Krauss, Hawking, Atheism and (a lack of) Philosophy

by David Glass

Since scientific issues often crop up in discussions about the existence of God, it isn’t surprising that some high profile scientists get involved. If these scientists take an atheist position, it isn’t surprising that they don’t have much time for theology. What is very surprising, however, is that some have a similar disregard for philosophy. Two eminent physicists who fall into this category are Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss. In the history of physics, many leading figures have engaged with philosophical questions in very profound ways: Newton, Einstein and Bohr are obvious examples. By contrast, Hawking and Krauss seem to think that philosophy has nothing to offer because science has all the answers.

The naivety of this viewpoint is quite breathtaking. In many areas of science, philosophers engage in very detailed ways on foundational and conceptual issues of great importance. For example, quantum mechanics is shot through with philosophical and conceptual issues on which philosophers of physics and physicists interact closely. The same is true in biology, where philosopher’s of biology address important conceptual issues. In my own area of work, there is an almost seamless overlap between computer science and philosophy where issues relating to probability theory, evidential support, explanation and causation are addressed.

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Now, of course, there are many areas of science where philosophical issues are not so important and so scientists can, if they wish, ignore them, but that brings me to my second point: Hawking and Krauss can’t help pronouncing on philosophical issues. They seem to think that science is really the way to answer these questions and so they tell us the ‘truth’ from a scientific perspective. The irony is that, having ignored philosophy, they proceed to give us their own philosophical answers dressed up as the simple ‘scientific truth’. Doing poor philosophy in the name of science does nothing for the credibility of science.

For example, in Hawking’s book The Grand Design, he and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow tell us on the first page that ‘philosophy is dead’ apparently because philosophy hasn’t ‘kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics’. I wonder what the philosophy of physics group at Oxford would make of that! Then in chapter 3 they discuss the nature of reality and mention debates between realists and anti-realists. Now, if anything is a philosophical dispute, this is. An enormous amount has been written on this by philosophers of science, but Hawking and Mlodinow breezily ignore recent debates on the topic and then propose their own solution…

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