Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s Unwarranted Attacks on Philosophy

A Critical Review on The Grand Design

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's

Replacing Speculation with Speculation

Most of the discussion centered around Stephen Hawking’s and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Grand Design has to do mostly with both authors’ (especially Hawking’s) explicit conviction that God plays no role in the creation of the universe, and that there is no need to suppose that God exists. There have been responses all over the place on this issue, and this concern has been addressed by many Christian scientists such as Alister McGrath (Richard Dawkins’ famous foe), think-tanks such as The Biologos Forums (see this article), as well as many other philosophers and theologians. I agree with some of what they say, some others I don’t, but fundamentally they are right. In this book, Hawking and Mlodinow replace one speculative proposal (namely God) with another speculative proposal (the multiverse), none of which have scientific value, because they are both beyond the realm of science.

As a matter of fact, the weakest claim of the book is the statement that super-string theory (or "string theory" for short), specifically M-theory, somehow has to be the real thing. Yet, not many scientists are as over-enthusiastic about it as they are, precisely because, even when the proposal "solves" the gap between the realms of gravity and quanta, scientists cannot use it to even begin to make predictions nor design some test to find out if it is correct. In Popperian terms, it is purely metaphysical, it plays no scientific role whatsoever, and it will remain that way until scientists can come up with specific predictions which can be tested in some way. Lee Smolin, one of the most renowned theoretical physicists, has complained about this aspect of string theory, and even protested the way funds are now being diverted from other alternative proposals to finance string theory research (see Smolin, 2006).

I think that there is no one in this world who can express better the irony of all of this than the physicist Peter Woit, of Columbia University, who says: "One thing that is sure to generate sales for a book of this kind is to somehow drag in religion. The book’s rather conventional claim that "God is unnecessary" for explaining physics and early universe cosmology has provided a lot of publicity for the book. I’m in favor of naturalism and leaving God out of physics as much as the next person, but if you’re the sort who wants to go to battle in the science/religion wars, why you would choose to take up such a dubious weapon as M-theory mystifies me."

In this review, though, I wish to be fair. When you read The Grand Design, there is a feeling that it is trying to respond to the belief held by many people that Hawking in some way believes in God. For example, Deepak Chopra has been one of those who have abused Hawking’s statements about getting to "know the mind of God", and others similar to it, to show that somehow Hawking infers from his scientific knowledge that God exists. I will write also on Chopra’s huge misunderstandings on evolution, but that is another article for another time.

My quarrel with Hawking and Mlodinow, though, is not only about the issue of God. I think, after all, that this debate will go on and on in the eternal dialogue between science and religion.

The Grand Design and Philosophy

My big problem with the book began precisely with the first two paragraphs of chapter one, page 5, when I read the following words:

We each exist for but a short time, and in the time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. . . . 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? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time.

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.

My jaw almost dropped to the floor when I read this. In a sense I felt that this was one big backstabbing of philosophers. Why did I feel this way? First, because natural science is philosophy’s offspring; in a sense, it is philosophy’s child (all-grown up right now … we philosophers are proud of our baby). Second, because philosophy is one big rationalistic enterprise to find the principles of truth, while natural science uses much of these principles implicitly in the research in order to propose rational theories and explanations about the empirical world which also help us get us closer to truth and reality. Both are rationalistic enterprises and have truth as the goal. As a philosopher of science, though, I felt especially offended, because the statement that "philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics" is demonstrably false.

