Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

“Philosopher” Stephen Hawking pronounces philosophy dead

At the recent philosophy conference at UCT in Cape Town, philosopher Callum Scott, from UNISA, presented an intriguing paper – “The death of philosophy: A response to Stephen Hawking” – on the 2010 book by physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Bantam Books). In a nutshell, Scott offered a critique of Hawking and Mlodinow’s claim, that “philosophy is dead”, by demonstrating that, in practising cosmology – a traditional philosophical discipline – in a certain manner, they themselves practise philosophy.

In fact, in their attempt to answer questions such as “Why did the universe come into being?” the authors of The Grand Design appeal to the laws of physics, such as gravity, and argue that, far from requiring God as a “first cause”, the universe brought itself into being through “spontaneous creation” on the basis of these laws alone. For Scott, the central discussion of the problem of creation, which is a metaphysical question, makes the book – or at least some of the discussions in it – philosophical, the authors’ “obituarising” about philosophy notwithstanding.

Moreover, if speculation was the hallmark of the traditional philosophical discipline of metaphysics, there is an additional reason why The Grand Design displays philosophical characteristics – as Scott pointed out, Hawking and Mlodinow appeal to what is known as “multiverse theory” (or “M-theory”) in the book, arguing that our universe is but one of a multitude of universes (a “multiverse”). This makes their argument distinctly philosophical, if I understood Scott correctly.

Here I turn to my own take on the matter, although my argument may be similar to Scott’s. (I don’t have a copy of his paper, so I have been working from what I remember about his presentation.) No matter on what scientific grounds one may claim the following, we are not in a position – even with sophisticated technologies for gazing at atomic particles – to attempt to “falsify” (that is, to test) the claim, that numerous universes exist. These claims are therefore no less speculative than philosophical cosmology. In the first section of the book (“The mystery of being”) Hawking and Mlodinow state:

“According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law. They are a prediction of science. Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states at later times, that is, at times like the present, long after their creation. Most of these states will be quite unlike the universe we observe and quite unsuitable for the existence of any form of life. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist. Thus our presence selects out from this vast array only those universes that are compatible with our existence.”

To those among us who are avid sci-fi, or even science fantasy fans, this may sound like something written after a binge on Star Trek, Fringe, Twelve Monkeys and Men in Black, but the authors actually appeal to quantum theories, particularly as described by Richard Feynman, who understood these theories to mean that no system, including the universe, has a single history, “but every possible history”, even if this may fly in the face of common sense. “But common sense is based on everyday experience,” Hawking and Mlodinow remind us, again uncannily placing themselves in the company of all those philosophers who have argued against common sense, from the ancient Greeks to the present. They continue:

“Until the advent of modern physics it was generally thought that all knowledge of the world could be obtained through direct observation, that things are what they seem, as perceived through our senses. But the spectacular success of modern physics, which is based upon concepts such as Feynman’s that clash with everyday experience, has shown that that is not the case. The naive view of reality therefore is not compatible with modern physics.”

What they have in mind with the words, “it was generally thought”, certainly corresponds with the views of most people (even today), but just as certainly not with those who have a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of (the history of) philosophy, starting with the ancient Greeks. Even the pre-Socratics – whom Hawking and Mlodinow discuss – taught their contemporaries to distrust the evidence of their senses as such, and to use reason to arrive at the truth behind appearances. In Plato this culminates in a systematic subversion of the reliability of sensory knowledge in favour of reason and thought-dependent truth, and the pattern has been repeated differently many times since then in the thought of philosophers like the Stoics, Augustine, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and others.

Hawking and Mlodinow even mention Plato in the same breath as Newton and his successors: “In the history of science we have discovered a sequence of better and better theories or models, from Plato to the classical theory of Newton to modern quantum theories.” Here one witnesses another similarity between what they are doing and philosophy, to wit, the preference for theory-dependent understanding of reality over direct observation as final arbiter.

The “models” mentioned here are important components of Hawking and Mlodinow’s understanding of scientific theorising: “To deal with such paradoxes [as the conflict between common sense and science] we shall adopt an approach that we call model-dependent realism. It is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth. But there may be different ways in which one could model the same physical situation, with each employing different fundamental elements and concepts.”

