“The Big Bang Theory” Meets Its Maker

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“The Big Bang Theory” is a highly popular tv sitcom focusing on the love and social lives of young Caltech scientists and their glowingly attractive next-door neighbor, part-time actress and Cheesecake Factory waitress Penny. Now nearing the end of its sixth season, the show would appear to garner its popularity from its depiction of the resolute nerdiness of its brilliant theoretical physicist and engineer characters and their helplessness before the earthy Penny. Their personal lives are shallow at best, obsessed with comic book heroes and Star Trek characters.[i]

Sheldon CooperThe show toys with science with some seriousness. The Spock-like main character around whom the action revolves is Sheldon Cooper (named after physicist Leon Cooper). His roommate Leonard Hofstadter bears the name of the 1961 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Robert Hofstadter, and his son Douglas, whose Goedel, Escher, Bach won him the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Even more striking, Sheldon’s neuroscientist girlfriend (“who is not a girlfriend”) is played by a child actress who went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience and then returned to acting. A UCLA scientist checks all references to science for accuracy. The sitcom’s theme song performed by the rock group Barenaked Ladies, was commissioned by the producers. Its compact lyrics relate the birth of the universe from the steady expansion of a “big bang” and the subsequent evolution of the human species.[ii]

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state,
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait…
The Earth began to cool,
The autotrophs began to drool,
Neanderthals developed tools,
We built a wall (we built the pyramids),
Math, science, history, unraveling the mysteries,
That all started with the big bang!

The great human achievements, of both the West and the East,[iii] come about through a random episode, the big bang. As the human species evolved, it continues to reflect the original chaos, mirrored in the characters’ lives.

Much of the sitcom’s drama replays the old mockery of Thales—the reputed first philosopher, who was ridiculed by a slave girl after he contemplated the stars and then fell into a ditch.[iv] We enjoy laughing, as witty girls upbraid theoretically wise men who lack common sense. Those of us familiar with universities and research institutes know this type all too well.

We gradually learn about the male characters’ flawed upbringings. Fathers are absent, and mothers, in two cases, monsters. The great exception is Sheldon’s mother, Mary, who, though she appears in only four episodes in six years, is a powerful presence offering a striking contrast with the other characters. Sheldon describes her as “a kind, loving, religiously fanatical, right-wing Texan, with a slightly out of scale head, and a mild Dr. Pepper addiction.” In fact, despite her differences, she is a rare figure of moral authority for the boys and for Penny, even while flaunting her evangelical Christianity, as in this episode in a Catholic church. Referring to Catholics as “rosary rattlers,” Mary insists that all of the group “put some church in this church” and pray. She commences to pray for her son and for the strength “not to cold-cock him with my Bible.”  She gently urges Penny to remember the talk Jesus had with Mary Magdalene.[v] And she coaxes some honesty out of the floundering boys.

Why does this straight-talking woman cause these men to cower? These sophisticates have no purpose in life other than pure research (the engineer uses the space technology he advances for low and hilarious purposes of personal gratification.) Their knowledge of science does not include any notion of final causes or purpose, teleology, and self-knowledge. And in this they reflect the blindness of the modern age generally.  

The philosophic and theological premises of the modern age are explored by just-retired Georgetown University political theorist James V. Schall, S.J., in his latest book, The Modern Age.  With three books coming out within the next year, the 85-year old Schall will have close to 40 books to his credit, emphasizing political philosophy and theology but also covering economics, memoirs, and literature.[vi] The Modern Age contains 15 different reflections, which coax the reader into rethinking the relationship between reason and revelation. Included are a highly laudatory book review of Thomas Pangle’s The God of Abraham, “The Brighter Side of Hell,” an appreciation of Chesterton, and one of his fabled reading lists. Much of the work involves exposing the extent to which theological notions have infected modern reason.[vii] Freeing politics of the “scourge of eschatology” enables its return to its sober classical purposes, as it studies the best regime.

Modernity assumes that what truly exists is only what we make. And as free men and women we don’t want to owe anyone, for that would imply duties that bind us. But if the only “truth” is from our own creation, we could not possibly know ourselves, since we are not the cause of our own existence. One cannot admit nature or God as the source of truth, for otherwise we would need to have gratitude for the gift we are. “We do not exist to create ourselves. We exist in fact to reach the end for which we are created…” (30).

