And that is enough to merit them our scorn. Philosophers and theologians are constantly told that they need to “learn the science” before commenting on quantum mechanics, relativity, or Darwinism. And rightly so. Yet too many scientists refuse to “learn the philosophy” before pontificating on the subject. The results are predictably sophomoric. What an arrogant and clueless amateur like Hawking or Dawkins needs to hear before putting on his philosopher’s toga is this. And if he doesn’t get the message, this. Instead, the reaction from equally clueless editors, journalists, and “educated” general readers is: “Gee, he’s a scientist! He’s good at math and stuff. He must know what he’s talking about!” It really is no more intelligent than that.
C. D. Broad took the view that “the nonsense written by philosophers on scientific matters is exceeded only by the nonsense written by scientists on philosophy.” And that was in the days of scientists like Eddington, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, who actually knew something about philosophy. (We’ve discussed a couple of these thinkers in earlier posts, here and here.) Things had gotten worse by the time Paul Feyerabend wrote the following to Wallace Matson:
The younger generation of physicists, the Feynmans, the Schwingers, etc., may be very bright; they may be more intelligent than their predecessors, than Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger, Boltzmann, Mach, and so on. But they are uncivilized savages, they lack in philosophical depth… (Quoted in Imre Lakatos and Paul Feyerabend, For and Against Method)
And things are even worse now. Feynman was notoriously hostile to philosophy, but when his work on quantum mechanics brought him up against its inherent philosophical difficulties, he at least had the humility not to claim he knew how to resolve them. Hawking and Vedral, by contrast, confidently peddle as “science” the kind of schlock you’d expect to find in the New Age section at Borders.
What accounts for this decline? Feyerabend blamed the “professionalization” of science, and there is much to be said for this. We noted recently how John Heil and Stephen Mumford have decried the baneful effects “professionalization” has had on contemporary academic philosophy – hyper-specialization, smug insularity, careerist conformism, an emphasis on cleverness over depth. Lee Smolin (who knew and respected Feyerabend) is one physicist who has argued that some of these same problems afflict contemporary physics.
One thing of which contemporary philosophers tend not to be guilty, however – scientism-whipped as they are – is ignorance of science, certainly not where science touches on their areas of philosophical specialization. Hawking and Mlodinow assure us in The Grand Design that “philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” No one at all familiar with the explosion of serious work in philosophy of physics, philosophy of chemistry, and philosophy of biology over the last several decades – not to mention the work of writers like William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith in the philosophy of religion, or the Churchlands in philosophy of mind – could say such a thing. (True, as philosophers the Churchlands are hopeless. But one thing they do know – perhaps, one sometimes suspects, the only thing they know – is neuroscience.)
Hawking and Mlodinow are guilty of just the sort of ignorance of which they falsely accuse philosophers. But they are unlikely ever to know it. The Hawkings, Dawkinses, and Jerry Coynes of the world have been dancing the Myers Shuffle around their echo chamber for so long that they can only ever hear each other’s mutual congratulations shouted down the conga line. Until this childishness is universally treated with the sort of contempt it deserves, we will not have a sane intellectual culture, one in which the deepest philosophical, theological – and, indeed, scientific – questions can be fruitfully debated.