Tag Archives: Stephen Hawking

The science philosophy “conflict”

I don’t know if it is physics envy or philosophy envy but scientists and philosophers do seem to snipe at each other a bit. Usually it is a philosopher criticising scientists, but often for dismissive comments about philosophy the scientist has made.

A recent example was the comment inThe Grand Design by Stephen W. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. Here’s what they said in the first two paragraphs of the book:

“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? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.
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.” (My emphasis here and following quotes).

Well, that caused a few negative reviews! And the highlighted text has been used as evidence for the charge of “scientism” by more than one commenter.

Philosophy a useless enterprise?

The philosopher Massimo Pigliucci was also critical of some scientists in his recent book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk“.

“Philosophy, by converse, is, according to some physicists (for example Steven Weinberg, in his Dreams of a Final Theory), a useless, perhaps even dangerous enterprise because it can slow scientific progress. . . . .Weinberg argues that not only is philosophy not useful to science, but in some instances it can be positively harmful.

Pigluicci calls the “simplistic academic posturing” and writes:

“Attitudes such as Weinberg’s are largely the result of intellectual arrogance. I am convinced that such arrogance hurts science, and it certainly doesn’t help bridge what C. P. Snow famously referred to as the divide between “the two cultures.””

So these “conflicts” can become rather harsh!

Personally, I think Pigliuicci’s characterisation is unfair. Having just read Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature I think Weinberg actually largely justifies his comments – and Pigliucci is too dismissive of them.

Valid criticisms?

“The value today of philosophy to physics seems to me to be something like the value of early nation-states to their peoples. It is only a small exaggeration to say that, until the introduction of the post office, the chief service of nation-states was to protect their peoples from other nation-states. The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.
I do not want to draw the lesson here that physics is best done without preconceptions. At any one moment there are so many things that might be done, so many accepted principles that might be challenged, that without some guidance from our preconceptions one could do nothing at all. It is just that philosophical principles have not generally provided us with the right preconceptions. In our hunt for the final theory, physicists are more like hounds than hawks; we have become good at sniffing around on the ground for traces of the beauty we expect in the laws of nature, but we do not seem to be able to see the path to the truth from the heights of philosophy.
Physicists do of course carry around with them a working philosophy. For most of us, it is a rough-and-ready realism, a belief in the objective reality of the ingredients of our scientific theories. But this has been learned through the experience of scientific research and rarely from the teachings of philosophers.
This is not to deny all value to philosophy, much of which has nothing to do with science. I do not even mean to deny all value to the philosophy of science, which at its best seems to me a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science. But we should not expect it to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or about what they are likely to find.
This is not merely a matter of the scientist’s intellectual laziness. It is agonizing to have to interrupt one’s work to learn a new discipline, but scientists do it when we have to. At various times I have managed to take time off from what I was doing to learn all sorts of things I needed to know, from differential topology to Microsoft DOS. It is just that a knowledge of philosophy does not seem to be of use to physicists—always with the exception that the work of some philosophers helps us to avoid the errors of other philosophers.

I think many scientists may agree with Weinberg’s comments here -and Pigliucchi seems to actually acknowledge that with his comment “philosophy has simply never had, in recent memory anyway, much of a sway with scientists.”

More than one “philosophy”

I can really identify with Weinberg’s assertion: The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion—by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers.

I have often been told during debates that I am being “scientistic” because I have asserted that many “big” questions, such as consciousness, the nature of human morality, the origins of the universe and the question of existence of gods are scientific questions. Critics have countered with the assertion that they are philosophical questions and that scientists should keep away from them. That it is OK for cosmologists to investigate the development of the universe back to a few seconds – but they should not be investigating, hypothesising or even speculating on the actual formation of the universe. That’s a job for philosophers!

