often considered complex and scientific, accessible and philosophical at the same time. He also employs the language of theology and seeks to place the idea of God in his diagram of the universe.

The theories of Bruno Latour examine the intersections between nature and culture and the way that science and social science interact. In his book We Have Never Been Modern, he introduces the idea of hybrids or quasi-objects, mixtures of nature and culture that proliferate in the world. Hybrids proliferate in spite of the efforts of some scientists or social scientists to purify their discourse and defend the borders between the two. He also defines terms such as translation, purification, and networks to describe the complex ways that these mixtures of science and culture have permeated society. In his book The Pasteurization of France, Latour traces the social and cultural acceptance of Louis Pasteur’s theories of contagion to show how science, culture, and history are inextricably linked.

This paper will explore the rhetoric of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, using some of the ideas outlined in Latour’s work. The primary focus will be on Latour’s ideas of hybridity, networks, translation, and purification in relation to Hawking’s description of time. It will also examine the rhetoric employed by Hawking when he describes his ideas to the general public and how the mixture of science, philosophy, and theology is used to argue for the triumph of Enlightenment rationality.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour argues that the modernists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have sought to separate the rules of nature and society in an act of purification. The moderns set up false borders around science and culture and seek to make the study of each the province of separate disciplines. He states, "Sorting out the kernels of science from the chaff of ideology became the task for generations of well-meaning modernizers." (Latour, WHNBM, p. 35) By separating the two, moderns were able to consolidate power and hold knowledge hostage to disciplinary parameters. In addition, the laws of nature and the laws of society are used simultaneously to shore up the power of the modernist agenda. This paradox allowed the moderns to use nature and science to explain society and culture and vice versa. Latour further argues:

The invincible moderns even found themselves able to combine the two critical moves by using the natural sciences to debunk the false pretensions of power and using the certainties of the human sciences to uncover the false pretensions of the natural sciences and scientism. (Latour, WHNBM, p. 36) However, according to Latour this modern stance is a construction, built upon alliances between those in Western society who gain by this false dichotomy. What has really occurred is a hybridization of thought. Science and society, nature and culture, human and non-human are and always have been inextricably linked in a complex network of hybrids that can be studied but not separated. Attempts to separate or purify the hybrids just forces the hybrids underground and facilitates their proliferation. For Latour, to be modern means to engage in the practices of translation and purification. Translation "creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture." Purification "creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of non humans on the other." (Latour, WHNBM, p. 10) According to Latour, both the work of translation and purification depends on the existence of the other. The modern would consider these practices separately. However, by considering them simultaneously, Western society ceases to be wholly modern and can conceive of a future and a past that does not rely on the separation of the fields of nature and society and does not put either in the service of the other.

In critical discourse, modernism has almost become synonymous with the Enlightenment. Latour asks if it is possible to attain Enlightenment without modernism. Can the relationship between translation and purification be studied in its entirety without a modern agenda and with a more transdisciplinary approach in mind that doesn’t guard the disciplinary borders so fiercely? Latour calls for slowing down the pace and taking stock of the hybrids and "representing their existence officially." (Latour, WHNMB, p. 12)

It could be argued that Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time represents such a hybrid. In fact, it is a mixture of hybrids since no idea, even one as "scientific" as Einstein’s theory of general relativity, is free from a network of social and cultural forces that helped shape its existence. Hawking’s book is arguably the most popular rendering of theoretical physics to date. Whatever those outside the scientific community know of the subject they most likely obtained from this book or the distillation of its ideas in popular culture. It is a mixture of personal anecdote, analogy and Physics 101. In the acknowledgments he admits that he wrote for a mass audience and that he was told that every equation he included would cut sales in half. Consequently, his book is heavy on philosophy and theology and light on science. As Carl Sagan states in the introduction,

