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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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