Saturday, November 6, 2010

Appraising Hawking's THE GRAND DESIGN--Introduction

With co-author, Leonard Mlodinow, Stephen Hawking begins THE GRAND DESIGN by telling the reader that "...philosophy is dead." ((Bantam, New York: 2010) p. 5.) Having just read the quote a few weeks ago when I had a chance to talk with a friend who teaches ethics through the philosophy department at the local university, I was treated with a little joke: "If philosophy is dead, then nothing is permitted!"

The grand claim, otiose though it certainly is when applied broadly to "philosophy," contains a core point that anyone who cares about the interface of science and theology will want to note. Hawking and Mlodinow employ an approach to quantum physics pioneered by Richard Feynman that obviates the version of the cosmological argument for the existence of God that most persons--who take an interest in the interface of science and theology--will be familiar with. William Lane Craig's simplified version of the cosmological argument summarizes the familiar line of argumentation well:

Everything that has a beginning has a cause. The universe has a beginning. Therefore, the universe has a cause. ("The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe.")

Paul Davies' words, below, provide insight into why someone as bright as Hawking could arrive at such an immoderate appraisal of their own position.

This so-called cosmological argument has in one form or another often been used as evidence for the existence of God. Over the centuries it has been refined and debated by many theologians and philosophers, sometimes with great subtlety. The enigma of the cosmic origin is probably the one area where the atheistic scientist will feel uncomfortable. (THE MIND OF GOD (Touchstone, New York: 1992) p. 39.)

Clearly Hawking and Mlodinow were focused on "the one area" where a philosopher doing natural theology could still make an "atheistic scientist...feel uncomfortable." If they are correct that the cosmological argument is based on a "naive view of reality...not compatible with modern physics," (p. 7) it follows that the "one area" where philosophy (and theology) still had something of note to bring to a conversation with atheistic scientists has been lost--that is, assuming the informed point of view makes the old, naive philosophical point of view obsolete. In that sense, philosophy would be "dead." They are not correct. But at least we have marked the origin of their overweening claim.

What I like and appreciate about THE GRAND DESIGN is that it wastes no time in getting to the point: An informed understanding of the new, quantum-based physics closes off any need to posit a reason for the origin of the cosmos that comes from outside the scientific model itself. That is their claim, and they stay on point from first to last, to their credit.

What I like and appreciate least about the book is that its reliance on "model-dependent realism" as the criterion of meaningfulness--pathetically--falsifies itself every time a more encompassing model is devised. In Thomas Kuhn's words,

In the sciences...if perceptual switches accompany paradigm changes, we may not expect scientists to attest to these changes directly. Looking at the moon, the convert to Copernicanism does not say, "I used to see a planet, but now I see a satellite." That locution would imply a sense in which the Ptolemaic system had once been correct. (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (The University of Chicago Press: 1979) p. 114-5.)

Of course, looking backward, it is not a problem that better new paradigms can falsify and obviate older inferior ones. So long as I am in possession of a never-to-be outstripped point of view, I can without fear of contradiction identify reality itself with my model of it. But this view is inconsistent with what a study of the history of science tells us about science itself. It used to be the black mark against positivism--sometimes called "scientism"--that it was a philosophical stance toward science that placed a philosophical stance toward science out of bounds (i.e., that science marked the boundary of the meaningful). This new scientism is inconsistent with the history of science. It places the supposed boundary of meaningful inquiry at the boundary of today's scientific models. One would hope for better from the likes of Hawking.

Nevertheless, the core point of the book is not affected by this almost incredibly ironic philosophical naivete, which will prove the book's downfall. That point, again, is that an informed understanding of the new, quantum-based physics closes off any need to posit a reason for the origin of the cosmos that comes from outside the scientific model itself.

So it is important to note the philosophical naivete employed in the book, because it exposes the importance of examining the (rash) claims that Hawking and Mlodinow make in dismissing philosophical arguments, to their immediate discredit (and ultimate demise). But an account of the new quantum-based physics' challenge to traditional views of the relationship of natural theology to science is both interesting and important, and I want to voice my appreciation for the clear challenge THE GRAND DESIGN poses.

I hope to do a creditable job of depicting the core argument found in THE GRAND DESIGN in coming posts. Most of us can learn much from the Hawking/Mlodinow narrative--I have, at least. And in saying so I intend to express my trust in their depiction of the new quantum-based physics and how the model of the cosmos it provides affects an analysis of the cosmological argument--that supposed last stand for the philosophical theologian.

Next week we will look at an overview of the Hawking/Mlodinow argument.

[Note: I will not be enabling comments. However, I will pose any substantive question or challenge that I get via email:]

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