From “Grand Design” to “On Being”

In recent months Stephen Hawking has been “fair game” for theologians, philosophers of religion and even some philosophers of science. Basically because of pre-publication publicity around his book (with co-author Leonard MlodinowThe Grand Design . I suggested this attention will soon switch to Peter Atkins when his new book On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existencebecomes available over the next few months (see On being philosophical about science). Like The Grand Design, Atkins’ book will be unpalatable to theologians and “philosophers of religion. It may also brush some philosophers up the wrong way.

To clear the decks, as it were, for the coming theological onslaught I am responding here to some of the criticisms made of The Grand Design, and Stephen Hawking. Actually, I am sure some of the future flack over Atkins’ book will concentrate on similar issues.

Overall, I think The Grand Design is a very readable book providing a brief overview of current ideas about the origin of the unvierse. It also gives a history of science and the philosophy of science. Don’t expect any details (it’s only 180 pages long) but it is certainly thought provoking. And, yeah, what an inappropriate title – presumably chosen for publicity reasons.

But what about the criticisms of the book? These are mainly around a few issues. Often really just around quotes from the book used for publicity purposes. Inevitably such criticisms lack context. Here are my comments on them:

An unnecessary being

Right from the start theologians and philosophers of religion were upset by the book’s statement of the obvious. That it’s not necessary to invoke gods to explain reality. Specifically Hawking and Mlodinow say:

“Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing in the manner described in Chapter 6. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going”

This passage was highlighted in pre-publication publicity and was roundly condemned by Archbishops, Rabbis, Imams, philosophers of religion and Christian apologist bloggers. Of course they were not going to worry about why the authors wrote this. They were not going to actually read the book. They were just going to be offended by the very idea that science doesn’t require their god.

Apart from vaguely noting that this was only a statement of the obvious, and probably therefore not of any interest, scientific and non-religious philosophers ignored the “offence” in their comments on the book. After all, the scientific attitude was expressed as far back as 1878 by George Romanes, a biologist and lapsed catholic. He wrote  “There can no longer be any doubt that the existence of God is wholly unnecessary to explain any of the phenomena of the universe.”

Is philosophy dead?

Later, new offence was found in a provocative comment on philosophy. This was on the first page of the book and had not been given much pre-publication publicity suggesting that this time critics may have actually opened the book. (Although many seem to have only used google to search for the specific phrase. Rather like the judgmental old biddy who is offended by neighbours who are scantily dressed and produces the evidence by standing on a stool, at the highest window in her house, and waiting for her neighbours to prepare for bed).

The book’s first paragraph poses questions like:

“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?”

And the second paragraph starts:

“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.”

That first sentence upset even some philosophers of science. Personally, I think they were responding purely out of professional sensitivity. A pity. I would have liked to see a reasoned discussion of the relationship between philosophy and science.

The role and significance of philosophy in discovery and understanding reality has changed over the years. And the differentiation between empirical science and abstract philosophy was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution. Not all philosophers seem prepared to accept this.

Alan Chalmers is a philosopher of science who gives a more objective assessment. In his book The Scientist’s Atom and the Philosopher’s Stone: How Science Succeeded and Philosophy Failed to Gain Knowledge of Atoms he says”

“Scientific knowledge has a validity that has no analogue in philosophy.”


“Because of the stringent way in which scientific knowledge is required to pass experimental tests, it is the best kind of knowledge we have. As far as providing knowledge of the deep structure of the world is concerned, science has progressed in a dramatic way and proved itself capable of answering questions that were once supposed to be the province of philosophy. This does not render philosophy redundant. Many areas of philosophy, such as moral philosophy or philosophical logic, do not contest ground claimed by science in a way that some traditional metaphysics does.”

(I reviewed this book in From stones to atoms).

One has only to think of discoveries made about the nature of matter and the universe over the last few hundred years to recognise that philosophy no longer plays the role it may have before Galileo.

Philosophy not a uniform subject

I am not saying there is no place for philosophy. Obviously their is – not just the preeminent arbitrating place some of its proponents claim. Science and philosophy can co-operate fruitfully in the modern world. We are seeing this in fields like cognitive science and the study of consciousness. A respectful attitude between the disciplines will assist such fruitful cooperation.

