Stephen Hawking at Google’s annual Zeitgeist

On 15th May 2011, Stephen Hawking gave a fascinating talk at Google’s annual Zeitgeist.

Amongst some debatable and personally revealing and controversial remarks that Hawking made during the conference, was his extraordinarily provocative pronouncement—almost en passant—in the early moments of his talk:

“Philosophy is dead”!

I only came to know of Hawking’s talk—and of the continuing disturbed reactions to it from some philosophers—last week when I asked to join Professor Anthony Beaver’s LinkedIn group ‘Computing and Philosophy’.

Their discussion gave me considerable food for thought as I found myself—like I suspect quite a few of them—as uncomfortable dismissing Hawking’s remarks out of hand as I was in trying to place them in a perspective that did justice both to Hawking and to those exercised by his utterance, without being apologetic of any of their perspectives.

I was faced with the challenge:

How do I honestly view Hawking’s remarks?

So, to help me crystalise, and in the process share, my thoughts with any interested putative reader of this blog (since I don’t know if there actually is one at the moment), please allow me to make an arbitrary distinction between the following three disciplines (a distinction which I have personally found useful in the past when attempting to convey my thoughts to others, particularly to an inter-disciplinary audience):

\bullet Applied science, whose concern is our sensory observations of a ‘common’ external world;

\bullet Philosophy, whose concern is abstracting a coherent perspective of the external world from our sensory observations; and

\bullet Mathematics, whose concern is adequately expressing such abstractions in a formal language of unambiguous communication.

I would see these disciplines as broadly addressing the questions of:

\bullet What we do,

\bullet Why we do what we do, and

\bullet How we express and communicate whatever it is that we do for whatever reason.

Was Hawking’s remark irresponsible?

The reason for requesting indulgence in the making of such distinctions up front is that I have no reason to believe that any one else would naturally see them similarly; so it is perhaps worthwhile laying out the groundwork for my immediate observation (after listening to Stephen Hawking’s talk), which is that:

Hawking has not—as perhaps he responsibly should have—provided a suitable groundwork for helping place his unarguably philosophical comments in an appropriate context.

So perhaps given that—by the very nature of the occasion that invited his comments—Hawking ought to have been aware of his eminence and the influence of his comments on the scientific laity, he could—and possibly should, as some views in this Computing and Philosophy discussion (such as those of Jorge Baralt) appear to suggest—be held guilty of unnecessarily challenging his peers to reconstruct his specific intent from his general—and arguably loose—remarks.

If so, that is a guilt shared by all humanity.

That aside, it is difficult to conceive that Hawking’s remark—that philosophy is dead—was intended towards any discipline of ‘Philosophy’ that is consistent with what I have distinguished above.

Was Hawking’s remark academically disrespectful?

Of course, if Hawking’s remarks were indeed intended to implicitly censure the larger body of those whose primary interest lies in questioning and trying to gain a holistic perspective on why we do what we do, and not so much in the substance of what we believe we have achieved in any single direction, then perhaps Hawking could—and possibly should, as some views in this discussion (for instance those of Teed Rockwell and Patrick Dursi) appear to suggest—justly be accused of indulging in a moment of intellectual arrogance and academic disrespect.

Again, to be guilty of such indulgences is merely to be human.

Was Hawking’s remark merely reflecting a subjective belief

‘If’, because if Hawking’s implicit intent was to censure only the smaller body of philosophers who are focused on questioning why physicists and cosmologists do what they do, then perhaps we should not deny him his hard fought right to censure the perspective of his philosophical peers from his own, subjective, vision of what he perceives as his reasons for doing what he does.

Although we could—and perhaps should as some views in this discussion (for instance those of Robert Ware) appear to suggest—withhold from him the authority to pass as sweeping a generalisation on what their vision ought to be as he seems to implicitly pronounce.

Was Hawking’s remark a refutation Lucas’ Gödelian argument?

Or perhaps what Hawking intended to say—obliquely refuting Lucas’ Gödelian argument—was that the human mind must of necessity recognise that it will eventually depend upon a mechanical intelligence (read technology) as the final arbiter of all that we have so far treated as reliable, self-evident, truth.

If so, he is perhaps both a prisoner and promoter of a classical inheritance that, whilst acknowledging the limits on the capacity of human intelligence to predict quantum phenomena, has yet to acknowlege that human intelligence—which must of necessity reflect natural law—may also be an arbiter of an algorithmically verifiable truth that lies beyond the arbitration of the algorithmically computable truth that is, first, the realm of mechanical intelligences and, second, one by which both such intelligences and those who perhaps feel the need to depend upon them as the final arbiters of all scientific truth, are inexorably bound.

If so, it is a point—and counter point—whose complications I have attempted to address elsewhere.

Or is Hawking, perhaps, simply tired of fence-sitters

Or perhaps Hawking has just reached the age where he is perhaps simply tired of those who insist on prefacing each opinion with a ‘perhaps’; and perhaps he needs to seek comfort from those who are perhaps more willing to commit themselves to positions that, perhaps, give some more of a meaning to each man’s search for a meaning that he can, perhaps, give to his life’s work.

So perhaps—and again as some views in this discussion appear to reflect—we may need to keep in mind the dictum of Edmund Landau, who in 1929 sagely advised prospective seekers of truth in his ‘Foundations of Analysis’ that, in order to isolate such truth, one ought to consciously disbelieve all that one has been told; the truth must of necessity lie in the unconscious remains that resist the strongest of disbelief.