This is also a book about God. . . or perhaps about the absence of God. The word God fills these pages. Hawking embarks on a quest to answer Einstein’s famous question about whether God had any choice in creating the universe. Hawking is attempting, as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a creator to do. (Hawking, p. x) In addition to the theological questions he poses, Hawking invokes the philosophical thought of Aristotle, Augustine, Kant and Wittgenstein. He also engages in a great deal of philosophical thought himself. In fact, the book and the companion documentary are a mixture of popularized science and personal biography. He takes a page from St. Augustine and mixes his scientific discourse with what amounts to his version of Augustine’s Confessions. However, it is when quoting Wittgenstein that Hawking laments the divide between science and philosophy that Latour would seek to eliminate or argue never existed except as a device of modernists. Hawking states: Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories. In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field. . . However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for philosophers. . . Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein. . . said "the sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language." (Hawking, p. 17) Latour would argue that the technical language employed by scientists and mathematicians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was not just a coincidence, but an act of purification in the modern sense. The scientists took a modernist stance and set their disciplines apart by speaking in a language only the initiated could understand. The philosophers countered with a study of language that became as equally rarefied and technical. Effectively, the two disciplines had drawn their borders. For different reasons, and with different agendas in mind, what both Latour and Hawking seem to be calling for is what Michael Serres would call a generalist, a person who can move between the false divide of science and culture and uncover the networks and hybrids that allow a dialogue which will eventually dissolve the lines drawn by the modern critical stance.

Hawking’s book represents a hybrid or more specifically calls attention to the innate hybridity of subjects that have been classified as scientific by moderns. The popularity of Hawking’s book led to the making of a documentary that outlines some of the ideas expressed in A Brief History of Time and adds even more autobiographical material. The documentary privileges Hawking as its subject matter more than his theories. The story of Hawking’s early life is chronicled through shots of still photos and a sequence of anecdotes told by friends and family. The scientific and philosophical theories are expressed by Hawking himself through the use of a computerized voice synthesizer known as the Equalizer. Interspersed among the talking heads and the shots of Hawking clicking away at his computer are strange sequences of floating diagrams, clips from bad science fiction movies, and staged reenactments of the scientific principles outlined in the book. All this is set against a backdrop of ethereal music deployed for dramatic effect.

The hybridity of the discourse of the film works on many levels. The first is in the figure of Hawking himself. Since he suffers from ALS, he is unable to communicate by speaking. The voice synthesizer amplifies the hybridity that Latour would argue is inherent in all humans. However, it is especially pronounced in Hawking. When Latour speaks about the hybridity of the human and the non-human, it is hard not to think of the mechanized assistance that Hawking relies upon for mobility and communication. When explaining those who seek to repair the divide between knowledge and power, Latour describes figures like himself and Hawking as "[h]ybrids ourselves, installed lopsidedly within scientific institutions, half engineers and half philosophers, ‘tiers instruits’ (Serres, 1991) without having sought the role, we have chosen to follow the imbroglios wherever they take us." (Latour, p. 3) Hawking may not see himself as such, but he is a hybrid in more ways than many humans can claim.

Then, there is the hybridity at work in the discourse of the film itself. The filmmaker, Errol Morris, presumably with the approval of Hawking, has created a network of scientific, philosophical and popular culture references in order to translate his ideas of the book into reality. The use of popular culture is especially apparent when explaining the idea of black holes. As explained in the film, the term "black hole" was coined by the physicist John Wheeler. He was searching for a more convenient way of describing the theoretical idea of a "gravitationally completely collapsed object." The film then shows a clip of a B-grade science fiction film that uses the idea of a black hole as a plot device for time travel. The reason for including this clip is not immediately clear, but it does illustrate the network of hybrids at work in the film and in the term black hole itself. As Latour suggests, the task of unraveling hybrids in an attempt to purify discourse is the cutting of a Gordian knot if even tackling the term black hole needs the attention of a whole thesis to consider properly.

Another common thread in the work of Hawking and Latour is the fact that they both seek to explain what is often described as the arrow of time. In all the ways that humans mark and construct time, one of the most common, especially in Western thought, is time as an arrow. Time moves inexorably forward with a tangible past, present and future. Events and dates can be marked off along this arrow and the direction is always progressive. Time does not stand still or move backward in this idea of "real time."

