Monday, December 06, 2010

Is philosophy really dead? Ed Feser responds to Stephen Hawking

I have always wondered what it be like if some fisherman, gloating over his catch, were to be standing next to the giant great white shark he had just landed, and, while cameras were flashing, the thing just turned and swallowed him in one bite and then flopped back into the water. This is sort of what has happened to Stephen Hawking and and Leonard Mlodinow, whose book The Grand Design, declares that philosophy has become a casualty of modern physics, and that, because of this, we know God did not create the world (much less exist).

But reviewers on both sides of the philosophy/science divide have found much wanting in The Grand Design, perhaps because, as the reviewer for the Economist put it, after summarily declaring philosophy dead, they then go on to acknowledge its significant contribution to the discussion of laws of nature, and then make an attempt to engage in it for a good part of the book. "It soon becomes evident," says the reviewer, "that Professor Hawking and Mr. Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles."

The scientists who have reviewed the book seem to largely think that what Hawking and Mlodinow have to say about physics is not particularly new, and anyway is not as widely accepted as they seem to suggest. The philosophers likewise have not been impressed, pointing out that, despite their dismissal of philosophy, the two scientists don't seem to even understand what they are condemning, and demonstrate their ignorance of what they purport to have rendered irrelevant by their own sloppy and confused attempts to treat philosophical issues.

And by the way, why is it that when someone makes bold public statements about science, they are asked for their credentials, but any random person off the street is allowed to make philosophical proclamations unmolested?

In fact, a cursory review of the reviews of the book reveals an interesting thing: the less qualified the reviewer is in either field (physics or philosophy), the more positive his review. I wonder what that suggests.

The philosopher Edward Feser points out that Stephen Hawking's assertion--in his new book, The Grand Design--that "philosophy is dead" is not true simply by virtue of Hawking trying to kill it by doing it badly:
The English philosopher C. D. Broad once noted that “the nonsense written by philosophers on scientific matters is exceeded only by the nonsense written by scientists on philosophy.” You might think there could be no better illustration of Broad’s dictum than Richard Dawkins’s unhappy forays into the philosophy of religion. If so, you should take a look at the latest volume from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.

To be sure, the bulk of The Grand Design is devoted to a fairly lucid exposition of the central theories of modern physics. Had Hawking and Mlodinow stuck to science, there would have been little to object to. (Though also little reason to take notice. Did we really need yet another popular account of relativity, quantum mechanics, and string theory?) But they have grander ambitions: a new philosophy of science, in the service of a new theory of the origins of the universe, one that will forever put paid to the claims of natural theology. “Philosophy is dead,” Hawking and Mlodinow assure us, for science can now do what philosophers have tried to do, only better. Unfortunately, their attempt at one-upmanship proves only that Cicero’s famous quip about philosophers may have been misdirected; for The Grand Design demonstrates conclusively that there is nothing so absurd but some scientist has said it

Before nemesis comes hubris, and in the case of Hawking and Mlodinow, that means a basic failure to grasp the philosophical ideas they airily dismiss. Like the village atheist whose knowledge of theology derives from what he saw last Sunday on The Jimmy Swaggart Telecast, our authors assume that when philosophers have argued for God as cause of the world, what they mean is that the universe had a beginning, that God caused that beginning, and that to rebut their position it suffices to ask “What caused God?” But from Aristotle to Aquinas to Leibniz to the present day, most versions of the First Cause argument have not supposed that the universe had a beginning in time, and none of them is open to so simple a refutation. Their claim is rather that even if the universe were infinitely old, it is still the sort of thing that might in principle not have existed at all. That it does exist therefore requires explanation, and this explanation cannot lie in some other thing that might in principle have failed to exist, since that would just raise the same problem again. Accordingly, the explanation can be found only in something that could not have failed to exist even in principle — something that not only does not have a cause, but couldn’t have had one, precisely because (unlike the universe) it couldn’t in theory have failed to exist in the first place. In short, any contingent reality, like the universe, must depend upon a necessary being, and this necessary being is what defenders of the First Cause argument mean by “God” ...
You can read the rest in National Review.

23 comments:

Singring said...

'Their claim is rather that even if the universe were infinitely old, it is still the sort of thing that might in principle not have existed at all. That it does exist therefore requires explanation, and this explanation cannot lie in some other thing that might in principle have failed to exist, since that would just raise the same problem again. Accordingly, the explanation can be found only in something that could not have failed to exist even in principle — something that not only does not have a cause, but couldn’t have had one, precisely because (unlike the universe) it couldn’t in theory have failed to exist in the first place. In short, any contingent reality, like the universe, must depend upon a necessary being, and this necessary being is what defenders of the First Cause argument mean by “God”'

Oh wonderful. Another philosopher who tells us that the universe is 'contingent', but that God is not.

