Stephen Hawking: Science vs. Philosophy?

“The strolls of a sceptic through the debris of culture—rubble and dust as far as the eye can see. The wanderer has found everything already in ruins, furrowed down and across by the plough of unremitting human thought. The wanderer puts forth his walking stick with caution; then he comes to a halt, leaning on it, and smiles.”

– Bruno Schulz, The Wanderings of a Sceptic

Stephen Hawking in his new book, The Grand Design, throws down a challenge to all those philosophers who pretend to deal with the great questions:

Why is there something rather than nothing?
Why do we exist?
Why this particular set of laws and not some other? 

He goes on the say that at one time these questions were for philosophy, but now, he tells us – “philosophy is dead”. [1] He attacks philosophy saying that it “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” (GD: Loc 42). The arrogance with which he states this position is almost that of and old time dogmatist in its scathing belittlement of philosophy and philosophers.

Just for the fun of it let’s take him at his word and see just what he’s up to with his game of science taking the full helm of traditional metaphysical thought from philosophy, and discover what answers he provides to the questions above.

He starts with the first question: Why is there something rather than nothing? He tells us that “spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist” (GD: Loc 1,819). In chapter three we discovered that the origin of the universe was a quantum event, and that it should be accurately described by Feynman’s sum over histories method. In essence, Feynman demonstrated that subatomic particles traverse infinite paths through spacetime, implicating infinite histories for any one particle. Stephen Hawking explains:

“With each trajectory Feynman associated two numbers, one for the size – the amplitude – of a wave and one for its phase – whether it is a crest or a through. The probability of a particle going from A to B is found by adding the up the waves associated with every possible path that passes through A and B.”

Without looking further at the mathematics, this notion makes perfect sense when you couple it with the uncertainty principle, which tells us that we cannot know the exact position of a particle at any one time. The more precise we are with the particle’s velocity the less certain we are about its position, and vice versa. Feynman’s sum over histories makes this phenomenon first postulated by Heisenberg fundamentally easier to grasp.[2]

Yet, as Hawking tells us to apply quantum theory to the entire universe is tricky, however. In chapter four he described how “particles of matter fired at a screen with two slits in it could exhibit interference patterns just as water waves do. Feynman showed that this arises because a particle does not have a unique history. That is, as it moves from its starting point A to some endpoint B, it doesn’t take one definite path, but rather simultaneously takes every possible path connecting two points. This brings us to Feynman’s sum over histories method which tells us that to calculate the probability of any particular endpoint we need to consider all the possible histories that a particle might follow from its starting point to that endpoint. One can use Feynman’s methods to calculate the quantum probabilities for observations of the universe. If they are applied to the universe as a whole, there is no point A, so we add up all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and end at the universe we observe today. (GD: Loc 1,375).

He tells us in this view, the universe appeared spontaneously, starting off in every possible way. Most of these correspond to other universes. While some of those universes are similar to ours, most are very different. They aren’t just different in details… they differ even in their apparent laws of nature. In fact, many universes exist with many different sets of physical laws. Our universe can be understood by studying the map of the microwave sky. It is the blueprint for all the structure in the universe. We are the product of quantum fluctuations in the very early universe. (GD: Loc 1,402) Therefore to understand the universe as it is today we use Feynman’s sum over histories, “the probability amplitude that the universe is now in a particular state is arrived at by adding up the contributions from all the histories that satisfy the no-boundary condition and the end in the state in question” (GD: Loc 1, 411). One cannot follow a bottom-up approach because there is no single unified history of the universe, instead “one should trace the histories from the top down, backward from the present time” (GD: Loc 1,414).

He comes to an idealist solution that in the Feynman method we discover  “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” (GD: Loc 1,418). He presents his case stating as example that in one universe the moon might be made of cheese, but sense we have observed that the moon is not made of cheese then we can eliminate histories of universes that produce moons made out of cheese from contributing to the present state of our universe, though they might contribute to the others. He emphasizes that this might sound like science fiction, but it is not. (GD: Loc 1,422).