Hawking seeks to explain time’s arrow by conflating the second law of thermodynamics with the psychological construction of time in humans. In his opinion, it is the physical laws of the universe that shape the psychological way that humans mark time. The second law of thermodynamics states that "in any closed system disorder, or entropy, always increases with time." (Hawking, p. 144) Hawking describes the psychological arrow of time as "the direction in which we feel time passes, the direction in which we remember the past but not the future." (Hawking p. 145) He uses the first to explain the second in the following way:

Our subjective sense of the direction of time, the psychological arrow of time, is therefore determined within our brain by the thermodynamic arrow of time. Just as a computer, we must remember things in the order in which entropy increases. This makes the second law of thermodynamics almost trivial. Disorder increases with time because we measure time in the direction in which disorder increases. You can’t have a safer bet than that! (Hawking, p. 147) Hawking is seeking an explanation for the idea of the arrow of time. In order to do so, he marshalls forces he knows well into a network of meaning. He employs physics, computers, and psychology, each one a hybrid, into another hybrid that is held in place by what Latour might argue is Hawking’s ability to convince enough people that it’s true. Given the popularity of Hawking’s work, he’s got a better shot at it than others, but the maintenance of such a theory may be beyond even his abilities.

It could be argued that what Hawking is seeing as a safe bet is a hermeneutic circle of thought that, in effect, argues for the arrow of time as a universal human concept. All humans have a brain and all humans are influenced by the second law of thermodynamics. Therefore, all humans must see time as an arrow. In contrast, Latour would see this idea of universality as far less simple a concept than Hawking would like. In the "Irreductions" section of his Pasteurization of France, Latour states,

"’Universality’ is as local as the rest. Universality exists only "in potentia," In other words it does not exist unless we are prepared to pay a high price of building and maintaining costly and dangerous liaisons." (Latour p. 220) For Latour, the maintenance of any widespread belief relies on a tenuous network of alliances that are made up of social actors with a variety of agendas. For Latour, the universal depends upon the local and proving the smallest scientific fact, including the second law of thermodynamics, is a far more complex undertaking than Hawking accounts for. Hawking seems to be trying to extend his network farther than the reach of his argument. Latour contends that "certain trades [psychoanalysis, theoretical physics, philosophy, etc.] claim that they are able to extend themselves potentially or ‘in theory’ beyond the networks within which they practice and that "[t]hough all networks are the same size, arrogance is not equally distributed" (Latour, p. 186-187). Hawking’s rhetoric seems gentle and all-inclusive, but he’s really trying to stretch the network of physics to reach as many areas of thought as possible. He wants to explain the universe through physics.

The problem in Hawking’s discourse might stem from the fact that although his work is a hybrid comprised of many networks, his agenda and thought process still holds on to the modern critical stance. He seeks to explain the universal using the triumph of human reason as his tool. His last paragraph makes the universalist modernist agenda clear. He states:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle to everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find an answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. (Hawking, p. 175) The problem with Hawking’s premise is that it sows the seeds of its own undoing. By separating the "scientists," "philosophers," and "ordinary people" into distinct groups and calling for a universal that could really only be proved locally and contingently anyway, Hawking is seeking something that Latour would claim is impossible to attain. Even if his theories could be proven once, the network of alliances that would have to be deployed to sustain them would be far too unwieldy to maintain. In The Pasteurization of France, Latour describes why human reason is a fallacy.

We neither think nor reason. Rather, we work on fragile materials – texts, inscriptions, traces, or paints – with other people. These materials are associated or dissociated by courage or effort; they have no meaning, value or coherence outside the narrow network that holds them together for a time. . . (Latour, PoF, p. 186)

In spite of his faith in human reason, it would be difficult to argue that Hawking is purely modern in the way that Latour describes it, but Hawking does seem to accept that he must argue through a modernist stance and within a modernist framework even though he would ultimately like to transcend both. To achieve the result he seeks, the scientist, philosopher, and ordinary person engaged in discussion about the universe, Hawking would have to abandon the divisions he has set up and in effect deconstruct the framework he has erected. Perhaps the reason that hasn’t been done is because the project would have to be abandoned as well. For Latour, one cannot arrive at a viewpoint that rejects modernism without dismantling modernism from within and realizing that we have never been modern. In other words, Hawking is trying to uncover the meaning of the universe and create a space for the generalist thinker that can move between science and culture while retaining the place of God in the argument. He is still trying to be modern, or at least argue for the non-modern through the modern.

