Hawking’s Grand Design

In Stephen Hawking’s latest book, “The Grand Design” (co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow), Hawking/Mlodinow make the very powerful, but distracting assertion that “Philosophy is dead” right at the offset. This has bemused some philosophers and assented some disagreement. But let me say that this is a charitable view for many philosophers.

Hawking makes the point that throughout history, humanity’s metaphysical curiosity was spend on various accounts, each increasingly more accurate. From astrological-focused accounts; where the lunar and solar movements, which were crucial to agrarian societies; took on a divine and explanatory locus to issues from divine providence to toenails. Philosopher-scientists have often taken an approach to answering these questions not necessarily with appeal to the cultural trend of superstition.

Hawking/Mlodinow give an incredibly charitable consideration to the presocratics, who deservedly have a claim to the development of scientific method. Aristotle, by contrast, is given a typically early-modern derision. I’m not sure if this is particularly fair. Aristotle is understood by the authors to be backward in how he preferred non-empirical speculation to compliment his investigations into nature. Reading Aristotle to modern readers’ is definately strange when it comes to his more ’empirical’ works, and some of his views by today’s perspective just seem outright weird. Perhaps this is an anachronistic understanding of Aristotle. Interestingly, Descartes’ was given a great amount of appraisal to the contribution of scientific method as well as his substantive contributions to the physical sciences.

Back to the original claim that ‘Philosophy is dead’; the main reason that Hawking/Mlodinow offer is that contemporary philosophy is tangential to the real questions of the universe, and has not caught up to the physics of today. Initially I just thought this claim was outright wrong, but really the target of who Hawking is addressing is uncertain. It is certainly true that certain philosophical movements that say they are concerned about the nature of science are simply speaking of abstractness for the sake of abstractness, and pontificate in that abhorrent French style of verbosity without the single slightest reference to what science actually is, as understood by science. Then there are often philosophers who address issues in metaphysics which are in some ways almost irrelevant to physics. Philosophers can speak of personal identity without serious appeal to psychology; or speak of the metaphysics of time without appeal to the fourth dimension of spacetime. Some research in philosophy take a prioristic approaches, and some highlight issues which while are insightful, do take place outside of experimental contexts. Are they worthwhile pursuits? I’d think so in some cases, at least for now.

Philosophy always would remain its own seperate discipline, as long as there are mysteries of the universe, and of the human condition. Philosophy should be understood in a renaissance way as a humanistic (or holistic) discipline that tries to cross the bounds of phenomena from humour to conceptual issues such as how to construct notions of necessity.

I’d like to consider why I really like Hawking’s writings, and that should perhaps highlight why the comment that ‘Philosophy is dead’ is simply misguided. Firstly, Hawking’s latest work has decidedly taken an atheistic view. I remember when I was still in Jesuit authority; the pastors talked of the compatibility between science and religion and cited Hawking’s seemingly agnostic-concession to having a wonder at the construction of the universe and the ‘order’ that appears within the universe. It’s perhaps for this kind of reason that Hawking wants to make himself a decidedly unambiguous atheist for misreadings of this sort, to be fair he was pretty vague about the God issue in ‘A Brief History of Time’.

Some things I like about Hawking’s writings are that physics is put into the context not only of its history, but also, the mathematics and technological implimentations. I can normally spot a bullshitter if they talk about Einstein without understanding Riemannian manifolds; or asking why I’m talking about the Maxwell equations in relation to relativity. If you don’t understand that theories emerge in a historical context, then you don’t understand the theory simpliciter. What I really like about this book as a popular science work is how it mentions some of the applications of these theories. For instance; did you know that creating the present GPS technologies presumes some of the mathematics of General Relativity (so now you can’t say it doesn’t have any real applicability, nor can you pose that misunderstood ‘it’s just a theory’ bullshit).

Hawking/Mlodinow states some good conditions of how our scientific knowledge gives us real insight, and thus, why its’ a good candidate for belief (until a better theory comes along). Einstein’s research into the photoelectric effect following the 19thC work on electricity has formed the foundation of technologies such as the television. Einstein’s General relativity thesis has also made some predictions that have come out to be true so far, now that experimental methods have improved.

Hawking’s advocation of M-theory is particularly interesting. Hawking considers that M-theory is a good candidate for what he called in his previous works the ‘Theory of Everything’. For someone who says that philosophy is dead; the ‘Theory of Everything’ sounds decidedly metaphysical does it not? Hawking believes that theoretical unification of disperate areas of physics and its mathematical modelling will create an account of the universe as well as all of its facets in terms of a grand picture constitutes the ‘Grand Theory’, or systematic understanding of reality.

Tell me how that is not a philosophical vision? Except for a good concession to empirical research (which is hardly giving up anything), Hawking’s notion of the ‘Theory of Everything’ has the following philosophical features which would not look out of place in literature in philosophy of science, or even in history of 18thC-20thC philosophy:

  1. Real reality is modelled/mathematical reality (this sounds like ‘Kant’s notion of ‘science proper’, or Vienna Circle philosophy)
  2. Theoretical unification is desirable – a theory that combines accounts is a more believable account (this sounds like how Lewis argued for possible world)
  3. Theoretical unification means parsimonious explanations: parsimonious explanations are good explanations (this is just good scientific method; but its also a good norm of philosophical method)
  4. Reality should be understood as a systematic unity. You could read this as Hawking simply replacing systematic philosophy with the system of science, or as Hawking holding a systematicity thesis.

For these reasons, as well as Hawking’s informative accessability and his humour. I maintain that The Grand Design is a particularly interesting and convincing account of a theory of everything. Don’t get distracted by ‘philosophy is dead’ as this is a fascinating book for so many reasons; not least to try to set the context of the state of the art in theoretical physics, in as much a lay account as possible.


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