Referring to the “approach” in question in this manner is not, by itself, scientific in the sense of “doing science”, but rather part of their philosophy of science, aimed at explaining or justifying their dependence on modelling for arriving at a conception of reality that is compatible with their preferred way of doing science. After all, it should be clear that “talking about science” is not synonymous with science as a practice, and this talking “about” science – in a distinctly philosophical manner, to boot (“…based on the idea that…”) – marks the point where these two authors transgress the limits of the discourse of science, and enter the terrain of philosophy. Almost in the same breath they proclaim the death of this, the oldest discipline in the world, AND participate in its resurrection.

Finally, I should point out that what they call “model-dependent realism” has precursors in philosophy, albeit not in exactly the same terms. When Kant proposed that human reason structures what we know as intelligible “reality” through the forms of space and time, as well as the categories of the understanding (such as causality), he laid the basis for what Hawking and Mlodinow are arguing here, except that they have taken it to the level of talking about “scientific” modelling of reality (which presupposes Kant’s philosophical variety of rational structuring). They even agree with Kant that we cannot know an independently existing reality (the “Ding-an-sich”). Quantum theorist Werner Heisenberg put it well when he said that, simply by observing reality, we change it – which is just as philosophical a statement as many encountered on the part of Hawking and Mlodinow. Philosophy is alive and well.

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    • http://hismastersvoice.wordpress.com/ The Creator

      Aha, I thought so. (Just been Googling.) M- theory is not multiverse theory, it’s known as membrane theory (also known as brane theory), an extension of string theory, which in itself is a theory invented to account for the huge difference between what theoretical physicists predict and what experimental physicists actually see.

      Either way, it’s a load of crap dreamed up to justify funding and the self-importance of crappy dreamers. Which, come to think of it, is a lot like philosophy (smiley face).

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      An argument against trusting the senses is not an argument in favour of trusting reason and thought-dependent truth. Not all reasonings or claims of thought-dependent truth are equal in the sense that some truths are more true than others. I find it strange that there’s an either-or approach here, when it’s obvious to me that both sensory based observations and thought-based reasoning are required to construct anything meaningful.

      Rather, I venture that Hawking and Mlodinow asserts that unless philosophy takes note of new scientific developments, it is effectively dead in the sense that it is treading water. This coupled with the idea that science is now in a better position to tackle questions that were previously only approached from the domain of philosophy or the church (Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? And why this particular set of laws and not some other?).

    • Bert

      Garg – You should know from the example of Kant that what I am talking about here is not an either/or approach: The senses work together with reason (and imagination), for Kant, or rather, they are part and parcel of reason. All these philosophers acknowledge a role for the senses, but caution that, by themselves, the senses will not reveal truth. If you want to read a really complex take on this, read Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense. And you are right about H & M saying that philosophy should take note of the sciences. lest it only release hot air, but this is hardly the same as philosophy being “dead” – they themselves project a number of possibilities in philosophical terms, although based on the findings of physics. And I agree that philosophers should take science seriously, and offer interpretations of its discoveries.

    • Percipient

      Is intelligible “reality” not an abstract co-efficient of both the languages of science and philosophy because both practices strive to make intelligible sense of “reality” with the former attempting to identify and quantify, and the latter attempting to qualify, it?

    • Bert

      Percipient – I would agree with you, but this does not preclude philosophy interpreting the findings of science, as H & M themselves do in the book I refer to, in philosophical terms. What they share, unavoidably – and which many positivistically inclined philos-phers and scientists overlook – is that “talking about science”, science itself, AND philosophy, are all discourses, that is, linguistic phenomena. There is no science – not even the “purest” physics – without scientific discourse. Just observing phenomena, with or without the amplification of such observation by sophisticated instruments, does not constitute science. These findings must be reported in a shared scientific language. See in this regard, Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry, and Derrida’s illuminating Introduction to it.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      @Bert:
      Yes, I find it a bit strange to claim that ‘philosophy is dead’. I haven’t read the book, though I am a fan of Mlodinow’s other writing and can’t help but think something was taken out of context, or perhaps the hard scientists were aiming at stirring controversy to sell books.

      I’ve read more on cognitive science, which indicates that there is no clear difference between senses and thinking, feeling or imagination. The senses sense but the brain integrates into a whole, as it were.

      I also think that scientists should take philosophy seriously. Philosophy is after all fundamental to determine epistemology or the framework by which sense data is integrated. Plenty of leg work can be saved in this way, with the caveat that taking philosophy too seriously at face value could lead to lots of leg work too – as it did for Kepler.