But, we must recognise that philosophy today is not a uniform subject. There are different schools. That is why it is a little dishonest of the “philosophers of religion” and theologians to hide behind the whole subject. To take any criticism of their own brand of “philosophy” as a criticism of the whole subject. Obviously it isn’t.

There are philosophers of science who do take on board modern discoveries and adjust their philosophical ideas as a result. I prefer to call their area “scientific philosophy” – recognising that there are some “philosophers of science” who pedal ideas that are not really scientific. For example, creationists and intelligent design proponents tout the support they get from  a “philosopher of science” Milton Bradley, and a “sociologist of science” Stephen Fuller. They describe Stephen Meyer Director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture as a “philosopher of science.”

This does underline the fact that there are philosophers and “philosophers.” Different trends within philosophy. And not all “philosophers of science” are at all well disposed to science. Not all “philosophers of science” can be relied on the accurately portray scientific epistemology.

Backward looking philosophy

Personally I would develop this theme of Hawking and Mlodinow’s book further to describe these differences. To highlight that there are some philosophers who have moved with the scientific revolution and taken on board the lessons of modern scientific epistemology. But there are also philosophers who, for ideological reasons,  refuse to do this. Who are trapped in the past – even advocate a return to the past.

For example the conservative “philosopher of religion,” Edward Feser, who has recently been haranguing modern science (his review of The Grand Design was tilted “Mad Scientists”). In an article where he confuses science with “scientism” and badly caricatures it he accuses contemporary philosophy of “scientism.” His message is that we should “return to the philosophical wisdom of the ancients and medievals” and escape“the decadent philosophical systems of the moderns.” (see Blinded by Scientism).

So while the book may have been a little provocative in describing philosophy as dead, the comment certainly does apply to some philosophers. Particularly those religious philosophers who are busy attacking the book. Presumably their religious beliefs determine their philosophical outlook.

In fact, this seems to be the common theme from the more strident critics of the book. Their offense is sourced in their own religious beliefs.. And their “philosophical” concerns are really religious concerns. Issues  like their god as a “necessary being,” a “First Cause,” and their non-acceptance of a scientific philosophy.

So I now look forward to Peter Atkins new book On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence

See also:
Hawking’s grand design – lessons for apologists?
An unnecessary being?
The Grand Design – neither God nor 42
On being philosophical about science
The Grand Accident

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4 responses to “From “Grand Design” to “On Being”

  1. Perhaps this will color me extremely ignorant – but I had always thought that ‘science’ was a daughter-clade within the ‘philosophy’ tree.

    I’ve always been a teensy bit confused when scientists lash out at philosophers or when philosophers lash out at scientists. A certain amount of that is surely inevitable when you get a collection of belligerent intellectuals in the same room… But even so, it seems to go a bit far.


  2. Just to note that the interesting discussions on philosophy vs science have been restricted to only one particular philosophical tradition of the humankind. If Mr. Edward Feser’s would venture further along a flat planet to “return to the philosophical wisdom of the ancients and medievals,” he’d be shocked to find atheistic wisdoms everywhere if he’d include the Daoist wisdom of Laozhi and Zhuangzhi, Buddhism (which, being without god, institution and power politics, is not a religion in the “Western” sense), or the mundane teachings of Confucius. But of course, he wouldn’t.

    I sometimes wonder why so many enlightened people still bother to debate with Creationists in the year 2011. I suppose nominal rationality would otherwise be surrendered to a few fanatics in a democracy? I also suppose many feel the civil need to respect others’ “beliefs”; and “leaving them alone to their beliefs” is apparently not good enough? But where do we draw a reasonable and respectful line between open-minded debates and wasting time on futile dialogues with lunatics? It is evidently more complicated and delicate than I imagined.


  3. Daniel, professionals lashing out at each other isn’t new. They are human after all.

    Taking your biology metaphor a bit further – I like AC Grayling’s description of religion and science. They have a common ancestor – ignorance.

    Of course we see such speciation occurring within philosophy and it was necessary for science to break away from the old philosophy and religion for it to make progress.

    That’s not to say there is no longer any connection. After all, when we do science we are also doing philosophy in the form of epistemology. Only its not the old philosophy.


  4. Udaybhanu Chitrakar doesn’t exist.
    It’s just a spambot roboposting the same cut-and-paste job.
    I don’t like spam.

    Monty Python – Spam


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