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Coffee!!: Why cosmologists should avoid being armchair philosophers

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Trek chair, as if you didn't know

Look, it’s the armchair, okay? It’s got to go. There are real philosophers out there, besides which great scientists have taken the philosophy of science very seriously.

Undeterred by that history, Stephen Hawking recently dismissed philosophy in The Grand Design (with Leonard Mlodinow). In his view, philosophy did not contribute to knowledge compared with science. His view garnered a good deal of disapproval. The Economist sniffed,

There are actually rather a lot of questions that are more subtle than the authors think. It soon becomes evident 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.

and Nature riffed,

In searching for the holy grail, Hawking and others pinned their hopes first on super-gravity and then on string theory. Both are now seen as different regimes of a grander mathematical framework called M-theory, where M is yet to be determined—is it master, miracle or mirage?

Guys, when they’re riffing off C. S. Lewis’s question about Jesus: “lunatic, liar, or Lord?” you can be sure they’re not taking you seriously.

The odd thing is that famous scientists like Einstein and Bohr were not formerly so dismissive of philosophy. Many revelled in it, as  Shimon Malin demonstrates in Nature Loves to Hide (Oxford University Press, 2001):
In a review in Philosophy Now, Sam Nico notes:

Malin traces the history of quantum theory through the spirit of philosophy that imbues it. The founders of quantum theory did not work out these ideas as though they were merely puzzling phenomena. They were enthused by a sense of philosophical curiosity and dissatisfaction. Were it not for this, we may still be trying to work out the implications of the very small in a Newtonian context. It is the philosophy contingent on the science that is the real subject here.

The front cover reads ‘Quantum Physics and the Nature of Reality’, but these are not synonymous terms. Malin makes it clear that the former is an aspect of the latter, while philosophy already contains the perspective of the former as an intrinsic feature. This is clear from the ideas of Plato and Plotinus, but Malin emphasises their influence on another philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).

This is significant, because Whitehead is almost forgotten as a major figure, and yet there is not a statement in quantum physics that is not already prefigured in his philosophy. It is based on the relations between temporal and non-temporal, or eternal, objects. Noting the dislike for ‘eternal objects’ as a concept, Whitehead suggests that one use the idea of potential instead, an idea that is crucial to understanding quantum collapse. It is the relationship between the potential and the actual that is the stuff of quantum theory, and yet, in Whitehead, these are explored as a matter of course. The relationship between Whitehead’s philosophy and quantum physics is the major contribution that Malin makes in the pursuit of the paradigm shift that currently evades us.

Philosophy can’t be done from an armchair any more than science can.


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