I don’t know if these authors are aware that practically most, if not all, serious philosophers of science are paying attention to the latest discoveries in science, particularly physics. Since Kant’s time, we are able to see how closely do philosophers follow science and their discoveries, as well as the impact of science on philosophy. The formulation of the general theory of relativity invited philosophers to rethink the epistemological foundations of science since Kant’s time. This led to the rise of logical empiricism, which, as a matter of fact, was paying very close attention to natural sciences and tried to provide their philosophical foundations. Hans Reichenbach’s works on natural science are nice examples of this: The Theory of Relativity and A Priori Knowledge (1920), The Philosophy of Space and Time (1928), Philosophic Foundations of Quantum Physics (1944), among others. See also Rudolf Carnap’s works on these subjects such as Space (1922), and The Logical Structure of the World (1928). Even when logical empiricism fell, these works still remain as examples of the kind of clarity that is genuinely and honestly sought by philosophers when they engage in fruitful dialogue with science. Other more recent examples come from Carl G. Hempel, especially those written after the demise of logical empiricism, Adolf Grünbaum’s works (Geometry and Chronometry in Philosophical Perspective (1968) and Philosophical Problems of Space and Time (1963)), Roberto Torretti’s (Philosophy of Geometry from Riemann to Poincaré (1978), Relativity and Geometry (1983), Creative Understanding (1990), and The Philosophy of Physics (1999)), among many other philosophical works.

I wish to add that there are other philosophers of science who work extensively with other areas of natural science. For example, the founder of philosophy of biology, Michael Ruse, cannot be accused of not keeping up with biology. Neither can we accuse E. O. Wilson of that, nor Robert Arp, Alexander Rosenberg, David Hull, and Daniel Dennett. And talking about Dennett, what are we going to do with philosophers of the mind, who usually keep up with the most recent research and discoveries about the brain/mind? Should we just throw them in the trash can too as promotors of a "dead" subject? Should we do the same with Wilfrid Sellars, David Chalmers, Paul Churchland, Karl Popper, and John Searle? My answer is: Hardly!

And what about ethicists? Most of them are paying attention to fields such as nuclear physics, medicine, neurobiology, zoology, botany, and ecology. They must do this, because of the ever-increasing fields in applied ethics such as environmental ethics, and bioethics.

The True Relationship between Philosophy and Science

David Hume established a distinction between relations-of-ideas and matters-of-fact. Propositions of relations-of-ideas are those whose negation imply automatically a contradiction, while the negation of matters-of-fact do not imply a contradiction. For example, if we negate that "2+2" equals 4, we would incur in a contradiction. If we negate that every circle is round we fall in a contradiction too. This is because "2+2" must equal "4", and all circles must be round. However, if we formally negate that the Earth revolves around, we do not automatically fall into a contradiction, since an Earth escaping from orbit is perfectly conceivable and could actually happen.

Much later, Edmund Husserl categorized analytic and synthetic-a priori propositions as relations-of-ideas, and synthetic a posteriori judgments as matters-of-fact. Part of relations-of-ideas is what we can consider formal sciences: formal logic and mathematics. Formal sciences deal with formal abstract relations and objects: conjunction, disjunction, numbers, sets, and so on. They are a priori, that is, their truths are discovered through reason alone, and as relations-of-ideas theyhave necessary and universal validity.

On the other hand, natural sciences (e.g. physics, biology, chemistry) deal with matters-of-fact, that is, everything a posteriori that can be tested empirically.

Philosophy has a bit of both fields, but in a different way. Although certain aspects of philosophy do seem to fall in the realm of relations-of-ideas (e.g. Husserlian phenomenology, metaphysics, transcendentalism, and so on), some aspects of it can refer to matters-of-fact: philosophy of science, applied ethics, etc. We can functionally define philosophy as that field which uses reason as its basic, but not the only, tool to establish those principles with which we can find what is true, good, and beautiful. I say this is a functional definition, because I recognize that there is no formal definition of philosophy, but this is as close as we can get to something like a definition that will let us present our argument the best way possible.