    • Percipient

      We humans like to give ourselves a pat on the back whenever we discover new objects, patterns, tendencies, structures or behaviours within Nature. Where Nature tricks us are with those (infintiely?) subtle deviations within these objects or pattern structures, and we shout “hooray!” each time we uncover a deviation and quantify them with some formula. Then she throws us a curved ball by presenting us with deviations within the deviations, or worse, something contradictory to what we think we’ve identified. I conclude that whatever proclamations Hawkins makes must have some philosophical or speculative element to it. Nature trumps and the philosophers still have a job. As with Chris Langan’s ongoing CTMU (Cognitve-Theoretical Model of the Universe) project (Langan’s a deist so there’s also the “God” element to it as well) I think both Langan and Hawkins are barking up the wrong trees, else all this whoo-haa is just good for biz and for drumming up a bit of hype.

    • ian shaw

      Creator; si tacuis es philosophus mansisses

      This means that if you had kept your mouth shut, you could have been regarded wise.
      Since your instant “knowledge”. is based on google, I suggest that you take a two year basic physics course at university level before condemning seasoned experts.
      Your ignorant and malicious response of labeling ideas of which you know nothing about,as mere fundraisers for physics researchers is not only offensive, but presents a very poor picture of yourself.
      Prof.Dr ian Shaw (retired)

    • HD

      I am very skeptical of philosophers commenting on scientific disciplines, unless it is along the lines of the “philosophy of science”.

      I think what Hawkins mean by the “models” we use is more along the lines of those discussed by people like Pinker (How the mind works) and Denett. Crudely put, through evolutionary biology our mind has adapted to make sense of this world – it in fact tricks/brainwashes us through our sense in order to better adapt/survive to our world.

      Indeed many of our cognitive biases has these evolutionary origins. To me it sounds like Hawkins is referring to modern science being able to deal with some of these trapping by escaping the limits that our evolutionary “gut”/instinctual brain places on us…

      That being said I think your overall point is correct about all science being essentially philosophy, but I also think what Hawkins really mean in a general sense is that what used to be pure philosophical questions are these days “scientific” – to the extent that we think we can accurately model, describe and control (experiment) for certain questions. We believe science is closer to finding answers as opposed to merely speculating (philosophy).

      In this sense science might be just another discourse, but it seems to be better than others in providing answers…

    • Percipient

      Bert, on discourse I am with you fully. Therefore, surely would not both disciplines would feed off one another, be it inadvertently or otherwise, to a lesser or greater degree in accordance with whatever is deemed to be consensual or acceptable for the day?

    • Percipient

      Whoops, that second “would” gatecrashed my last comment. :-))

    • Bert

      HD – My comments (and I believe Scott’s) were meant as “philosophy of science”. I, for one, do take science seriously, as long as scientists are aware of the fact that science always “approximates” the truth, never being able to articulate it once and for all. It’s work in progress, as the history of science so clearly shows.
      Percipient – Sure, there is always a kind of cross-fertilization between these disciplines, even if these is no consensus of sorts. There is an anecdote about Heisenberg, the truth of which I cannot vouch for, but which makes sense in light of your remark. It is said that, before he formulated his version of quantum mechanics, he had been reading Plato’s Timaeus, which suggested some of the central notions of quantum theory to him. I would imagine it was the idea of the Khora that Plato talks about in that dialogue, which he depicts as an “errant” cause, unlike any causality that humans can easily understand or even imagine coherently, such as the anthropomorphic, technomorphic account he gives first, via Timaeus, of the demiurge mediating between God and what becomes the world, like an artwork created out of pre-existing forms and mathematical entities.

    • Kwame

      As much as I luv science for its contribution in liberating humanity from dogmatic discourse, I also acknowledge its limitations in that there is no measurement for thought. More so, behaviour will always follow thought and not the other way around.

      This brings me to the point were I disagree with the idea ‘our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs’. I would say the brain merely ‘processes’ the sensory input, however the mind is in charge of ‘intepretation’ and ‘reasoning’. One would also agree with the statement that our perception purely based on our senses is ‘unreliable’, hence the ‘innate’ guidance of thought and instinct becomes critical.

    • HD

      @Bert

      I full agree, I was merely referring to the tendency of some philosophers (not limited to them) to step onto technical aspects of scientific fields without the necessary background knowledge. The Sokal affair illustrated this well…

      It also still reads to me like Hawkins and Scott are talking about philosophy in a different context.