And that’s exactly the point. In his concluding chapter, he observes that “The modern age is not an age of faith, unless we mean that it is faith in oneself to accomplish what it wills. It is an age that maintains that it can explain everything it needs to know for man’s good by its own powers.” The modern disorders we see in the Big Bang Theory characters “do not have ‘technical’ solutions, but only moral and metaphysical ones. This is why ‘politics’ and ‘morals’ cannot be separated” (133).  In the modern age, “Mind eventually replaces reality.” Thus, for Schall there is no essential distinction between modern and post-modern (144-145).

Viewed from the perspective of revelation, the history of philosophy is “the history of other proposed ways that God might have done it and thereby saved the reputation among the philosophers” (57). This is how revelation makes “philosophy better as philosophy.” Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio explicates how Deus Logos Est. Schall also explains Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address as a careful meditation on the relationship between philosophy and revelation, on how philosophy came to reject reason in three waves of modernity, and how Christian theology saves it.[viii]

In a recent interview, Schall responded to a question about Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, “But I have thought that a more harmonious relation existed between reason and revelation than I found in either. This difference must be delicately put. Essentially, it is that revelation, while not ceasing to be revelation, had the effect of making philosophy more philosophical. The two were not haphazardly related.” And then he comes to an astonishing conclusion, “The papacy [thinking in particular of Benedict XVI] is now the main voice of reason in the world, that metaphysical reason that knows something about what is.”

If Mary Cooper so loved her son, would she allow him to become a Papist? Sheldon’s problem is not solved by treatment of Asperger’s but rather an understanding of original sin and the sacrifices we need to make to heal our own wounds. Without a trace of didactic preaching, the “Big Bang Theory” teaches us the limits of modern rationalism and points to the rationality of revelation. (Amusingly, the founder of the Big Bang Theory in physics was a Catholic priest.) The sitcom may be viewed as a type of grace we see in Flannery O’Connor stories, when shocking (and comic) events make flawed people glimpse the ultimate truth—e.g., a philosophy student’s horror at her lover’s stealing her wooden leg. A similar grace may be present were a dogmatic scoffer and skeptic to view “The Big Bang Theory” and hear as though intoned by Fr. Schall, “Bazinga!


[i]

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Episodes may be viewed on the CBS website. http://www.cbs.com/shows/big_bang_theory/ The Wikipedia article provides general information, clips, and other links. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Bang_Theory

[ii] Lyrics may be found here. http://www.lyricstime.com/barenaked-ladies-the-big-bang-theory-lyrics.html Unfortunately the line “Religion or astronomy (Descartes or Deuteronomy)/It all started with the big bang!” should read not Descartes but Encarta—still, an appropriate contrast with Deuteronomy.

[iii] One character constantly emphasizes his Jewish roots, another is from India.

[iv] “Just like Thales … while star gazing and looking up he fell in a well, and some gracefully witty Thracian servant girl is said to have  made a jest at his expense—that in his eagerness to know the things in heaven he was unaware of the things in front of him and at his feet. The same jest suffices for all those who engage in philosophy” (Plato, Theaetetus 174a, Seth Benardete translation).

[v] Example of an exchange between them:

Mary: You think maybe the reason why you’re having trouble finding a guy is because you’re letting him ride the roller coaster without buying a ticket? 
Penny: Oh, they don’t always get to ride the roller coaster. Sometimes they just get to spin the teacups.” 

[vi] Recipient of numerous teaching awards, Fr. Schall does not write on popular culture, but he sees it in the souls of his students and thus understands it through the shadows it casts. His moving valedictory lecture is here. http://www.speechvideos.co/the-final-gladness-a-last-lecture-by-father-james-v-schall/

For a bibliography, which needs updating, see this website. https://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/schallj/  

[vii] Briefly, the Trinity requires God to create the world and love man.”Our very existence remains the risk that God took in causing us to stand outside of nothingness in the first place” (43).

[viii] See Schall’s The Regensburg Address (2007) and my interview http://www.claremont.org/publications/pubid.474/pub_detail.asp with him about his book on the rhetoric of the Pope’s academic lecture defending the place of reason in theology and thereby also in philosophy. “The principal thing that concerns him is the status of reason within Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, which are themselves admittedly not philosophical books. ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ (Tertullian) is a question going back to the beginnings of Christianity.

Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He teaches in graduate programs in political science for Johns Hopkins University and for the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University. He has edited Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, co-edited The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, and co-authored and co-edited several other books on American politics and political thought. In addition, he has worked ten years in the federal government as a speechwriter and on policy issues, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was a special assistant to Chairman Clarence Thomas, and the Departments of Justice and Labor.