Latour’s idea of the "crossed-out" God illustrates why this strategy is problematic. Latour calls the crossed-out God the fourth guarantee of the modernist constitution. The first three are as follows:

First guarantee: even though we construct Nature, Nature is as if we did not construct it.

Second guarantee: even though we do not construct Society, Society is as if we did construct it.

Third guarantee: Nature and Society must remain absolutely distinct: the work of purification must remain absolutely distinct from the work of mediation. (Latour, PoF, p. 34)

Latour argues that these guarantees interlock into a schema that shuts out all possible argument and makes no room for the hybrids that exist in spite of modernism’s inability to recognize and account for their existence. The fourth guarantee "establishes as arbiter an infinitely remote God who is simultaneously totally impotent and the sovereign judge." (Latour, PoF, p. 34) The impotent but sovereign God is the one at work in Hawking’s discourse. It is apparent in the previously quoted passage of Carl Sagan’s preface that the God proposed by Hawking’s theories has nothing to do. Hawking also seems to be invoking this fourth guarantee when he says, Science seems to have uncovered a set of laws that, within the limits set by the uncertainty principle, tell us how the universe will develop with time, if we know its state at any one time. These laws, may have originally been decreed by God, but it appears that he has since left the universe to evolve according to them and does not now intervene in it. (Hawking, p. 122) Hawking is caught in the modernist trap. He’s looking for a way to create a hybrid in a system that doesn't allow for their existence. So, the hybrid goes underground and he falls back on the false divide between science and society and in turn is left with a powerless but omniscient God. It is almost as if he is using the uncertainty principle as a fail-safe measure that will account for the contingencies of hybrids while still operating with the modernist stance of scientific determinism. In order to achieve the goal of creating a generalist capable of discussing a variety of subjects, Hawking would have to abandon this stance and begin to think outside the modernist box. However, that might also force him to rethink his universal theory that would allow him to know the mind of God. It could be argued that the modernist critical stance is key to keeping the hope alive that such a goal is possible in the first place.

Latour also explores the perception of time as an arrow. However, his ideas about why time is often seen by humans in terms of past, present, and future is markedly different from Hawking’s. For Latour, the idea of time passing is like any other translation or network. It is dependent on power relations to keep it a going concern. Humans may describe time as passing, but it’s not the second law of thermodynamics that informs that description. In The Pasteurization of France, Latour states,

Time is the distant consequences of actors as they each seek to create a fait accompli on their own behalf that cannot be reversed. . . In this way time passes. Time does not pass. Times are what are at stake between forces. Of course, one force may overtake the others, but this can only be local and temporary because permanence costs too much and requires too many allies. (Latour, PoF p. 165) By way of illustration, Latour uses the war against contagion that was waged in France in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a direct result of the widespread acceptance of Louis Pasteur’s theories regarding the spread of disease. Using Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a model, Latour describes the war against contagion that was waged in Europe. As in the novel there were wins and losses. The wins were seen as progress, time moving forward. The losses were seen as returning to the days before the Enlightenment, when a nonhuman agent could destroy life. As Latour puts it, Here is proof that time does not pass. It has to be made to pass, disease after disease, social group after social group, without which it just moves off in the wrong direction. (Latour, PoF, p. 112) The fight against contagion was just a vehicle for a false progress narrative. This way scientists, doctors and lawmakers could take comfort in the fact that time was indeed moving forward and conditions were improving, until they weren’t improving and then time stood still or moved backward. Latour uses a particularly compelling example to illustrate the cold comfort of the progress narrative.