I know not all philosophers will agree with such a naive statement. But that fact illustrates an important point. There is not one “philosophy.” There are different schools of philosophy and I believe my critics have been presenting the views of one school, but claiming those views are those of philosophy in general. This deception actually seems to be quite common for philosophers of religion who will pretend their claims are common to philosophy in general. Meanwhile surveys actually show that most philosophers are not theistic believers.

Different perspectives inevitable

Perhaps the philosopher-scientist “conflict” is inevitable because each party comes from a different perspective. Perhaps clarifying his perspective Weinberg writes:

“It may seem to the reader (especially if the reader is a professional philosopher) that a scientist who is as out of tune with the philosophy of science as I am should tiptoe gracefully past the subject and leave it to experts. I know how philosophers feel about attempts by scientists at amateur philosophy. But I do not aim here to play the role of a philosopher, but rather that of a specimen, an unregenerate working scientist who finds no help in professional philosophy. I am not alone in this; I know of no one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the postwar period whose research has been significantly helped by the work of philosophers.”

That has also been my experience. Yes I know critics will lament this and assert that scientists should be educated in philosophy (which philosophy?). My reply is that scientific researchers learn a working philosophy on the job. An intuitive understanding of scientific process and method which many professional philosophers seem to be ignorant of.

Pigliucci tends to dismiss Weinberg’s criticism of the role that philosophy played in resisting the move away from mechanical tradition in science, the acceptance of atomism, relativity and quantum physics.  And perhaps such influences are inevitable and may even be balanced by the positive influence of other, more radical, philosophical ideas.

The dangers of “philosophy”

But history has also seen how the political and state endorsement of philosophical position can also seriously retard scientific advance. Weinberg writes of the situation in the USSR:

“for a while dialectical materialism stood in the way of the acceptance of general relativity in the Soviet Union. As late as 1961 the distinguished Russian physicist Vladimir Fock felt compelled to defend himself from the charge that he had strayed from philosophical orthodoxy. The preface to his treatise “The Theory of Space, Time, and Gravitation” contains the remarkable statement, “The philosophical side of our views on the theory of space, time and gravitation was formed under the influence of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, in particular, under the influence of Lenin’s materialism and empirical criticism.””

I remember feeling a similar concern when I saw the obligatory prominent references to Marxist philosophers in the Chinese 1970 paper describing the first synthesis of insulin. And there are many examples of physical repression, and murder, of scientists, justified by philosophical conventions in the USSR, China and Hitler’s Germany. No wonder scientists react strongly to even a hint of philosophers wishing to dictate acceptable scientific methodology or limit areas of research or permissible conclusions.

A current threat?

To some extent all this might seem like old history. At least not relevant in today’s modern developed pluralist and democratic societies. But look at the USA where evolutionary science and climate science are under daily attack. Sure, scientists keep their heads down and continue their work. To them it’s like water off a duck’s back. And it’s not as if the creationists and intelligent design people are saying anything, or indeed doing anything, which is relevant to the day-to-day work of scientific researchers.

But these science deniers do have political effects. The media cover’s their arguments. School boards can subvert the scientific curriculum. State Governors exert an influence. And education boards manipulate regulation to allow suppression or distortion of accepted science and introduction of religion into science classes.

Part of this war on science is carried out in the philosophy departments of universities and conservative think tanks. The Discovery Institute clearly advances an agenda of converting modern science into a “theistic science.” Academic philosophers write text books attacking modern “scientific materialism.” And, of course, philosophers of religion get behind such anti-science trends among philosophers.

I can easily imagine the political and cultural influence of these critics of science having an effect on future research funding and on the public acceptance of scientific findings. It’s already happening with climate science.

No – I am not laying this charge against good philosophers who make the occasional snipe across the philosophy/science border. Many of these often come out against such anti-science attacks.

I just wish there were more philosophers who would.

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Nothing is something

Lawrence Krauss’s most recent book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing was released last week. It’s one I have been looking forward to and I downloaded the eBook version this last weekend.

