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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