It made me choke on my breakfast this morning to read the declaration from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that the subject I’ve taught for the last two years, and which I intend to study this coming year, is dead:
“[On questions concerning the nature of the universe]: Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” (‘The Grand Design’, 2010)
I hope that tomorrow I don’t discover that psychology has fallen too, or that mathematics is suffering from an upset stomach.
But lightheartedness aside, it’s astonishing to see Hawking promote himself to Coroner of the Disciplines in such a clumsy manner. Presumably he is aware that he is echoing Nietzsche’s classic “God is dead”; in fact he should have just literally repeated this line, since this is more representative of the main thrust of this first extract of the book (all I have read). In this respect there’s very little new about his view – basically that God is not needed to explain the workings, or creation, of the physical world.
This is not new either to science or philosophy. Centuries ago, Napoleon famously challenged Laplace on his proposed scientific theory of the universe on the basis that it made no mention of God, and Laplace replied: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” As far as I’m aware, most working scientists don’t need to – and in practice just don’t – take a ‘God hypothesis’ in their explanations of phenomena. The same goes in philosophy, and a large proportion of modern philosophers really do try to keep apace with different branches of modern science, analysing their main assumptions and consequences as they go.
It’s not really clear that Hawking has beef with any part of philosophy except for one branch: metaphysics – studying the fundamental nature of reality. I certainly can’t see his argument against ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science (which he’s surely getting involved in here) etc etc, so I don’t know why he’s taken a sledgehammer to the whole discipline. And, again, this criticism of metaphysics is nothing new. Hume was very happy to commit most of metaphysics “to the flames”. I personally think Hume was far more sensible in acknowledging the limitations of our understanding of these matters, rather than going for grand proclamations on what is the case.
Hawking’s faith in Scientism – the view that Science has the answer to every real question – and his hopes for M-theory conjure up a strange view of the near future. Oh yeah, it’ll be fine for the elite few who fully understand fundamental physics (I suspect these ‘elite few’ are going to only ever be purely theoretical themselves), but what about everybody else? All the people who think about the big questions from time to time, who want to understand their place in this world, who search for their concepts to be clarified, who are unsure about how to live their lives, and who may perhaps be required to make decisions on matters of life or death? Yes, science will help us in extraordinary ways, but it won’t do it all by itself.