Some readers may have seen a video of one of Krauss’s lectures on this subject – these are what motivated my interest. For readers who have not seen one these lectures I have embedded one below.

I am keen to get into the book. With chapter titles like “Nothing is Something” and “Nothing is Unstable” it promises to be a good read. (I have placed the list of chapters at the bottom of this post*).

Krauss is not only an excellent lecturer he also writes very well. He has a lively style and is able to communicate complex ideas. Lawrence Krauss is one of the listed speakers art next April’s Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne (see A Celebration of Reason).

I wonder if he will pass through New Zealand as part of a book tour?

‘A Universe From Nothing’ by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009 .

Last year Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow were bombarded with a lot of criticism from religious apologists for their book The Grand Design. I think it helped bring the book to the attention of potential readers. So I hope these moral watchdogs are not asleep and will be just as energetic in their criticisms of Krauss’s book.

My first impression is that A Universe from Nothing actually has more detail than The Grand Design.

So here’s looking forward to some interesting debates.

*Contents of A Universe from Nothing

Chapter 1: A Cosmic Mystery Story: Beginnings
Chapter 2: A Cosmic Mystery Story: Weighing the Universe
Chapter 3: Light from the Beginning of Time
Chapter 4: Much Ado About Nothing
Chapter 5: The Runaway Universe
Chapter 6: The Free Lunch at the End of the Universe
Chapter 7: Our Miserable Future
Chapter 8: A Grand Accident?
Chapter 9: Nothing Is Something
Chapter 10: Nothing Is Unstable
Chapter 11: Brave New Worlds
Afterword by Richard Dawkins


Hawking’s grand design – lessons for apologists?

I managed to get my own copy of  The Grand Design (co-authored by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow) the other day. Talk about luck. I was on one of my rare visits to the big smoke and inquired at Borders. It had just come in that day and wasn’t yet on the shelves!


Victor Stenger


Obviously I won’t comment in depth until I have read the book. I get the impression that I may find the discussions of philosophy more interesting then the physics, though. And I guess it is the philosophical aspects of the book which have provoked the most criticism, or at least the theological criticism. (Mathematicians and physicists like Peter Woit, of course are making their criticisms – but hardly making the newspapers with them – see for example Hawking gives up).

However, I am aware the Victor Stenger is reviewing the book and look forward to his views. He has some standing in cosmology and philosophy, and his writing in these areas are excellent.

So far he has made only limited comments based on other reviews (see Hawking and the Multiverse). I feel he makes an important, point in his conclusion. It does seem obvious to me, but then again the extreme theological reaction to news of the book suggests it may not be to some others. Victor says:

So, at least according to the reviews, Hawking and Mlodinow haven’t said much that physicists and cosmologists haven’t already heard before. However, thanks to Hawking’s notoriety, at least more people will now have heard that science has plausible answers to how the universe came about naturally without the need for a creator. Hopefully this will include those theologians and apologists who continue to wrongfully insist that modern science has demonstrated a need for God.

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Not about Einstein

Book Review: Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit by Krista Tippett

Price: US$10.88; NZ$12.97
304 pages
Penguin (Non-Classics) (February 23, 2010)

The media reports of Stephen Hawking’s new book with co-author Leonard Mlodinow (The Grand Design) attracted hostile reaction from some theological quarters (see The Grand Design – neither God nor 42). This reminds me of similar treatment meted out to Albert Einstein in his time.

Einstein had many religious critics for an article of his on the philosophy of religion in 1940. An Episcopalian responded “to give up the doctrine of a personal God . . . .  shows the good Doctor, when it comes to the practicalities of life, is full of jellybeans”. He was accused of providing fuel for the fanatical antisemitism of religious bigots and told that he should “stick to his science” and stop delving into philosophy (sound familiar). And this from the founder of the Calvary tabernacle Association in Oklahoma City “Professor Einstein, every Christian in America will immediately reply to you, ‘Take your crazy, fallacious theory of evolution and go back to Germany where you came from.”