      I think the main point that science is “philosophy” it not controversial – hence I agree with the philosophy of science point you make.

      However, I think Hawkins is referring to philosophy in a more “common sense” way, implying that science has gotten better in answering questions, that were until fairly recently, regarded as only philosophical speculation (of course it still is in the philosophy of science way).

      Also check out Pinker & co concept of the computational mind – I think Hawkins might be referring to the fact that our mind has evolved to adapt certain models – quantum physics challenges those by escaping some of the trapping of an evolutionary brain.

      What makes this argument I would assume not just merely philosophical for Hawkins, is that quantum experiments and related physics can “illustrate” this – as opposed to purely reasoning it – which you rightly point out his a long philosophical history.

      Maybe, they should have said science is only now confirming some philosophical answers – although I think their point of view is there is little left for philosophy to answer when it comes to the…

    • http://www.newstime.co.za/columnist/PaulWhelan/5 Paul Whelan

      A supposed separation or ‘conflict’ between science and philosophy, like that between science and religion, is a fiction easily exposed by a little reading into the history of ideas. It is more the invention of blurb writers and axe-grinders (not least on Thought Leader) than a position taken by serious thinkers in any of the three subjects. Hawking says he believes when the brain dies, that’s that. So?. But he and Mlodinow are far too sensible to suggest that disposes of our philosophical questions and, in fact, rather point out it does not. They acknowledge the philosophical questions, which simply do not appear to trouble them personally. That is what troubles others most.

      As you say, Bert, the idea that our senses will not reveal the truth is hardly new. ‘Public’ scientists are merely issuing a corrective they think timely: that that is not to say anything we can imagine or assert is ‘true'; and that to introduce painstaking observation and experiment is only to show you cannot ‘open the mind’.

    • Robard

      “…our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. ” Then there is also Nietzsche’s idea that our brains filter out the input that doesn’t fit with our model of the world, it being more a description of the mind in line with our peculiar interests as human beings than a true reflection of reality.

    • mythos

      Philosophy will outlive Hawkins by a wide margin; it exists wherever there is a pub with good beer (or whisky).

    • Peter Win

      Amusing really, that a man such as Hawkins can fall into such obvious error…

      If this Universe is merely one of many, and all are created in accordance with “natural” law – where did the law come from ? Where did the original structure – whether metaphysical or physical – originate ? And what is it’s power that it can generate all out of nothing ?

      Who or what specifies that mathematics must underpin all universes ? Who or what specifies that there is an underpinning logic ?

      And why should this logic generate all out of nothing ? Stephen, with his M-theory, attempts to create a scientific God to replace a Biblical one.

      Thanks Stephen – your logic in support of atheism is not proven… I’ll continue to believe in my God…

    • OneFlew

      Hawking has often tried to be controversial.

      He has claimed that our destiny is on the stars when it is manifestly unfeasible for us to pursue this in the manner he proposed. And he claimed, a few centuries too late, that there is no need for a God hypothesis. And now he is having a pop at philosophy.

      He’s just an old drama queen. The Chris Barnard of physics.

    • http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos Ron Krumpos

      In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking postulates that M-theory may be the Holy Grail of physics…the Grand Unified Theory which Einstein had tried to formulate, but never completed. It expands on quantum mechanics and string theories.

      In my free ebook on comparative mysticism, “the greatest achievement in life,” 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 the center of all religion.”

      E=mc², 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 (Love, Grace, Spirit), matter (mass/energy: visible/dark) and consciousness (f(x) 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…

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      In my book the world has still to produce a philosopher to beat Plato.

      Although, among the moderns, Betrand Russell come close. My mother, who tutored Logic for UNISA, corresponded with him for decades – so I know his work.

      Plato’s greatness in my opinion was his combination of reason with psychology and the understanding of human nature.

      There is little to beat his “When you speak with me, define your terms”.

      Ity drives me nuts listening to person after person on SAFM talking about “capitalism” when all of them have a different concept of what “capitalism” is!

    • Grant Walliser

      Firstly, the phrase “philosophy is dead” sells books and Hawking would no doubt agree that it is slightly simplified. His meaning, however, is not. I take it to mean that to have a meaningful philosophical debate, one now needs the tools and understanding of where science and physics are to be relevant just as one needs to be computer literate to work in todays office.

