Bennett's Blog

The danger facing modern physics

Bennett R. Coles | June 16, 2011

I recently picked up a copy of Dr. Stephen Hawking's latest book, The Grand Design, and I was looking forward to learning about the latest developments in theoretical physics. I hadn't even finished the first page before I was tempted to throw the whole thing in the garbage. On the very first page, Dr. Hawking has, unintentionally, revealed in stark clarity the serious danger facing the scientific community: intellectual irrelevance.

The first paragraph muses, mildly poetically, on how humans have always wondered about the nature of the Universe. And here is how the second paragraph starts:

"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."

I was stunned that so intelligent and accomplished a thinker could draw such a small-minded and ignorant conclusion. Really? Philosophy is dead? Science is all that there is? If that is truly your belief, Dr. Hawking, then I pity you.

Now before anyone labels me a Creationist or assumes I'm a member of the Hollow Earth Society, relax. I'm a huge proponent of science and embrace the advances in human knowledge it brings. For the record, my father, whom I respect greatly, has a PhD in physics and if it was possible to get one without having to do math I'd have one myself. Fascinating stuff. But for all its success in recent centuries, science is hardly the be-all and end-all of human discovery.

Here's the critical thing that unfortunately some scientists just don't get: not only does science not have all the answers, science can't even form all the questions. Science is a tool at our disposal, very well suited to exploring certain aspects of our existence. It is completely incapable of exploring other, equally important aspects of our existence. Unfortunately, it seems that some people who have devoted their lives to science, such as Dr. Hawking and that particularly sad and laughable figure Richard Dawkins, have decided that anything which science cannot address simply doesn't exist.

This is the very real danger facing modern science, and physics in particular. Believe too much in the superiority of your own specialty and you will lose connection with the rest of reality. This ultimately leads to intellectual irrelevance, as the rest of the world carries on addressing the full spectrum of knowledge that exists. It's ironic, and sad, that some of the brightest minds around today are becoming the very thing that they criticize so vocally.

Philosophy is not dead, Dr. Hawking. But if too many of your colleagues adopt the extremes that you appear to have, theoretical physics will be. It will be replaced by a relevant school of thought that encompasses rather than excludes.

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