Perhaps some of today’s scientists who hesitate to respond to their theological critics could learn from Einstein’s reaction. While criticising atheist reaction he described his theological critics as “numerous dogs who are earning their food guarding ignorance and superstition for the benefit of those who profit from it.”

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An unnecessary being?

Have a look at this brief interview of Leonard Mlodinow – the co-author with Stephen Hawking of the just published book The Grand Design

The extreme media reaction to this book was based on the simple sentence:  “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” Apparently some theologians were so bent out of shape by the “audacity” of the claim they just had to attack a number of straw men, and assist the book up the best seller list in the process*. You would think they would be used to this by now. As far back as 1878 George Romanes, a biologist and lapsed catholic, 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.”

In this interview Mlodinow expands a little on the extract and helps bring some sense into the discussion.

YouTube – Leonard Mlodinow: God Is Unnecessary.

* One of the worst comments I read was by Mike Bara (see Hawking’s Latest Absurdity Spells the Death Knell for Scientific Materialism). He called Hawking “arrogant and ignorant”, a “self-appointed academic elite”, “deluded”, “a broken, ill and crippled man”, “narcissist” and a victim of “the Darwinian delusion”. He added, for good measure, that “science is an empty path bereft of meaning” and “the scientific materialists day is over, and Hawking, their champion, deserves not our wrath, but our pity.”

Move over Dawkins – we have another demon to stick pins in.

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The Grand Design – neither God nor 42

It seems that God, or more correctly disbelief in God, sells books. In recent years anyway. Perhaps since the religiously motivated terrorist attacks in New York nine years ago this week.

So one can hardly blame the publishers for jumping on to the advertising bandwagon with Stephen Hawking‘s latest book The Grand Design (with co-author Leonard Mlodinow).  And I am sure that is what has lead to headlines like Stephen Hawking: God NOT Needed For Creation, Stephen Hawking: God didn’t create universe, Hawking Says God Not Needed to Kick-Start Big Bang; World Freaks Out. Even Somebody’s Going To Hell! Stephen Hawking: “God Not Necessary For Universe To Exist”.

Inevitable advertising hype.

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Godless cosmology

big_bang_337975Many people try to keep science and religion separate. Even believers will compartmentalise their religious beliefs separately from their scientific knowledge. In fact, some theologians see attempts to justify religious beliefs with scientific evidence as a slippery slope. Father George Coyne, for example, warned that scientific knowledge is relative. Conclusions alter as more evidence produces better knowledge of reality. Therefore a theology which justifies itself in scientific terms lays itself open to being proven wrong (see “Scientism” in the eyes of the beholder). Specifically this warning has been made when religious leaders have tried to justify their beliefs using “big bang” cosmology (see Bad science, bad theology).

Mind you – religious apologists who get started on this slippery slope have a solution. Just ignore, or deny, new scientific knowledge. Victor Stenger describes an example of this in his contribution, Godless Cosmology, to the new book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

He refers to the claim made by some apologists like Dinesh D’Souza and William Lane Craig that “big bang” cosmology shows that the universe, including space and time, started as a singularity. That this must have had an external cause – and you can guess what (or who) they claim for the cause.

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Do whatever it takes…

It’s easy to present a very stilted, formulaic, outline of the scientific method. And both supporters and opponents of science do this.

However, in reality things are usually a lot more complicated and confused. Science is done by real, imperfect, people in a real, imperfect, world.


So, I really like this description of the scientific process given by Neil deGrasse Tyson during a recent panel discussion at the Origins Symposium held by the Arizona State University. (see Science and Society Panel Discussion with Hugh Downs, Claudia Dreifus, Ann Druyan, Lucy Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson in conversation with Roger Bingham).

Here is what Tyson said about the scientific approach:

“Do whatever it takes to not fool yourself when trying to understand the world around you.”


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