One key point to a top-down approach is that the laws of the universe depend on the history of the universe, but with different histories comes different laws for each separate history. The thing to emphasize again is that for us we are not concerned with any of the histories that do not fit the criteria of our current universe, these can be eliminated and we can concentrate only on those laws of nature that have created the history of our particular universe. After a detailed description of current M-theory and its 10 dimensions of space and 1 of time he tells us that this top-down version of our account is testable. Because of this we are now at a point in the history of science that we “must alter our conception of goals and of what makes a physical theory acceptable. It appears that the fundamental numbers, and even the form, of the apparent laws of nature are not demanded by logic or physical principle. The parameters are free to take on many values and the laws to take on any form that leads to a self-consistent mathematical theory, and they do take on different values and different forms in different universes. (GD: Loc 1,712)

Then he makes a point that might make many speculative philosophy, stating, “That may not satisfy our human desire to be special or to discover a neat package to contain all the laws of the universe, but it does seem to be the way of nature” (GD: Loc 1,717). Ultimately he tells us that the only candidate that can describe a complete theory of the universe that is both consistent and can predict finite results for quantities that we can measure is that of M-theory. (GD: Loc 1,825). He goes on to say that if the universe is finite “and this has yet to be proved – it will be a model of the universe, because there is no other consistent model. … M-theory is the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find. The fact that we human beings – who are mere collections of fundamental particles of nature – have been able to come this close to understanding the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph. But perhaps the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see. If the theory is confirmed by observation, it will be the successful conclusion of a search going back more than 3,000 years. We will have the grand design” (GD: Loc 1,829).

And, yet, is this the whole story? Is not the work being done within the speculative realist camp a path toward bringing philosophy back into the scientific world, not as its handmaid but as the very force of thought that will help science understand the very principles it will need to decode the underlying mathematics and scientific principles without centering science on the very thing that has caused this search to begin with: that is, the human itself? His idealism does not provide a solution, but brings us back to some of the most perplexing issues facing philosophy in our current mode rooted as it is in an correlationist framework that puts the soverign human at the center not only of creation but seemingly, according to Hawking, at the periphery as well: as the observing, measuring creature who created histories of the universe in the first place.  And, this is a correlationist absurdity: the ultimate relation seeking a mathematical vision that traces its lineage into the very darkness of origins…

Even Paul Davies notes, the multiverse, which underpins Hawking’s argument, has its own problems:

The multiverse comes with a lot of baggage, such as an overarching space and time to host all those bangs, a universe-generating mechanism to trigger them, physical fields to populate the universes with material stuff, and a selection of forces to make things happen. Cosmologists embrace these features by envisaging sweeping “meta-laws” that pervade the multiverse and spawn specific bylaws on a universe-by-universe basis. The meta-laws themselves remain unexplained – eternal, immutable transcendent entities that just happen to exist and must simply be accepted as given. In that respect the meta-laws have a similar status to an unexplained transcendent god.

Doesn’t this put us back at square one? As Mary Daly over on Notice the Universe states it: “In one way, this is like the old joke in which a scientist challenges God to a creation-of-life competition and then, like God, picks up some dirt to start his work. “No, no,” says God. “Go get your own dirt.” Even supposing that Hawking is correct and that gravity and quantum physics suffice, that’s a pretty large “given.” It doesn’t seem like much because it’s invisible and immaterial, but that doesn’t actually make it a given. She continues, saying,

“It seems as if the physicists have started saying that the math is the physics. But math is only a pattern; it is not a reality. Even such a simple mathematical entity as “two” is not real. There is no “two” in the world. There are two apples, two waves, two stars, two electrons, but no “two.”  Believing that the patterns are “real” and the physical things just odd shadows of those patterns has a name in philosophy: idealism.  Reducing the study of physical reality to mathematics is a philosophical decision, not a scientific one; it is philosophical idealism.” ( Grand Design 11.16.2010)

I love it when scientists become philosophers, they presume to know even the mind of ____ … well you can fill in that blank!

1. The Grand Design by Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow ( 2010 Bantam Books)
2. Sum Over Histories by Greg Molyneux (March 2, 2008)
* Again using kindle for this book, using location positions rather the complexity of the non-serviceable internet location page finder.

1 thought on “Stephen Hawking: Science vs. Philosophy?

  1. The ideal description of the cosmos may well be as grand as Hawking says, but the stuff that follows it is much more mundane. People have the advantage of intelligently choosing how to calculate. Stuff cannot make this choice, but it has the advantages of an enormous level of parallelism and an enormously fast processing rate. However, it still falls woefully short of the demands placed on it by the ideal, and it resorts to shortcuts. People have stumbled upon these shortcuts by trying things until they work, but have failed to realize that they were discovering natural versions of them as actual performances, rather than just successful metaphors.

    Or, in the case of people like Stephen Hawking, do they perhaps suspect as much and feel threatened?


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