As the hugely successful CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory moves toward the conclusion of its sixth season, I thought I’d link to Ken Masugi’s recent blog post on the show. In it he relates this intelligent and funny show to some of the philosophic concerns of modernity as discussed in James V. Schall’s book The Modern Age.
In particular, Masugi draws attention to the moral authority that Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s mother, Mary, is able to exert over the nerdy scientists and their “earthy” neighbor Penny. Why would this group give active consideration to advice from a woman Sheldon himself describes as “a kind, loving, religiously fanatical, right-wing Texan, with a slightly out of scale head, and a mild Dr. Pepper addiction?” Masugi suggests it has to do with the way the show dramatizes the limits of modern science and research as a way of life—a way of life that ignores “any notion of final causes or purpose, teleology, and self-knowledge.” Mary Cooper adds an element of grace, whereby we can see that “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.” Giving high praise Masugi states that “[w]ithout a trace of didactic preaching, the ‘Big Bang Theory’ teaches us the limits of modern rationalism and points to the rationality of revelation.”
This post elicited a response from Steve Hayward where he noted the impressive knowledge of the show’s writers, as when Sheldon gives a short discourse on the economist Fred Hirsch’s notion of a “positional good.” Indeed, the writing is smart. In one episode, an exasperated Sheldon listens to his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler’s, critique of the attempt in theoretical physics to establish a “grand unified theory.” From her own expertise in neuroscience, she belittles the likes of Clerk Maxwell. Sheldon walks away in a hurry responding, “That’s the rankest psychologism, which was conclusively revealed as hogwash by Gottlob Frege in the 1890s!”
For more on the science of the Big Bang Theory (television show), you can check out the Big Blog Theory (which looks like it may now be defunct, but which provides instructive accounts of the science mentioned throughout the series).
UPDATE: Perhaps Sheldon should teach a MOOC on physics.