Mon 27 Sep 2010
What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?… Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but 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. – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design[i]
In his new book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking, together with co-author Leonard Mlodinow, argue that the quest to find the answers to life’s biggest questions is no longer the charge of philosophers, but scientists. But why would Hawking, a renowned physicist, sound the death knell for a field of study that he has no expertise in?
Ultimately, Hawking understands the history of intellectual discovery as a progression from mythology, through philosophy, and finally to science. On his view, philosophy was a step in the right direction in that it involved a rational attempt to make sense of the universe. That rational attempt to understand the universe, however, often goes wrong. For instance, Hawking points to the disagreements among ancient Greek philosophers for whom, “there was no objective way to settle the argument” because they didn’t yet have the scientific method.[ii] Moreover, philosophers are stuck with a classical view of the world and have not “kept up” with modern physics. According to the classical view, objects exist at one place at one time and every object has a definite history. But these views are not true, at least on the atomic level. Quantum mechanics implies that subatomic particles behave in ways that, according to the classical view, are impossible, seemingly popping in and out of existence as we observe them.
Hawking paints a picture of a world where life’s biggest questions are finally being understood by physicists. Our universe is merely a quantum fluctuation that resulted in a specific set of physical laws, but is only one of many universes in the “multiverse.” What is more, our understanding of quantum mechanics and general relativity allow physicists like Hawking to claim that there was “no beginning of time” and therefore no need for a God to start the chain of causation:
The issue of the beginning of time is a bit like the issue of the edge of the world. When people thought the world was flat, one might have wondered whether the sea poured over its edge…. Time, however, seemed to be like a model railway track. If it had a beginning, there would have to be someone (i.e. God) to set the trains going…. However, once we add the effects of quantum theory to the theory of relativity, in extreme cases [like the Big Bang] warpage can occur to such a great extent that time behaves like another dimension of space.[iii]
On this view, time, like the shape of the earth, is not “flat” but “curved” in such a way that the concept of the “beginning of the temporal series” makes as much sense as the concept of the “edge of the world.” For Hawking, this implies the multiverse is a closed system which does not need any explanation from outside of itself. As Ockham’s razor suggests, where there is no need to posit the existence of a supernatural being, one should not. The universe, then, is simply the product of purely physical laws. Hawking claims, then, that physics is finally providing answers to three historically philosophical questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?”[iv] Given this new role for physics, philosophy is not so much dead as it is obsolete.
But, has Hawking really shown that philosophy is obsolete? I think not. A charitable reading of The Grand Design would grant Hawking the point that philosophers need to take some of the more bizarre implications of modern physics seriously. But there are a number of philosophers who do take science seriously and attempt to base their arguments on firm empirical grounds. Perhaps Hawking hasn’t spent a lot of time with his colleagues in the department of philosophy at Cambridge.
But the best interpretation of Hawking’s arguments, I would argue, is that he himself is doing philosophy in this book. One common way of distinguishing philosophy from science is this. Science attempts to use observation and mathematics to discover the empirical truths of the world (i.e. the underlying physical laws, states, and processes) while philosophy , attempts to draw rational non-empirical conclusions from empirical, logical, or other basic truths. As soon as Hawking begins to infer non-empirical conclusions from quantum mechanics and general relativity, he is in effect, practicing philosophy. And, just as the philosopher would be required to empirically verify or experimentally test any empirical conclusions he or she makes, Hawking is subject to the methods and measures of good philosophy when he engages in philosophy.
The Grand Design is an excellent book in that it explains cutting edge physics in a way that is understandable for the layman and because it provokes a number of important philosophical questions. One should be weary, however, when interpreting his conclusions. As with any argument from authority, we should trust it only when it pertains to the author’s domain of authority. When your pharmacist tells you not to take medications A and B together because they will have an unfortunate side effect, we should trust that advice. When your pharmacist tells you to vote for candidate C because of that candidate’s economic policies, we have no reason to trust that advice. Hawking is, by all accounts, one of the most brilliant scientific minds living today. Nonetheless, many of the philosophical conclusions in The Grand Design are not empirically verifiable, but rest on philosophical assumptions such as “model-dependent realism” which could certainly be false. We should trust the scientific claims made in the book, but question the philosophical ones. Philosophy is not dead, but very much alive, as demonstrated by Hawking himself in the book and hopefully by the reader as he or she reads it.
[i] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Random House, 2010), 5.
[ii] Ibid, 22.
[iii] Ibid, 134.
[iv] Ibid, 10.