How does he know?

Unfortunately he doesn't tell us. I just hope his argument is better than Martin's famous 'it's self-evident!.'.

What Feser seems unable to grasp is that Hawking's argument amounts to saying that the universe is not contingent in the sense he would like it to be - it originates from a quantum field that is eternal. It originates from nothing - self-caused, arising spontaneously.

I quote:

'Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. 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.'

Now, unfortunately for Feser, Hawking have a vast body of observational and experimental evidence at their disposal to support their claim (yes, M-Theory is still quite contentious, but it has some theoretical support derived from empirical evidence none the less). What does Feser have?

Let's see...

...oh, right - he doesn't have any evidence!

But of course Feser is not interested in giving an accurate representation of Hawking's position or anyone esle's for that matter, nor does he need any of that annoying evidence - not surprising as he's writing for the National Review.

Martin Cothran said...

What's your evidence for M-Theory?

Singring said...

'What's your evidence for M-Theory?'

So basically you are admitting that you have no evidence for the contingent state of the universe?

Excellent. I can see we are making progress.

As to your question, may I quote my own post:

'(yes, M-Theory is still quite contentious, but it has some theoretical support derived from empirical evidence none the less).'

M-Theory currently is only a theoretical derivation of string theory, which itself is derived from quantum theory.
Now, as you will know, quantum theory is one of the most tested and most reliable Theories in Physics. It has been shown to be extremely accurate in its predictions. However, not all of the aspects of quantum theory are hewn in stone and some vital elements of it have not been verified experimentally yet (for example the elusive Higgs boson).

From what I understand, string theory works very well at solving a great deal of questions arising from quantum theory, but none of these solutions has been verified experimentally yet. Therefore, while it has potentially great explanatory power, it is not considered a viable theory of physics yet (in fact it is losing ground). M-Theory is a derivation of string theory and is therefore even more contentious and not verified experimentally.

So basically M-Theory is based on third-hand evidence. Not very good at all, I agree - but better than saying its 'self-evident'.

So this is what we are left with:

1.) M-Theory predicts a self-caused, non-contingent universe arising from an uncaused cosmos.

2.) M-Theory has evidential support, even if it is twice removed.

3.) If we go by the evidence, M-Theory wins (as there is no evidence for a contingent universe).

4.) If we don't go by the evidence and dismiss M-Theory, the best we can say is 'we really don't know'. We cannot simply blurt out the first hypothesis that happens to support our religious or philosophical dogma and claim it to be true because its 'self-evident'.

Martin Cothran said...

That's a fine post, but unfortunately it doesn't mention a single piece of evidence.

Singring said...

'That's a fine post, but unfortunately it doesn't mention a single piece of evidence.'

Evidence for Quantum Theory:

- Superconduction (Phys. Today 58(11), 42 (2005))

- Casimir Effect (Nuclear Physics B
Volume 190, Issue 1, 6 July 1981, Pages 1-44 )

- Observer Effect (Nature (Vol. 391, pp. 871-874))

- Double-Slit interference (Phys. Rev. Lett. 75, 1252–1255 (1995))

- Microwave background (Phys. Rev. D 50, 7154–7172 (1994))

Do you need more? There are literally hundreds of experimental publications on these quantum effects.

As stated, M-Theory is mathematicaly derived from quantum theory and thus is supported by this evidence, if not directly. M-Theory may be utterly wrong - but it most certainly is better supported by evidence that a 'contingent' universe (so far, the best you have fielded for that is the priceless 'its self-evident'!).

Thomas said...

I believe the question was whether there is evidence for m-theory, not quantum theory. Just because quantum theory is valid does not mean string theory or m-theory is.

Singring said...

'I believe the question was whether there is evidence for m-theory, not quantum theory. Just because quantum theory is valid does not mean string theory or m-theory is.'

When did I claim that?

I stated quite clearly:

'From what I understand, string theory works very well at solving a great deal of questions arising from quantum theory, but none of these solutions has been verified experimentally yet. Therefore, while it has potentially great explanatory power, it is not considered a viable theory of physics yet (in fact it is losing ground). M-Theory is a derivation of string theory and is therefore even more contentious and not verified experimentally.'

So I freely admit that M-Theory is contentious, has no direct evidential support, but it does have indirect evidential support (it is a mathematical derivation from empirical evidence, but its predictions cannot be experimentally verified).

