September 10, 2010

Is Philosophy Dead? Stephen Hawking and The Grand Design

I have just returned from a wonderful holiday canoeing in a Canadian wilderness, and awaiting me was a request from a BBC Radio 4 programme inviting me to defend philosophy from Stephen Hawking's (with Leonard Mlodinow) polemical attack on it in The Grand Design.  I declined on the grounds that I would not have time to read the book before going on air.  But I now have read it, and here are some initial thoughts.  I do not pretend to be a scientist (though I have discussed Hawking's work with scientists), but I do pay more serious attention to science than Hawking appears to do to philosophy.  Nor do I practise a religion, though I find myself increasingly frustrated by trite dismissals of religion.

The Grand Design (GD) is altogether a very strange work.  It claims to be a sequel to A Brief History of Time (BHT), but whereas BHT  ended by claiming that 'if we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we should know the mind of God', GD asserts (p.180) that 'Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing ... Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exist, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.'

We will come back to God, and the divine, and the unsatisfactory nature of Hawking's argument in these final paragraphs.  Let us now turn to p. I, where, perhaps encouraged by an agent or publicist,  Hawking declares that ' ... philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.  Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.'  There then follows a very sketchy run-through of ancient Greek cosmological enquiry, a run-through which is simplistic, superficial and at times inaccurate (for example: Aristotle posits 5 elements, not 4 (as claimed on p.51), adding aether to earth, air, fire and water).  The basic assumptions are a) that ancient philosophers are simply asking the same kind of questions about the material construction and origins of the cosmos as Hawking is, and b) that philosophers are simply doing badly and naively what contemporary science - particularly as exemplified by M-theory, of which more anon - does very well.  Indeed, these assumptions about philosophy and philosophers pervade the whole work (in so far as philosophy is mentioned at all, which is surprisingly little given the challenging statement on p.1): the basic story is one of intellectual progression in a particular set of questions - a progression which has left scientifically unschooled philosophers  (i.e pretty much every philosopher, in Hawking's view) limping along behind. 

It's an extraordinarily ill-informed view of what  philosophy is, even if we leave to one side the vital work that philosophers like Zeno did in kicking off mathematics.  What of the valuable work in, for example, ethics and political theory and aesthetics and philosophy of mind that philosophers do when they have studied the supposed 'facts' with which scientists present them?  (And history suggests that scientific 'facts' are in any case provisional and vulnerable to massive paradigm shifts.)  What of the undoubted and unprovisional fact that many of these philosophers are highly knowledgeable about the area of science relevant to their philosophical enquires, be it evolutionary biology, stem cell research or neuroscience?  Above all, what of the fact that philosophers are often asking different kinds of questions from the ones that Hawking asks?  Aristotle says that one can look for four different kinds of 'cause' or 'reason'  (aitia) when examining any thing or fact or state of affairs: material, formal, efficient and final.  I suspect that if Aristotle were to read The Grand Design he might suggest that Hawking has concentrated on the material and efficient explanations of the cosmos, and simply not fully understood the force of questions about possible formal and final explanations.  To say that the law of gravity allows the universe to create itself from nothing won't do: is the law of gravity supposed to be 'nothing'?  Why is there a law of gravity and not no law of gravity? Appeals to M-theory will not satisfy either.  Quite apart from the fact that this theory is by no means polished or finalised (at the moment it's just an unproven candidate for the Theory of Everything that some scientists such as Hawking desire and it's hard to see how it could ever be tested), appeals to M-theory are only pushing the problem upstairs: even if all the maths eventually works out, we can still ask 'Why M-theory and not nothing?'  This does not mean that the answer is necessarily a designer God - though there is still space for such a conception of God; nor does it necessarily mean that the orderly physical workings of the cosmos are the divine, as the Stoics might claim (the Stoics are only briefly mentioned once, on p.23, and not in this context; Hawking cursorily mentions defining God as the laws of nature on p.29 but does not expand) - though again, there is space for such a view.  It does not even mean that there has to be any answer at all to the search for a 'final' cause of the cosmos; but humans can and will still ask the question, and some of us will feel that Hawking has not understood what such questioners are asking.  If there is an answer to this kind of 'why?' question, it will not be part of the chain of cause and effect.  Hawking's claim that God is not needed to 'light the blue touch paper' is beside the point. 

In short, The Grand Design does not demonstrate that philosophy is dead, or that philosophy is unnecessary; on the contrary, it unwittingly reveals on every page how important it is that philosophers and scientists continue to talk to each other.  And for those who believe in a divine being, there is nothing in The Grand Design which need disturb most versions of such a belief.

