C. C. Hagan

Stephen Hawking

Extracts from the book

Both Einstein and Hawking’s lives were disrupted by war. Although Hawking’s family lived in Highgate, North London, he was born in Oxford to escape the Blitz.41 During the war the British and Germans had agreed that neither side would bomb the other’s prize educational institutions (namely, Cambridge and Oxford for the British and Göttingen and Heidelberg for the Germans).42 Highgate was an area where scientific and academic people lived at the time. His family had lived in a ‘tall, narrow Victorian house’ despite the common view that London was likely to be flattened by the Blitz. Hawking comments: “In fact, a V-2 rocket landed a few houses from ours.”43 In Germany, we saw how the Bildung education system in Germany helped build Einstein’s great intellect. What built the mind of Hawking? The great philosophers of England in the Twentieth Century (such as Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead and Wittgenstein) exemplified the materialist, logical, scientific and mathematical approach to the big questions. Surprisingly, the analysis of language (for which Wittgenstein is famous) dominated English philosophy and was strongly influenced by the Vienna school (a group of Austrian intellectuals active in the early twentieth century).44 Philosophers such as Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap were members of the Vienna school that introduced, logical positivism, ( a new version of the positivism that we saw in Chapter 15 Curie’s World and Chapter 19 Einstein’s World which has also been described as scientific empiricism.45) One English philosopher and proponent of logical positivism was A.J. Ayer who said: “The philosopher, an analyst, is not directly concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them. In other words, the propositions of philosophy are not factual, but linguistic in character.”46 A J Ayer also used the concept of ‘Linguistic Turn’ created by U.S Philosopher Richard Rorty which essentially saw language as a system which ‘constructs its own reality’.47 Philosopher Julián Marías describes the English emphasis on language (still influential during Hawking’s early life) : “..the trend which has the most followers is the one which we can call ‘linguistic analysis’ in which almost all present-day British thinkers” [ie mid 1960s Britons] “participate, although to very different extents.”48

One philosopher described logical positivism as a principle “that some apparently intelligible questions are really nonsense, and that therefore there is no point looking for answers to them. For the logical positivists, most questions of religion and metaphysics were to fall on the nonsense side of the line and most scientific questions on the sense side. The pressing question, then, is how to draw the line.”49 Carnap wrote The Logical Syntax of Language and the Logical Foundations of Probability about how scientific statements are backed by evidence. One of his key quotes was “The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist.” Clearly, he did not foresee the metaphysical based hypotheses of Hoyle anticipating the origin of Carbon-12 using the (metaphysical) anthropic principle or Gellman/Swieg’s (metaphysical) symmetries predicting quarks. Moreover, the entire body of string theory which we will examine in Chapter 26 might even be nonsense to Carnap. It seems that by the time Hawking was born critics had uncovered the weakness of logical positivism , namely where does one draw the line between sense and nonsense. If there is a legacy for Carnap it is the view that any philosophical claim must be precise enough to be tested against evidence.51

Still , it seems that logical positivism or, at least in its 19th century guise - just positivism still existed in Hawking’s prime as explained by Jane Hawking:

“The suggestion of the presence of a Creator-God was an awkward obstacle for an atheistic scientist whose aim was to reduce the origins of the universe to a unified package of scientific laws, expressed in equations and symbols. …Strangely to the happy band of the initiated, the equations were said to reveal a miraculous, breathtaking mathematical beauty….In the face of dogmatic rational arguments, there was no point in raising questions of spirituality and religious faith….questions which ran completely counter to the selfish reality of genetic theory. Issues of morality, conscience, appreciation of the arts, were best kept out of the arena lest they too became victims of the positivist approach.”52

In his book, The Grand Design, Hawking and his co author, Leonard Mlodinow raised some of the big questions namely, ‘How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?’ and said: “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”53

It seems Julian Marías’s comment quoted in Chapter 15 that after science has exhausted its search for the metaphysical, philosophy being empty becomes a ‘theory of science’ (which is one way to view the meaning of Hawking’s execution of philosophy).54

Albert Einstein once said: “The man of science is a poor philosopher.”55 and so he may have questioned the distinguished authors’ qualifications to banish philosophy to the sands of time.

Extract from Chapter 23 Hawking’s World

41 J.Farndon, The Great Scientists, (ibid), 2006, p155
42 S.Hawking, My Brief History, Penguin Random House, 2013 , p6

43 S.Hawking, My Brief History,(ibid),p9
44 Oxford Dictionary of Physics, Oxford University Press 3rd Ed. 2016 p281 under entry for ‘Logical Positivism’
45 (ibid)
46 Arp and over 30 contributors, 1001 Ideas that changed the way we think, Pier 9, Murdoch Books, 2017, p816
47 Arp and over 30 contributors, 1001 Ideas that changed the way we think, (ibid), 2017, p816
48 J. Marías, History of Philosophy, Dover Publications 1967 (English Translation) p400
49 Papineau D., Philosophy Theories and Great Thinkers, Shelter Harbour Press, 2017, p92
50 Quoted from Papineau D., Philosophy Theories and Great Thinkers, p92 from Rudolf Carnap, The elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Thought
51 Papineau D., Philosophy Theories and Great Thinkers, (ibid) , p92
52 J.Hawking, Travelling to Infinity (ibid), pp138-139
53 S. Hawking & L.Mlodinow, The Grand Design, (ibid) p151
54 J. Marías, History of Philosophy, (ibid) p352
55 Quoted from S.Flew, There is a God, How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, Harper One, 2007, p91