Ironically, Martin should therefore give M-Theory even more credence than I do - after all it has been him who has constantly been insisting that logically derived conclusions are rational. Mathematics is an extension of logic. Therefore, he should be quite certain that M-Theory is true, whereas I am not (I would need more experimental verification).

Thomas said...

You responded to a request for evidence of m-theory with quantum theory. Evidence of quantum theory was irrelevant.

So are you admitting that there is no falsifiable evidence for m-theory?

Singring said...

'Evidence of quantum theory was irrelevant.'

Much to the contrary. M-Theory is based on string theory which in turn is intended to explain quantum theory. This works quite well on all accounts - so evidence for the accuracy os quantum theory does indeed impinge upon the validity of M-Theory.

'So are you admitting that there is no falsifiable evidence for m-theory?'

Direct evidence? Of course.

But at least I have indirect evidence. As I explained above, even if we reject M Theory, all that leaves us with is a big fat 'we don't know'.

Unless, that is, you have evidence for a contingent universe?

And where is that exactly?

Singring said...

Just to make this clear (and my above posts shoudl reflect this):

I don't accept string theory. I don't accept M-Theory. However, both of these theories are supported at least to some degree by indirect evidence.

On the one hand, Feser rejects M-Theory because of its lack of evidential support. On the other hand, Feser does not mention one little nugget of evidence or even coherent argument for the contingency of the universe.

I sympathize with the man, though. Its so easy to forget what one just wrote one paragraph earlier - especially if you're writing for the National Review.

Thomas said...

Do you understand what contingency means when used in a philosophical context?

Singring said...

'Do you understand what contingency means when used in a philosophical context?'

As I understand it, X is contingent if there is a possible world in which X does not exist.

So - are you now going to tell us how you know that the universe might possibly not have existed?

Thomas said...

The "possible worlds" nonsense comes much after Aquinas, so that's not the sense in which he would have used the term.

I think a brief (perhaps too brief) definition of contingency could be formulated this way:

X is necessary if it, by definition, would not depend on the possibility of something else were X to exist concretely, either for X's own concrete existence or the particular character thereof.

X is contingent if it is not necessary.

Singring said...

Alright then. How would you then go about arguing that the universe is not necessary?

Thomas said...

The easiest way would be to start from things within the universe. You are the biologist: how many things would exist on the planet would exist if our sun was not possible (i.e., if it had never existed)?

Singring said...

'You are the biologist: how many things would exist on the planet would exist if our sun was not possible (i.e., if it had never existed)?'

Assuming there was no other nearby source of radiation or strong gravitational kneading? Virtually everything (rocks, some liquid gases, some frozen gases etc.). No life, though, if that's what you mean (at least as far as we're able to tell at the moment).

Thomas said...

And what would be left if the strong nuclear force were not possible?

Singring said...

'And what would be left if the strong nuclear force were not possible?'

Were not 'possible'? That's a weird way to put it.

I'll simply have to extrapolate that if the strong nuclear force were 'not possible' it would follow that it would not exist.

If my knowledge of nuclear physics does not let me down I would think there would be a lot of free particles - electrons, neutrons, protons - floating around the universe, possibly in some randomized soup, though I can't be sure about that.

Be careful, Thomas - I can already spot one logical fallacy and one false premise lurking. I hope those won't come into play.

Singring said...

I sense that Thomas' argument has stalled badly once again. A shame. I was looking forward to finding out why the unviverse is contingent.

Thomas said...

Let's take stock of where we are right now. Without the strong nuclear force there aren't any atoms, since there's nothing to hold them together. Consequently, anything made up of atoms is contingent.

But we still have the more constitutive parts of matter (protons, quarks, etc.). How many of these would be left if spacial extension were not possible?

Singring said...

I am pleased to see there is more to the argument. Let's see:

'How many of these would be left if spacial extension were not possible?'

Again you are using very strange language here that reeks of a false premise ('spatial expansion not possible'?) but I'll just take it for what it is.

If spatial expansion were 'not possible', I extrapolate that the Big Bang would not have happened and the universe as we know it would not exist - but that instead it would 'still' be contained in an infinitely dense point - the singularityv (this is assuming that time would still be 'possible').

Thomas said...

So presumably if the big bang never occurred, because of the impossibility of spacial extension, the character of the universe would be different?

Singring said...

'So presumably if the big bang never occurred, because of the impossibility of spacial extension, the character of the universe would be different?'

There would most certainly be a qualitative difference, if that is what you mean by 'character'. And I would also say that matter as we know it would probably not exist in this universe.

I'm very curious to see your next step in the argument.