Dirac increasingly marvelled that physical laws could be expressed in mathematical equations that he regarded as beautiful.  Although the content of such equations has changed, the general sentiment is one with which Plato would have been entirely happy.


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  1. I’m so glad you’ve written this! People are so quick to pick somebody like Stephen Hawking to put on a pedestal, and start following every word they say as law. He may be a genius, but he cannot possibly be right all the time! Well done for defending philosophy once again Angie xx

    10 Sep 2010, 21:13

  2. Ron Krumpos

    In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that the M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate and later abandoned. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

    In my e-book on comparative mysticism is a quote by Albert Einstein: “…most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty – which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form – this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.”

    Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is probably the best known scientific equation. I revised it to help better understand the relationship between divine Essence (Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (fx raised to its greatest power). Unlike the speed of light, which is a constant, there are no exact measurements for consciousness. In this hypothetical formula, basic consciousness may be of insects, to the second power of animals and to the third power the rational mind of humans. The fourth power is suprarational consciousness of mystics, when they intuit the divine essence in perceived matter. This was a convenient analogy, but there cannot be a divine formula.

    11 Sep 2010, 23:10

  3. ChrisBateman

    I quite agree. This is yet another case of people who have spent no time studying philosophy drawing conclusions about it. Shockingly irresponsible writing. I wonder, however, how much Hawking contributes to the book and how much comes from Leonard Mlodinow… I am always suspicious when a big name gains a small name on a book cover.

    Best wishes!

    14 Sep 2010, 07:49

  4. Jessica

    Stumbling across this blog. I think Stephen Hawking said “philosophy is dead” partly for sensationalism, as you yourself alluded to.

    If I was to try and find a generous interpretation – perhaps he really meant “metaphysics is dead” instead. It makes little sense to say political philosophy or aesthetics have not kept up with particle physics. One could hold up the subject of metaphysics on grounds of sterility. For a subject to be fertile either the subject matter, or the subject itself must be amenable to change, to progress. For example, in history new things happen, and the subject matter changes. In 100 years time the election of Barack Obama will be studied in history. In mathematics new theorems are proved, and the subject itself changes. With theorems such as the graph minor theorem, the Poincare conjecture (now a theorem), and the road colouring conjecture being proved, mathematics is already a different subject to how it was 10 years ago, although it wouldn’t appear so on the outside.

    I think it’s fair to say it’s obvious how most subjects, but not all, fit the bill. Metaphysics is sterile, not fertile. New developments don’t really happen, and the subject matter doesn’t change either. I’m not sure this is quite what Hawking was thinking – he may not have been thinking of anything that precisely, but I think it’s worth pointing out. Another way of saying it is, suppose two experts in a subject exist a hundred or more years apart. To say a subject is fertile, might as well be to say that an expert who travelled back in time a hundred years or more would be able to impress and amaze his predecessor on the subject at hand. In metaphysical philosophy this would be like simply picking up where you left off. It’s also worth noting that a sterile subject cannot interact with other subjects.

    14 Sep 2010, 23:10

  5. Filip Matous

    Hawkings comes of as a sensationalist; a big controversial statement without understanding what philosophy is about: “Philosophy is dead”. Reminds me of what Ernest Becker said in The Denial of Death, that every person wants to feel significant, to leave a legacy of sorts to feel immortal – perhaps Hawkings wants to be the man who snuffed out philosophy? It’s interesting to observe how different people get their feeling of importance.

    17 Sep 2010, 11:53

  6. Steve Hewlett

    This is in response to Chris Bateman above (comment 3):

    “This is yet another case of people who have spent no time studying philosophy drawing conclusions about it.”

    I’m surprised that such a response should be utilised against anyone, let alone someone as responsibly thought-provoking as Prof. Hawking.

    I’ve never studied theft or violence; but, given that in September I had two brand new bycycles stolen and was the victim of thuggery in a road-rage assault (now a police matter), I can state unequivocally that my experience of these aspects of human interaction make me draw conclusions regarding the effects that such behaviours on me and from other reported evidence of the similar experience of others. These conclusions make me wholly antipathetic towards these particular human endeavours. It might be argued that Hawking is being similarly reactionary to what he perceives as the historical effect of philosophy on human thought, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I’m more inclined to argue, however, that Hawking is referring to particular philosophies rather than the process of philosophical enquiry. Surely even he would agree that science has achieved its current status (and success) as a result of the pursuit of the philosophy of scientific enquiry.

    05 Oct 2010, 14:41


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