      Previously, science in the days of Newton dabbled in mechanics alone. It told us how things moved, the forces at play, the temperature of stuff and how fast a stone dropped. All very useful but hardly deeply philosophical by today’s standards. Today, however, science is dabbling in things that overlap more powerfully with philosophy and the luxury of simply being able to formulate concepts by thinking and for these concepts alone to have merit is gone, hence (traditional) philosophy is dead. To progress from here you need a good grasp of what the questions are from traditional philosophy and the science background to ensure that your questions are actually still valid.

      Science, religion, philosophy and other fields may be converging into an uncomfortably small space where the field with the best tools to describe what we question will previal. Religion in its traditional form is already all but dead, discredited and revealed to be full of inconsistencies by both philosophy and science and clung to by those who follow the arguments of neither.

      Perhaps philoscience has emerged?

    • http://www.newstime.co.za/columnist/PaulWhelan/5 Paul Whelan

      Rather than join an argument about what Stephen Hawking says and what others say he says, why not read his book? You will know soon enough whether you agree with what he actually says.

      There was a film, you know – titled ‘Hawking’ – about him as a young man. In one scene he briefly discusses with a girl friend (I think – can’t remember the details) whether Brahms is greater than Wagner.

      He’s not fanatical about it himself. He knows some will say one and some will say the other and some will say there’s room for both.

    • http://www.finserv.co.za Gary Smith

      Ho hum!
      Does this mean that when I look in the mirror in the morning, I’m not really seeing me, unless I think it’s me? By the time all you philsophers and physicists have finished with your postulating and posturing over reality, you’ll probably have come to a place where you say, “In the beginning, there was God…..”
      Hawking is well on his way toward it – he’s been painting himself into a corner for years. If you’re entirely honest, nobody knows for sure…………it’s all about faith.

    • Maria

      @ Grant: As Bert would no doubt remind you, philosophy is broader than just philosophy of science, which addresses questions concerning the physical world, the status of theories, hypotheses, the ontological underpinnings of natural science, the differences between the latter and the social sciences, etc. But having mentioned the philosophy of the social sciences should already serve as a reminder that philosophy is anything but dead – it is very much alive as social philosophy (and theory), philosophy of language, of history, of art, of cinema, of music, of architecture, as logic and as epistemology (which underpins the philosophy of science). To pronounce it dead displays a very narrow conception of philosophy.

    • jandr0

      I would appreciate it if anybody could take Lyndall’s quote of Plato further for me:

      There is little to beat his “When you speak with me, define your terms.”

      So, please define philosophy, and please define science.

      Here is what I have for philosophy:

      “The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge (epistemology), reality (metaphysics), existence, and our ability to understand the world of which we are a part; more generally, the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, e.g. the sciences or the arts.”

      (So, since one part of philosophy studies science, it can only die if science also dies?)

      And here for science:

      “The organised body of knowledge concerning the physical or material world validated through the scientific method.”

      What in the above definitions is right, wrong (or even totally absurd)?

      @Peter Win: “If this Universe is merely one of many, and all are created in accordance with “natural” law – where did the law come from? Where did the original structure – whether metaphysical or physical – originate? And what is it’s power that it can generate all out of nothing?”

      Ditto! Also the first major question that sprang to my mind!

      Followed immediately by: “If we say God created that “natural” law, then who or what created the God who created the “natural” law?”

      Maybe a succession of Gods, each of them across multiple universes?

      But then we’re back to “turtles all the way…

    • Bobster

      Please excuse my ignorance but is it not the quest of philosophers to establish the ultimate truth?
      If so, would it not then also be analogous with the quest of science to find empirical evidence for the establishment of the ultimate truth? If I am correct then both are on the same mission albeit their methodology to reach these conclusions differs. 1/0 to philosophy.
      I think the inclusion of the statement by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow is probably a ruse in order to invite vigorous debate. Both are known for a sense of humour.
      Having read this book it is my understanding that in terms of the multi-universe (or parallel universe as it is also known) theory quantum mechanics, a fledgling science, has opened up a Pandora’s Box of speculation that is bonded by the mystic of complex mathematical equations. The book cannot help but being philosophical and theistic in its approach as there are so many roads that must still be followed before we truly understand and tame this beast. I have heard that it has emotionally drained many a scientist in their pursuit for answers to a discipline that takes no prisoners.

    • Roy

      I would really appreciate it if someone could explain to me how it is that we are able to think without the interference of sensory perception.