About the Author

Comments

  1. Laurie Morrow says

    What a delightful, engaging column! BIG BANG is my husband’s (M.S. in Computer Science) and my favorite show. It’s brilliantly written comedy – deeply flawed people the audience ends up fond of. I especially liked your point about Sheldon’s mother, one of the few positively portrayed Christians on TV. Yes, this East Texas lady is biased against Catholics, a phenomenon not unknown to me: I spent 19 years as an English professor in NW Louisiana crossing out the phrase “Christians and Catholics” in my students’ essays. Her loving wisdom – instinctual rather than intellectual – commands moral authority over all in the group, and, as you point out, prompts them, however briefly, to reflect on the consequences of their actions.

    It’s worth noting, I think, the quasi-religious role played by Star Trek, viz. the “Little Spock”‘s castigation of Sheldon for swapping his broken toy for Leonard’s unbroken one.

    I’d sensed something deeper in the show, but had not thought it through. Your assertion that “Without a trace of didactic preaching, the ‘Big Bang Theory’ teaches us the limits of modern rationalism and points to the rationality of revelation” is exactly what I sensed but could not put into words. Thank you for this amusing and engaging yet profound essay.

  2. Robert Cheeks says

    Delightful analysis. I would argue a bit with the erudite and kind Jesuit, Fr. Schall, re: Voegelin, who, I think, analyzed the tension created by reason and revelation from the perspective of a post-Fall position. My wife’s intense Bible Study class, this past Sunday, was discussing the Edenic construct and it came to my mind.

  3. Ken Masugi says

    Steve Hayward outdoes my nerdiness in his Powerline post, noting Sheldon’s reference to economist Fred Hirsch’s book positing “positional goods.” “This book is so out of print that for some reason the Kindle version is quoted at $57. Though this could be an inside joke that only Hirsch fans will get. Talk about the ultimate positional good in bibliophilia.” http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2013/04/big-bangers-indeed.php

  4. Chris Burkett says

    A great post about one of my favorite shows. The writers also reveal very subtly just how inadequate the scientific approach is to deal with problems outside of the natural sciences, i.e., social and political (human) problems. Despite Sheldon’s frequent criticism of the social sciences as “hokum,” his own attempts at social interaction are extremely awkward. On the other hand, his description of the social sciences as they are commonly understood and practiced today is largely correct — “hokum.” Of course, Sheldon’s critique of the social sciences is that they are not really scientific (and he is right), but he wants them to be. Just as Sheldon’s private life is a social disaster, this would lead to utter disaster on a societal scale. We get a glimpse of what a world created by Sheldon the social planner would be like when he describes “Sheldonopolis” to Raj. It starts out nice, but ends in chaos and flames as people flee for their lives, even abandoning their own children to preserve themselves. It’s a nice little commentary on the demands and limits of human nature, and the failures of the so-called “social sciences,” which today usually either deny, ignore or expect too much out of human nature.

  5. says

    BBT is just funny. That’s it. No scientific or philosophical reason for it. That it appeals to all of us who are, or have aspies in the family, is only because we finally see those we know to be exceptional in a more human light. Bazinga!

  6. Robert Cleveland says

    This was sent to me by my son as I am a big fan of the show. It is the best show on network TV. It is nice to know that intellectuals like it as well. Reminds us all to look at life with a little bit of humor and to avoid the choking of the stuffed shirt. Listen to Greek slaves.

  7. JC Shores says

    Thank you for this insightful article. I am a huge fan of the show. As a former fundamentalist, I truly appreciate the treatment of Shedon’s mother. My favorite episode contains Shedon moving back home in Texas after being wounded by his friends. They apologize and convince him to come back. He refuses stating:

    Sheldon I will spend the rest of my life here in Texas, trying to teach evolution to creationists.
    Mary: You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
    Sheldon: Evolution isn’t an opinion, it’s fact.
    Mary: And that is your opinion.
    Sheldon: [to his friends] I forgive you. Let’s go home.
    Mary: Don’t tell me prayer doesn’t work.

    Classic!

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  9. CaptTom says

    Besides the use of Cooper and Hofstadter as our “heroes'” surnames, I have also assumed that the first names were in homage to TV sitcom pioneer Sheldon Leonard. I could be wrong. ;)

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