Written by Raymond Tallis and originally published by The Guardian on May 27, 2013.

Far from having replaced metaphysics, science is in a mess and needs help. Einstein saw it coming.

In 2010 Stephen Hawking, in The Grand Design, announced that philosophy was “dead” because it had “not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics”. He was not referring to ethics, political theory or aesthetics. He meant metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that aspires to the most general understanding of nature – of space and time, the fundamental stuff of the world. If philosophers really wanted to make progress, they should abandon their armchairs and their subtle arguments, wise up to maths and listen to the physicists.

This view has significant support among philosophers in the English-speaking world. Bristol philosopher James Ladyman, who argues that metaphysics should be naturalised, and who describes the accusation of “scientism” as “badge of honour”, is by no means an isolated case.

But there could not be a worse time for philosophers to surrender the baton of metaphysical inquiry to physicists. Fundamental physics is in a metaphysical mess and needs help. The attempt to reconcile its two big theories, general relativity and quantum mechanics, has stalled for nearly 40 years. Endeavours to unite them, such as string theory, are mathematically ingenious but incomprehensible even to many who work with them. This is well known. A better-kept secret is that at the heart of quantum mechanics is a disturbing paradox – the so-called measurement problem, arising ultimately out of the Uncertainty Principle – which apparently demonstrates that the very measurements that have established and confirmed quantum theory should be impossible. Oxford philosopher of physics David Wallace has argued that this threatens to make quantum mechanics incoherent which can be remedied only by vastly multiplying worlds.

Beyond these domestic problems there is the failure of physics to accommodate conscious beings. The attempt to fit consciousness into the material world, usually by identifying it with activity in the brain, has failed dismally, if only because there is no way of accounting for the fact that certain nerve impulses are supposed to be conscious (of themselves or of the world) while the overwhelming majority (physically essentially the same) are not. In short, physics does not allow for the strange fact that matter reveals itself to material objects (such as physicists).

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1 COMMENT

  1. Indeed, I’ve noticed even through my life (I’m 22 years old) that so much has been revealed in a few decades. The knowledge that has been found is sort of unraveling a new depth to philosophy…One that shows all of humanity that philosophy just may be a necessary component to understanding the universe and life holistically.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. I would agree with Hawking that philosophy has failed to move on from Newton and may as well be dead. But only in regard to professional academic philosophy (probably the only sort that Hawking reads). It is a scandal. Elsewhere metaphysical problems are explained and solved.

    Philosophy is alive and well elsewhere, and takes full account of QM. For an explanation of how they can be joined up I would recommend Ulrich Mohrhoff, ‘The World According to Quantum Mechanics’. Mostly a mathematics text book, but he shows how QM may be married seamlessly to the philosophy of the Upanishads. This will be the philosophy that Hawking does not take into account.

    So philosophy is not dead, just Hawking’s narrow approach to it.

  3. Unfortunately I don’t have the skills to have an opinion about pilot waves. It’s too technical an issue for me. I stick with Mohrhoff’s (and Schrodinger’s) interpretation since it works in philosophy, while any realistic interpretation is bound to fail since it will require that we reify phenomena. To me moving on in philosophy would mean conceding that when we reify space-time phenomena our metaphysical theories don’t work.

  4. I believe Mohrhoff has the correct view. Bohm’s pilot waves may or may not be a good idea, but either way it is not a fundamental interpretation of anything, just a detail of the mechanism. Ditto the Copenhagen interpretation, which solves no philosophical problems. Mohrhoff’s view would make possible a solution for all such problems because it is fundamental. Or so it seems to me.

  5. Oh hell. Something went wrong there and I ended up posting anonymously and twice. Sorry about that. I also see that they weren’t good comments.

    To clarify a little what I meant, it is that an interpretation of QM would need to be a metaphysical theory or to clearly imply one. Otherwise it would not be an interpretation in a full sense, since we wouldn’t be able to interpret the interpretation.

    Mohrhoff’s interpretation ineluctably implies a specific metaphysical theory. I’m not aware of another interpretation that does this. It is therefore the only interpretation whose truth or falsity would make a difference to our everyday lives.

    So I tend to talk too much about it. I think it is important. It will almost certainly be ignored in mainstream physics, just as it always has been. The philosophy they do is dead, just as they often claim. This is why they cannot interpret QM. The philosophical tradition of Sri Aurobindo and the Upanishads is alive a well, and this why Mohrhoff can succeed where they fail. .

    This explains the article you quote. It is possible to make a good argument for the pointlessness of metaphysics. It is also possible to argue that it is the most important and useful of all the sciences. It all depends on how we do it.

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