    • http://www.newstime.co.za/columnist/PaulWhelan/5 Paul Whelan

      @ Bobster – Many must think the quest of philosophy is to establish ‘the ultimate truth’.

      The historical sources of this notion would include scholasticism/Xtianity and their identification of God with Truth, combining with the influences (appropriate word here) of the occult and magic and the forefunners of science and psychology, alchemy and astrology – all of which suggested that the ‘knowledge’ derived from investigation of the natural world could give one control over it because one would have grasped its hidden secrets – not to mention something, therefore, of the mind of God (you’ll remember Hawking’s ironic reference to that at the end of ‘A short history of time’). People who put their faith in ‘science’ today no doubt suffer the modern form of the same misunderstanding, if you wish to be a little unkind about it.

      I’ve always thought ‘philosophy’ was too large a word for what is only really ‘thinking’. Like Science and Darwinism, Marxism and Creationism, with their portentous capitals, the word suggests transcendent properties no true philosopher would claim for it at all. .

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      If the world started with a “Big Bang” – what was it that banged together in a thunderclap, how did the particles that banged together get created, and was it perhaps a previous world imploding?

    • Peter Win

      Jandr0,
      I agree it is a matter of faith and belief. I would point out that I cannot prove the existence of God : all I have is faith based on what I see as evidence. Similarly, I cannot see how Hawkins can disprove the existence of God. No matter how far you trace it back, the Universe is an unlikely event based on mathematical structures (according to Hawkins) that have no fundamental reason to exist.

    • Bobster

      Paul Whelan # Thank you for that insight.
      Mixing religion and philosophy with science has never produced a cake worthy of eating and has always laid a foundation for controversy. But who knows? Quantum mechanics might yet reveal discoveries that will stagger even the most conservative and could overturn global convention and thinking.
      Exciting times ahead.

    • http://www.newstime.co.za/columnist/PaulWhelan/5 Paul Whelan

      @ Bobster – Yes, there are always exciting times ahead – if you keep faith with it.

    • jandr0

      @Peter Win: “I would point out that I cannot prove the existence of God : all I have is faith based on what I see as evidence. Similarly, I cannot see how Hawkins can disprove the existence of God.”

      agnostic: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God. [Oxford Dictionary]

      Live a good life…

    • Bert

      jandrO – Those are not bad ‘definitions’ of philosophy and science. And your inference, that if science dies, the corresponding branch of philosophy would also die, seems reasonable, except that philosophy of science could carry on asking questions about the possibility of the resurrection of science. There are many different definitions of philosophy – my mentor and friend at Yale University, Karsten Harries, used to say that philosophy is the search for humanity’s place in the world. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, says that a philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’, which is rather suggestive of the difference between science and philosophy – science uses tried and tested methods; philosophy, which depends on thinking, gives one the freedom to think in hitherto unexplored ways, closely related to the imagination. Which is why Einstein’s remark, that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge’ is so profound – he was talking about existing kinowledge, and reminding everyone, including scientists, that unless they imagine something to be different from what is believed to be the case at any given time, knowledge would not ‘progress’.

    • Bert

      Bobster – anyone who asserts that philosophy aims at establishing the ‘ultimate truth’, is confusing it with religion or some other kind of ideology. Philosophy’s main task is to ask questions, and practise what Kant called ‘asking back’ – zuruckfragen – to establish what our (usually unexamined) presuppositions are. This is easy to connect with Plato/Socrates’ assertion, that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ (to which the famous South African philosopher, Johan Degenaar, responded once, that he had learned from students that ‘the unlived life is not worth examining’). What Lyndall referred to in Plato is simply Plato’s (or Socrates’, if we take Plato at his word) insistence, that we can progress towards the truth only if we are willing to subject everything to a process of dialectical (and dialogical) questioning. But I like the fact that, according to Plato, Socrates insisted, until the end of his life, that the only thing we can know with certainty, is how little we know – the so-called Socratic ‘docta ignorantia’. Will Durant, the famous historian of philosophy, who lived until he was in his 90s, said at an advanced age that, when he was 30, he ‘knew everything’, but then (in old age), that he ‘knew nothing: education is a progressive discovery of your own ignorance.’ This resonates with Socrates’ philosophical humility. Incidentally, that is something I don’t like about Hawking’s (and Mlodinow’s) new book – there’s not much humility there.