Few diseases obey the fine ordering of irresistible progress that renders them definitively a thing of the ‘past.’ The symbol of this ‘resistance’ on the part of diseases, whose rhythm does not obey that of the groups who announce their disappearance, is of course the Spanish flu (Katz, 1974). World War One was, in the opinion of all, a triumph of modern hygiene. Without the bacteriologists, the generals would never have been able to hold on to millions of men for four years in muddy, rat-infested trenches. These men would have died before gas and machine guns had carried them off. This war was the first in which one could kill immobile masses, because hitherto in history, microbes had always done the job better. After this triumph of bacteriology, the Spanish flu wiped out some fifty million people in 1919 without the Pasteurians being able to identify the agent. (Latour, PoF, p. 112) If the waters of such a seemingly benevolent discovery as the war against disease can be so muddy, than the waters of theoretical physics must be a maelstrom.

To combine the arguments of both Latour’s books, the idea that time passes is another product of the modern critical stance, dependent on plenty of hybrid ideas loose in the world to challenge the idea of time as an arrow. Coincidentally, the theory of general relativity is one of those ideas. Yet the progress narrative survives and time as an arrow lives on. Perhaps as Latour suggests, the fact that these narratives can be questioned is a good sign that the modernist hold is weakening. However, translations like Hawking’s that conflate scientific laws with human psychology make the situation problematic. An explanation that uses entropy as its basis could freeze the idea of the arrow of time forever in amber and make it very difficult to dislodge. Hawking may be seeking to explain time’s relativity, but his argument does a very good job of codifying its immutability.

So, what accounts for Hawking’s good intentions but ultimate return to the comfort of the ideas of the Enlightenment? Latour would argue that it is a wish to clear a place for science to work for the good and not be sullied by the more unpleasant aspects of life. He states,

We would like science to be free of war and politics. At least, we would like to make decisions other than through compromise, drift and uncertainty. We would like to feel that somewhere, in addition to the chaotic confusion of power relations, there are rational relations . . . Surrounded by violence and disputation, we would like to see clearings – whether isolated or connected – from which would emerge incontrovertible, effective actions. . . The Enlightenment is about extending these clearings until they cover the world. . . Few people still believe in the advent of the Enlightenment, but nobody has yet recovered from this loss of faith. Not to believe in it is to feel that we have been thrown back into the Dark Ages. (Latour, PoF, p. 3) For Hawking, science has brought about great leaps of progress, and can be capable of even more. Strangely absent from his discourse is any mention of the harm done by the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century. Latour’s strategy in The Pasteurization of France was to choose a scientific revolution that "transformed society and yet owes it very little." (Latour, PoF, p. 8) The benefit of Pasteur’s discoveries are of obvious value. Other scientific discoveries are not so lucky. "All of the other technological conquests have their embittered critics and malcontents – not to mention those suffering from radiation – but to prevent children from dying from terrible diseases has never been seen as anything other than an advantage. . . (Latour, PoF, p. 8) Yet Latour goes on to make a convincing case that war and politics are mixed up in anything that may be seen as purely scientific and beneficent, even the eradication of disease.

So, what of the discoveries of Einstein and Oppenheimer, and others in the field of theoretical physics? The political and social implications of these discoveries are so myriad that Latour did not even consider them a viable challenge; they would make his work too easy. The fact that Hawking does not even touch on the political and social factors inherent in the work of physics makes the case that he seeks to put faith in the Enlightenment project because he can no longer put it in an impotent God. However, replacing faith in God with faith in human reason or the power of science is, for Latour, an outmoded epistemological move. What he calls for is agnosticism across the board.

The problem we now face is to understand that obscure mixture of war and peace in which laboratories are only one source of science and politics among many sources. Agnosticism in matters of science is the only way to start without being trapped on one side of the many wars being fought by the guardians of science’s borders. (Latour, PoF, p. 6) So, even though Hawking wants to find a way for scientists and philosophers to engage in a dialogue about the nature of the universe, the fact that he still sees a divide between the two and has faith in the redemptive power of science makes his goal elusive if not unattainable.


Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Hawking Stephen. (ed.) Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: A Reader’s Companion. New York: Bantam Books 1992.

Latour, Bruno. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Schaeffer, Simon. "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 22(1), 1991.

Sturdy, Steve. "The Germs of a New Enlightenment." Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 22(1), 1991.

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