January 10th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Stephen Hawking: Science vs. Philosophy?

"The strolls of a sceptic through the debris of culture—rubble and dust as far as the eye can see. The wanderer has found everything already in ruins, furrowed down and across by the plough of unremitting human thought. The wanderer puts forth his walking stick with caution; then he comes to a halt, leaning on it, and smiles."
         - Bruno Schulz, The Wanderings of a Sceptic

Stephen Hawking in his new book, The Grand Design, throws down a challenge to all those philosophers who pretend to deal with the great questions:

       Why is there something rather than nothing?
       Why do we exist?
        Why this particular set of laws and not some other? 

He goes on the say that at one time these questions were for philosophy, but now, he tells us - "philosophy is dead". [1] He attacks philosophy saying that it "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" (GD: Loc 42). The arrogance with which he states this position is almost that of and old time dogmatist in its scathing belittlement of philosophy and philosophers.  

Just for the fun of it let's take him at his word and see just what he's up to with his game of science taking the full helm of traditional metaphysical thought from philosophy, and discover what answers he provides to the questions above. 

He starts with the first question: Why is there something rather than nothing? He tells us that "spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist" (GD: Loc 1,819). In chapter three we discovered that the origin of the universe was a quantum event, and that it should be accurately described by Feynman's sum over histories method. In essence, Feynman demonstrated that subatomic particles traverse infinite paths through spacetime, implicating infinite histories for any one particle. Stephen Hawking explains:

"With each trajectory Feynman associated two numbers, one for the size – the amplitude – of a wave and one for its phase – whether it is a crest or a through. The probability of a particle going from A to B is found by adding the up the waves associated with every possible path that passes through A and B."   


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S.C. Hickman

Quentin Meillassoux: On Re-reading After Finitude - Part VI

"What fundamental change did Galileo bring abut in our understanding of the link that ties mathematics to the world? ... Galileo... conceives of movement itself in mathematical terms, and particularly the movement which appears to be the most changeable of all: the terrestrial bodies. In doing so, he uncovered, beyond the variations of position and speed, the mathematical invariant of movement - that is to say, acceleration."
          - Quentin Meillassoux

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Ptolemy's Revenge

With Galileo's discovery of mathematical laws that could describe the motion of heavenly bodies came a unique realization: that the world in which we live is autonomous, a world that is "indifferent to everything in it that corresponds to the concrete, organic connection that we forge with it - it is this glacial world that is revealed to the moderns, a world in which there is no longer any up or down, centre or periphery, nor anything else that might make of it a world designed for humans" (AF: 184-185). Meillassoux reminds us that what is important is not so much the decentering of the earth from its theological framework within scientific knowledge that makes the Copernican revolution so interesting. Instead it is the disquieting paradox residing in this view, which is the "unveiling of thought's capacity to think what there is whether thought exists or not" (AF: 186). And, this, and this alone brings us to that "sense of desolation" that Meillassoux speaks of saying: "it consists in the thought of thought's contingency for the world, and the recognition that thought has become able to think a world that can dispense with thought, a world that is essentially unaffected by whether or not anyone thinks it" (AF: 187). 

The main point of this is that the laws that govern our understanding of the universe exist independent of our observation of them, and would remain scientific verities even if there had never been a human subject to conceive them. (AF: 188) The argument proceeds from the Cartesian thesis - that whatever is mathematically conceivable is absolutely possible. He tells us that this should not be conflated with a necessartarian idealism - "rather, the absoluteness at issue here expresses the following idea: it is meaningful to think ... that all those aspects of the given that are mathematically describable can continue to exist regardless of whether or not we are there to convert the latter into something that is given-to or manifested-for" (AF: 189). All this leads to Meillassoux's formulation  that "what is mathematizable cannot be reduced to a correlate of thought" (AF: 189).

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