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Philosophy isn't Dead Yet
Far from having replaced metaphysics,
science is in a mess and needs help. Einstein saw it coming.
Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, announced that
philosophy was "dead" because it had "not kept up with
modern developments in science, particularly physics".
He was not referring to ethics, political theory or
aesthetics. He meant
metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires
to the most general understanding of nature – of space
and time, the fundamental stuff of the world. If
philosophers really wanted to make progress, they should
abandon their armchairs and their subtle arguments, wise
up to maths and listen to the physicists.
has significant support among philosophers in the
English-speaking world. Bristol philosopher James
Ladyman, who argues that metaphysics should be
naturalised, and who describes the accusation of "
as "badge of honour", is by no means an isolated case.
But there could not be a worse time for
philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists.
Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to
reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics,
has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as
string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to
many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of
quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement
problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which
apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and
confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics
David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be
remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.
Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics
to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit
consciousness into the material world, usually by
identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed
dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting
for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to
be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the
overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same)
are not. In short, physics does not allow for the
strange fact that matter reveals itself to material
objects (such as physicists).
And then there is the mishandling of time. The
physicist Lee Smolin's recent book,
Time Reborn, links the crisis in physics with its
failure to acknowledge the fundamental reality of time.
Physics is predisposed to lose time because its
mathematical gaze freezes change. Tensed time, the
difference between a remembered or regretted past and an
anticipated or feared future, is particularly elusive.
This worried Einstein: in a famous conversation, he
mourned the fact that the present tense, "now", lay
"just outside of the realm of science".
Recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of
nothing, which rely on questionable notions such as
spontaneous fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, the notion
of gravity as negative energy, and the inexplicable free
gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings for the
moment of creation, reveal conceptual confusion beneath
mathematical sophistication. They demonstrate the urgent
need for a radical re-examination of the invisible
frameworks within which scientific investigations are
conducted. We need to step back from the mathematics to
see how we got to where we are now. In short, to un-take
much that is taken for granted.
Perhaps even more
important, we should reflect on how a scientific image
of the world that relies on up to 10 dimensions of space
and rests on ideas, such as fundamental particles, that
have neither identity nor location, connects with our
everyday experience. This should open up larger
questions, such as the extent to which mathematical
portraits capture the reality of our world – and what we
mean by "reality". The dismissive "Just shut up and
calculate!" to those who are dissatisfied with the
incomprehensibility of the physicists' picture of the
universe is simply inadequate. "It is time" physicist
Neil Turok has said, "to connect our science to our
humanity, and in doing so to raise the sights of both".
This sounds like a job for a philosophy not yet dead.