    • http://www.newstime.co.za/columnist/PaulWhelan/5 Paul Whelan

      Bert – A nice story that makes Durant’s point another way goes like this (forgive me if you know it):

      ‘When I was 17, I was really embarrassed by how thick everyone was, but especially by my dad – he knew absolutely nothing! But, amazingly, after that dad started to improve. By the time I reached 30 he wasn’t half as daft and now I’m 50 he often knows more than I do.’

    • Maria

      That’s a very amusing version of the story, Paul! And it makes the point well, that if someone has the potential for wisdom, it usually only actualizes itself with advancing age. Age, or time, has a lot to do with changing perceptions, of course – “parallel” to your story there is the saying that, the older men get, the more beautiful the women around them become. From my perspective as a woman, this accurately reflects the nature of masculine sexuality, founded on a certain kind of “desperation”. It is perfectly captured in Freud’s anecdotal account of the Turks’ (men, presumably) view of sex: “if that goes, one may as well die!” I realize that I may be opening up a can of worms here, but at any rate, I thought that the effect of time or aging on one’s beliefs (and, of course, needs and abilities) is well illustrated by these “stories”.

    • http://www.newstime.co.za/columnist/PaulWhelan/5 Paul Whelan

      @ Maria – Thank you for that. It is a mystery this ‘getting-wiser-as-you-get-older’ thing. It certainly appears real, but – and this fits with your suggestion of changing perceptions – it could be no more than, when you are working flat out through life, you have less time to weigh alternatives, even when you accept they may exist, which is rarely. Also, depending on your work, it may pay not to see too many subtleties, but to come to a decision. My eldest daughter, a little dynamo with a big job, had reached that conclusion last time we met. The earlier considerations are not so pressing later.

      It’s interesting also what you say about women getting more beautiful. I have not found that myself, though I hasten to add I was always a late developer (if not an instance of arrested development, a Peter Pan.) What I do find, though, is that younger women are markedly less interesting now, however beautiful. Hopefully, that rescues me from being a Turk?

      A woman friend of mine says: ‘You become invisible after 50′ – to which Agatha Christie found the perfect solution. She urged women to marry an archaeologist, as she did, because the older she got, the more fascinating she became to her husband.

    • Maria

      That’s hilarious, Paul! The Agatha Christie reference, I mean. And I believe that you are right about the reasons why people “gain wisdom” later in life, as far as work priorities (and one could add: less reflective dedication to one’s job and family) are concerned. Thank you.

    • jandr0

      @Paul Whelan: “It is a mystery this ‘getting-wiser-as-you-get-older’ thing.”

      First off, I really enjoyed your rendition of the “But, amazingly, after that dad started to improve” insight – I have also heard it in many guises.

      As to the “mystery,” you will find lots of research into it and activities around it, viz. Robert Kegan, William Torbert, the Global Organisation Design Society, to name a few.

      I contend one of the causes of this ‘getting-wiser-as-you-get-older’ thing can be traced to the following (paraphrased) statement: “cause and effect are not necessarily closely related in time.”

      (I seem to recall originally encountering this statement in this form in Systems Thinking – Peter Senge being a well-known proponent.)

      In short: As part of us learning the lessons of life, our direct experience of our actions and their results are important contributors, but unfortunately we often only experience the results of our actions long after we perform those actions.

      As an example, some of my more carefree spending at age 20 only started affecting me at age 40 (when my personal financial wealth was less that I had hoped it would have been).

      BUT: I could only really learn the “do not spend too carefree” lesson when I was 40, because that was when I experienced the results more acutely.

      PS. This is one reason why I am nervous of pushing youth ahead TOO soon. Youth needs time to experience the lessons of life. That’s just the way things are.

    • Rene

      The day philosophy dies, the human race would no longer exist, because it represents the questioning nature of human beings more purely than anything else.

    • http://www.newstime.co.za/columnist/PaulWhelan/5 Paul Whelan

      @ Jandro – I’m sure you are right – it is surely connected to learning from experiencing but then also noting and weighing the effect of our actions later.

      We live forwards and learn backwards.

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    • Shams Hamid

      Stephen Hawking is now going beyond science taking up philosophical questions such as why the universe came into being, instead of the scientific question how is universe came into being. He is reviving the role of philosophy to guide science. He is disappointed that modern philosophers are not providing models to explain new scientific discoveries. Is his pronouncement of the death of philosophy a cry for the revival of philosophy? Or, he is extending the role of science to include philosophy?

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