Steven Hawking Declares Philosophy is Dead – But is it really?

By | April 17, 2011

In the opening paragraphs of their recent book on scientific cosmology, The Grand Design, Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow make the declaration that science, not philosophy, is the agent of our quest for knowledge. But having made this reasonable assertion, they push further by declaring that “philosophy is dead.”

As an unqualified general statement about all philosophy, this is a very questionable statement; but even more surprisingly, the authors show by their theorizing in the book that a form of philosophy that surely is not dead; namely philosophy as done by scientists themselves.

Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow open their book, with these inspiring words:

“..humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?”

Then they make some surprising remarks, disparaging philosophy:

“Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.”

Following this they offer their view that “scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

They conclude their opening remarks by stating the purpose of their book:

“The purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances. They lead us to a new picture of the universe and our place in it that is very different from the traditional one, and different even from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago.”

The remark that “philosophy is dead” reads like a categorical statement. Many readers have been surprised that the authors did not qualify this claim; e.g., aspects of traditional philosophy are no longer relevant, such as speculative metaphysics. Surely the authors are aware that there remain many aspects of philosophy that are not entirely dead: e.g. ethics, philosophy of religion, of science, of mind, political philosophy, and such.

The authors hint as to what they might have in mind by the “philosophy is dead” statement when they follow with the statement that “philosophy has not kept up with developments in science.” This helps a little to clarify their disenchantment with philosophy, but it seems that here this is another questionable claim on their part. First, it is not clear what one could mean by a ‘blanket’ statement regarding all of philosophy. Philosophy, like the science, is comprised of a variety of people and intellectual activity. It may be true that some people who call themselves ‘philosophers’ have not kept up with developments in contemporary science; but some most assuredly have: e.g., those philosophers working in the philosophy of science, e.g. Adolph Grunbaum and Victor Stenger in physics, Daniel Dennett in evolutionary biology and in the cognitive sciences. So, at the very least, Hawking and Mlodinow should have qualified their claim that “philosophy has not kept up with developments in the sciences” to read instead that some philosophers have not kept up with developments in the sciences.

Most of us can agree that “scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” Surely with respect to new discoveries and knowledge of nature and culture, science leads the way. One does not have to embrace a form of ‘scientism’ to agree with this statement. But this statement does not require that one reject all philosophical work as irrelevant to the quest for knowledge that the sciences represent. There remains a role for philosophers, even if it is only the secondary role of clarifying, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating some of the results of scientific discoveries and theories.

But the more interesting criticism of the authors disparagement of philosophy comes when we notice that, after declaring that philosophy is dead, they turn around and give us a good dose of ‘philosophy’ as they present “a new picture of the universe and our place in it that is very different from the traditional one, and different even from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago.” This “new picture” of reality is not one which they develop on strictly scientific grounds, but involves the sort of inference and extrapolation that many would call philosophical thought.

It is easy to find selections in the book which show that the authors engage in drawing inferences, theorizing, and extrapolating as they give us an alternative picture of reality. Can these activities that extend beyond science proper be interpreted as a philosophical activity of sorts?

Admittedly, scientists can draw inferences from their data, make interpretations and theorize without necessarily having it be cases of philosophical speculation. I don’t assume that every time that Hawking and Mlodinow make interpretations or theorize from their data and observations they are engaging in philosophy. But some of their theorizing and extrapolations resemble the activity of philosophy: interpretation, theorizing, and going beyond the data of science to draw more extensive conclusions.

Let’s consider some of what they write. They adopt what they call a theory of perceptual experience which they call “model-dependent realism” in which the world that we perceive results when “our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the real world.” From this they conclude that we don’t observe a world independent of the interpretative structure of our brain:

“There is no way to remove the observer – us – from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception – and the observations upon which our theories are based — are shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains.”

They may think that this ‘theory’ is just a straight extrapolation from the facts of the brain processes underlying perception, but this ‘theory’ has resemblance to an epistemological theory in philosophy; e.g. a Kantian analysis of the phenomena of experience. Moreover, the fact that one can draw alternative inferences from the facts of those brain processes consistent with a common-sense realism is further indication that the authors advance a philosophical theory regarding perceptual experience.

Their philosophical position – an epistemological position – is underlined when they suggest a skeptical view of the possibility of having an undistorted view of reality. They raise the questions: “Do we really have reason to believe that our objective reality exists? What is the true, undistorted view of reality?” That there answer is a negative one is implied by their use of the goldfish bowl analogy: as the goldfish inside the fish bowl have a distorted view of the world outside the fish bowl, so we have a view of the external world which is distorted by our sense faculties and brain processing.

“Do we really have reason to believe that our objective reality exists — the curved gold fish bowl analogy — What is the true, undistorted view of reality?”

What they write concerning “scientific determinism” is another case in point.

“[The book assumes] the concept of scientific determinism…. There are no exceptions to the laws of nature. …we are no more than biological machines and free will is just an illusion.”

It is probably true that all scientists hold to the view that there are no exceptions to the laws of nature; but it not true that all scientists and philosophers of science infer from this a philosophical determinism which denies that “free will is just an illusion.” when one means by ‘free will’ the ability to make choices and realize some freedom of action. To think otherwise is to adopt a particular philosophical interpretation of ‘free will’ as a special faculty of mind which is not affected by the laws of nature. An alternative philosophical position is one that sees ‘scientific determinism’ to be compatible with our ordinary sense of freedom and choice. One can recognize the importance of our biological ‘machinery’ and yet see humans as more than automatons or mere biological machines. To reject this compatibilist position , as the authors do, is to take a philosophical position on the issues of freedom and determinism.

When they take up the question of alternative models of reality, the authors surely appear to engage a philosophy of science:

[Consider two models: (1) the world is only a few thousand years old or (2) the world is 13.7 billions years old] One theory may be more useful, but “neither model can be said to be more real than the other. A model is a good model if it is elegant; contains few arbitrary or adjustable elements; agrees with and explains all existing observations; makes detailed predictions about future observations that can disprove or falsify the model if they’re not borne out.”

In short, they apply criteria to evaluate competing models of reality. But when they do this, they are not doing science, but they are doing something ordinarily done by philosophers of science.

Finally, we find the abstract theories of the universe which the authors affirm, theories which certainly have the look of a scientifically-based metaphysics.

“We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us.”

“The idea that the universe does not have a unique observer-independent history might seem to conflict with certain facts that we know.”

“The universe does not have a just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called quantum super-position.”

“The histories that contribute to the Feynman sum don’t have an independent existence, but depend on what is being measured. We create history by our observation, rather than history creating us. The idea that the universe does not have a unique observer-independent history might seem to conflict with certain facts we know.”

It is obvious that the authors find a scientific basis (quantum physics, scientific cosmology) for these surprising theories of reality. But the thinking that draws the theories surely is a close kin to philosophical thought.

In conclusion, philosophy is not dead but very much alive when we look for the right forms of philosophy. And some of the more interesting type of philosophy is being done by scientists themselves [1], including the authors of The Grand Design.


[1] Contemporary scientists who have done very impressive philosophical work include Taner Edis, The Ghost in the Universe (philosophy of religion, ..of physics, .. of evolutionary biology), Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (philosophy of mind, epistemology, social philosophy), and Douglas Hofstadter, I Am A Strange Loop, (philosophy of mind, of self).

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