Given the scenario I just showed above, natural science is not "the" bearer of the torch of the quest for knowledge. There are other forms of knowledge, such as those of formal science, whose practice is vastly different from that of natural science. There is not an iota of reference to protons, mass, mental processes, sociological conditions, or molecular interactions in formal sciences. It may be argued (as some have) that non-euclidean geometry was adopted in mathematics thanks to general relativity. However, such statement is superficial, because non-euclidean geometry appeared due to mathematical problems, mostly having to do with the fact that there was no a priori reason why mathematicians should assume that the rejection of the axiom of the parallels was logically inconsistent. Non-euclidean geometry was developed during the nineteenth century by Bernard Riemann, Nicolai Lobachewski, and Janos Bolyai, by exploring many sorts of geometrical spaces. All that Einstein did was to adopt non-euclidean geometry as the mathematical model which would serve as basis for the simplest theory of gravity possible, given Einstein’s own results of special relativity. So, the validity of non-euclidean geometry in mathematics relies solely in mathematics. Whether natural science will use it or not, that is irrelevant to the question of mathematical validity.

Some epistemology in some philosophical fields are not natural-scientific either. Consider, for instance, epistemology of ethics. Many naturalists will argue that ethics can only be explained neurologically as a result of evolution. Yet, we have to distinguish between ethics and morals. Morals have to do with the uses and customs of a society. Ethics has to do with what is objectively good. Science can explain morals, but not ethics. Unfortunately, naturalism has not been all that good trying to provide objective foundations for what is good, only of why society behaves in such and such manner. But there are behaviors that are socially accepted in society which happen to be unethical, and there are some ethical norms which are unacceptable to societies. What is good (ethically speaking) is not subject to popularity contests, nor "selfish genes". Concepts such as "good", "duty", "dignity", and "values" (in the ethical sense) do not appear nor are they used in physics, in biology, in cosmology, nor in chemistry books. They belong only to the realm ethics, which is a branch of philosophy. Of course, branches of ethics, such as bioethics, deal with biological consequences of certain activities in biology as a scientific enterprise, or certain economic enterprises such as the pharmaceutical industry and medicine. Biology can inform ethicists about the problems it deals with, its conceptual framework, and how it operates, BUT bioethical suggestions and recommendations should rest ultimately on ethical principles, not biological. Furthermore, there is even a branch of ethics which is further away from applied ethics and natural science, called metaethics, which provides the objective foundations for ethical norms themselves (i.e. normative ethics).

Epistemological principles (i.e. principles of objective knowledge) are not found in natural science either. As a matter of fact, epistemology of natural science provides the conceptual foundations of natural science, while philosophy of science uses these concepts to fine-tune on the subject on whether a certain field is science or not. Thanks to epistemology and philosophy of science (two separate, yet related fields in philosophy) we are able to know why physics, biology and chemistry qualify as science, while intelligent design, and Dianetics do not.

Last, but not least, fields such as epistemology, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science, philosophy of history, philosophy of the social sciences, philosophy of religion, among many others, have recognized that there is a wide variety of principles of knowledge in fields such as social science, anthropology, history, economy, culture, among others, which are not reducible to biology nor physics. That doesn’t mean that physics and biology are not important regarding these matters, but the reason why there is a market crash in one time period cannot be reduced to quanta or general relativity. Sometimes it is not even reducible to the mere neurological activity of individuals’ brains, but to social structures, ideologies, religious convictions, jurisprudence, political stability, supply and effective demand, etc. Thanks to all of these philosophical fields, we are able to know also why natural science does not have the monopoly of knowledge, because there are other fields that provide knowledge whose objects of study, and the way they work diverge significantly from those of natural science.

Is philosophy really dead? The answer is a resounding "NO!" As the reader is able to see, the enormous amount of questions asked in philosophy are not limited to the questions stated by Hawking and Modlinow in the quote above.

In my next blog post, I will discuss Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s serious foulups regarding the history of philosophy (and science), as well as their serious misunderstandings of some philosophers, particularly Aristotle. I will also discuss the reason why the authors of The Grand Design should apologize to philosophers.

For now, I have said enough to ask the following question: Have Hawking and Mlodinow kept up with modern developments in philosophy? I can say categorically, but with much less arrogance than that displayed by Hawking and Mlodinow: NO!


Smolin, L. (2006). The trouble with physics: the rise of string theory, the fall of science, and what comes next. US: Mariner Books.

Bookmark and Share