QA 52. The real world keeps us honest

standard equation

Still thinking about the need for a new mode of thinking… What is the proper relation between philosophy and science now?

Last year, citing Stephen (Philosophy-is-Dead) Hawking and Martin Heidegger, I wrote about “the end of philosophy” in the triumph of science. Given the massive productivity of scientific theory and technology and a world in turmoil, social-order thinking put its faith in scientific standards of evidence, objectivity and rationality. But it’s no good. Science can’t tell us about the meaning of life, precisely because meaning belongs to another order of thought: call it “ethics” or “wisdom”. Pascal knew that the heart has its reasons, but we don’t give the heart much credit. And so it seems that the new task for thinking is to return to the beginnings of philosophy, to inquire into the nature of subjectivity and how to live well with others.

With this division of labour, I effectively left science to its own devices and carried on with my own business. (After all, it is hard to relate to someone who gloats about leaving you in the dust.) Happily, it seems that my judgement was premature. A reconciliation, under new terms, may be on the cards.


I’ve just read Neil Turok’s From Quantum to Cosmos: The Universe Within (Faber, 2012). Previously a colleague of Hawking’s at the Cambridge University department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, Turok now directs the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada.* The book highlights the historical advances in physics that come together in the equation-of-everything above, told in a way that illuminates how revolutionary those advances have been. Physicists have shown remarkable courage and imagination by abandoning old certainties and cherished beliefs ­– learning to think differently – in the face of new evidence, new predictions, new implications and new ideas from surprising places.

It is also clear that Turok, like Einstein, knows science to be a profoundly human and social endeavour. He admires the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment, in particular the philosopher David Hume and his “profoundly democratic idea that knowledge is based on capacities which everyone shares”:

Our ability to do science is rooted in our relationship with the universe, our nature as living beings. Our feelings and instincts are far more profound than our ideas. Our ideas allow us to imagine many things, but they can be unreliable, misguided, or misleading. It is the real world that keeps us honest. (Turok, 14)

That could be said just as well of our ability to do philosophy, and the practices that I’m busy with. As could this:

We each have an internal model of the world, which we are always comparing against our perceptions… a selective representation designed to capture reality’s most essential elements… and predict their behaviour. In receiving data from our senses, what we notice are the surprises – the discrepancies between our experiences and the predictions of our internal model, which force us to correct it. (Turok, 15)

As could this (although “imaginary” needs some unpacking):

Mathematicians are often viewed as unworldly, working in a dreamed-up, artificial setting. But quantum physics teaches us that, in a very real sense, we all live in an imaginary reality. (Turok, 95)

The leading edge of theoretical physics and philosophy’s “new task for thinking” thus seem to share some common ground. That’s exciting. It opens the possibility of a new relationship and the question of what that relationship may be.

einstein catastrophe

I’ve got a few hunches. One is that the division of labour between the nature of things and the meaning of life is still necessary and  useful. Philosophy isn’t going to catch up to physics (witness lame attempts by popular thought to appropriate scientific concepts and findings), and science can’t tell us why and how our lives matter. Nor can science justify the ethical ramifications of its own work. A new field of relationship might allow each discipline to learn from the other, to support and challenge each other, and to sharpen the contradictions between them – conceivably and hopefully to the benefit of all.

I wonder how critical philosophy could become more robust and productive. If our social and political thought can’t depend on scientific methods of objective observation, prediction and testing, and if the Western philosophical tradition is also in question, how can we proceed? By what means? What would count as evidence? From science’s side, what are the implications of the “observer effect” in physics for our understanding of the relationship between consciousness and matter? My hunch here is that relativity and relationship may be connected in really interesting ways.

And I think that, following Emmanuel Levinas’s analysis of the priority of ethics over ontology, we might have to take Hume’s “is-ought” problem and turn it on its head. Hume points out that no description of “what is” can provide a basis for any prescription of “what ought” to be done. Levinas suggests that description is always already implicated in an ethical responsibility for others. This suggests a deep interdependence of philosophy and science that remains to be explored.

* Of local South African interest, Neil is the son of ANC veterans Ben and Mary Turok. (I worked briefly with Neil when he was setting up the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town. Humble admin work on my part, but I can attest he’s  a genuine good guy with a ferocious intellect and interest in everything.)

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