Stephen Hawking in a recent talk he gave at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference said that philosophy was dead and he did write in The Grand Design, “Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” Philosophy is dead might be a bridge too far, it still has much to offer in terms of applied morality and consequences. Often times, to the vexation of the hard core dogmatists, philosophy fills in that gulf that is supposed to exist if you do not believe you live in a little cosmic doll house manipulated by invisible hands that you will have some ‘plain’n to do after death. Has philosophy kept up with physics. Probably not. Though kudos to some philosophers for taking up the challenge. I tend to see the problem of seeing into the future as problems in both fields of inquiry. Every generation is at a disadvantageous. We have the knowledge we have and then we quickly move into trying to see around corners. In terms of hard science, which group is probably best equipped to do that? Given my bias towards facts I would give physicists the advantage. What Happened Before the Big Bang? The New Philosophy of Cosmology
Then there are problems that are fairly specific to cosmology. Standard cosmology, or what was considered standard cosmology twenty years ago, led people to the conclude that the universe that we see around us began in a big bang, or put another way, in some very hot, very dense state. And if you think about the characteristics of that state, in order to explain the evolution of the universe, that state had to be a very low entropy state, and there’s a line of thought that says that anything that is very low entropy is in some sense very improbable or unlikely. And if you carry that line of thought forward, you then say “Well gee, you’re telling me the universe began in some extremely unlikely or improbable state” and you wonder is there any explanation for that. Is there any principle that you can use to account for the big bang state? ( philosopher who specializes in physics Tim Maudlin of New York University)
Maudlin has some very smart, let’s say issues, with how the universe formed and the mathematics we use to describe what we know about the universe, the Big Bang in particular. Though it seems to me – and I am judging by this long though not exhaustive interview – that Tim is making a basic logic error in saying that since the current state of physics is such that we do not have the math proofs to describe some things yet is proof of the limits of physics and a gap which philosophy will fill in. So we’re at seeing around corners or over the hill into the future some people – Orwell, Darwin, Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, Vonnegut, William Gibson – and many other thinkers have had some remarkable powers of prescience. Those predictions of the future were ultimately the result of imagination, intelligence and luck. Usually what we get is wrong. We make our best guesses about the future with the tools we have now. We don’t have the perfect math for quantum mechanics now. based on the history of math and physics there is every reason to think those disciplines will continue to make breakthroughs. If Tim or anyone else wants to make the case that humankind has reached its knowledge limits in the sciences I will be happy to read that paper.
Now let me say one more thing about fine tuning. I talk to physicists a lot, and none of the physicists I talk to want to rely on the fine tuning argument to argue for a cosmology that has lots of bubble universes, or lots of worlds. What they want to argue is that this arises naturally from an analysis of the fundamental physics, that the fundamental physics, quite apart from any cosmological considerations, will give you a mechanism by which these worlds will be produced, and a mechanism by which different worlds will have different constants, or different laws, and so on. If that’s true, then if there are enough of these worlds, it will be likely that some of them have the right combination of constants to permit life. But their arguments tend not to be “we have to believe in these many worlds to solve the fine tuning problem,” they tend to be “these many worlds are generated by physics we have other reasons for believing in.”
If we give up on that, and it turns out there aren’t these many worlds, that physics is unable to generate them, then it’s not that the only option is that there was some intelligent designer. It would be a terrible mistake to think that those are the only two ways things could go. You would have to again think hard about what you mean by probability, and about what sorts of explanations there might be. Part of the problem is that right now there are just way too many freely adjustable parameters in physics.
Maudlin also says earlier in that interview he says about Hawkings, “I think he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I mean there’s no reason why he should. Why should he spend a lot of time reading the philosophy of physics? I’m sure it’s very difficult for him to do. But I think he’s just . . . uninformed.” I think Maudlin is great at asking questions, finding holes in some problems in physics. The world needs people who can do that. Philosophers such as him can also parse out the possible meanings of things for people. What are the personal, ethical or economic consequences of this knowledge. In the end Maudlin is nowhere without the knowledge. Hawkings or minds such as his have to find the anti-matter equations, the universe that might exists in waves outside of this one – Radiation Rings Hint Universe Was Recycled Over and Over – before Tim can even get out of his philosophical bed in terms of what we know and how we know it. I sense an unnecessary combativeness and pretentiousness on Maudlin’s part and a tendency on Hawkings part to be too dismissive of the role of philosphy in finding the holes in knowledge and the moral consequnces of new findings in science.
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Realizing that they needed to rely on others, these businessmen took a new tack: using generous financing to enlist sympathetic clergymen as their champions. After all, according to one tycoon, polls showed that, “of all the groups in America, ministers had more to do with molding public opinion” than any other.
The Rev. James W. Fifield, pastor of the elite First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, led the way in championing a new union of faith and free enterprise. “The blessings of capitalism come from God,” he wrote. “A system that provides so much for the common good and happiness must flourish under the favor of the Almighty.”
My rewritten title is most of my commentary on this remarkable short editorial. There continues the general tendency to have this national debate in terms of the supposedly pro capitalists – the purists and absolutists – versus the prognosticators of the slippery slope to socialism. For me the argument is more subtle – thus we will not be having that national discourse; capitalism can be, in the hands of the Romneys, plutocrats, right-wing libertarians almost as tyrannical as other forms of authoritarianism. A FDR capitalism, a humane capitalism or a progressive liberal capitalism is the route to salvation, not a slippery slope to anything except perhaps rediscovering our humanity.
Happy Birthday to Edith Wharton who would have been 150 today, who wrote Ethan Frome – a novella loved by me and 276 English Lit majors. And so long to Singer Etta James , dead at 73 of Leukemia Complications.
Etta James – I’d Rather Go Blind