Philosophy Feed

Knowing the Mind of God: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking


Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?  What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?  Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?  Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?  What is the nature of time?  Will it ever come to an end?  Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions.  Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun--or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises.  Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.

This is the second paragraph of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I read the book in college, I think when I was 19, and his follow up Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years later.  Hawking was already iconic among my high school friends--we were all sci fi and science geeks.  And I was in a phase where I had a deep fascination in cosmology and theoretical physics (I read most of the works of Paul Davies while in college and then wrote my senior Honors thesis about his concept of God).  

And this was the time when I was being drawn into philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, where these questions were explored.  

Since childhood even up to this morning when I was listening to the radio one thing has been guaranteed to make me nauseous--the thought of why anything exists at all and yet the idea of nothing existing makes no sense.  Rationality breaks down and my head and stomach spin.  And yet these limits of scientific and philosophical quandary drew me inexorably on.

The concluding chapter to A Brief History ventures further into the realm of philosophy and even theology and spirituality.  If we can achieve a complete unified theory (or theory of everything) then what role is left for God?  The book ends with a  most fascinating paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God.

The "mind of God" here should be understood in the Platonic sense--the highest reality in the Divided Line in the Republic.  Only the highest form of knowledge, a type of mystical contemplation, can know the mind of God.  From ancient wisdom we have understood that the limits of reason and scientific inquiry take us into the realm of mystical experience.  Here was a contemporary physicist developing a similar idea (Paul Davies argued that physics is a surer path to God than religion, for similar reasons, and even named a major work The Mind of God).

But the problem with the God of the theoretical physicists, as with the God of the philosophers, is that they aren't describing Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. But, that discussion is for another time.

As my philosophical education advanced, I realized more of the flaws in Hawking's philosophical understanding of science (many scientists lack a philosophical understanding of their discipline), though looking at my marginalia, I already had some objections to simplistic understandings.  I don't think a theory of everything is possible, and one reason is that his understanding of the laws of physics can't survive philosophical critique.  Consider Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie wherein she reveals that “Rendered as descriptions of fact, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their fundamental explanatory force."

But it is still a grand hope and something to aspire to.  And Hawking is correct that could we do it we would achieve the "ultimate triumph of human reason."  Though it may just be that to achieve that highest form of knowledge we must transcend reason into the mystical.

A toast to Stephen Hawking for his brilliant mind and insightful ideas.  I thank him for helping to inspire me and launch the course of my intellectual life.

BTW, here's an excellent obituary by Roger Penrose.

Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

The Last Interview and Other ConversationsThe Last Interview and Other Conversations by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this little volume of four Arendt interviews while in Oklahoma City last week. I continue to be impressed by Arendt's analysis and enjoy teaching her in my philosophy and ethics classes.

Among the interesting tidbits in this volume:

"A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman."

Her worry, in 1970, that the American working class was going to be attracted to nationalism.

That the student movements of the late 1960's had revealed the fun and joy of political action, what she called "public happiness." Also that the students acted with "the assurance of being able to change things by one's own efforts."

Her view that capitalism and socialism were both exploitative, even though the latter was created to solve that problem in the former.

The idea that she didn't consider herself a philosopher, but a political thinker.

She advocated a new form a government she called "the council system." People would be part of small councils working on a very local level--neighborhood, work, etc. The councils would discuss issues and make decisions. People who demonstrated strong capabilities would then represent the small councils at a higher level. In this system power would be horizontal, not vertical, and sovereignty and that nation state would vanish and be replaced by federations of councils.

This latter put me to mind of the congregational polity of the denominations I've been a part of and also what I valued about the Collegium model that the United Church of Christ had until last summer, which they unfortunately abandoned for a more corporate national structure.

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Multitudinous Self

A good essay on the self, defending a realist position that is a development of William James.  An excerpt:

The multitudinous self is based on the psychologist Ulric Neisser’s account of the self, laid out in his paper ‘Five Kinds of Self-knowledge’ (1988). Neisser encourages us to reevaluate the sources of information that help us to identify the self. There are five sources, which are so different from one another that it is plausible to conceive each as establishing a different ‘self’. First there is the ecological self, or the embodied self in the physical world, which perceives and interacts with the physical environment; the interpersonal self, or the self embedded in the social world, which constitutes and is constituted by intersubjective relationships with others; the temporally extended self, or the self in time, which is grounded in memories of the past and anticipation of the future; the private self which is exposed to experiences available only to the first person and not to others; and finally the conceptual self, which (accurately or falsely) represents the self to the self by drawing on the properties or characteristics of not only the person but also the social and cultural context to which she belongs.

Hauerwas on MacIntyre

The website First Things sends out archived essays on Sundays, and this week's e-mail included an 11 year old essay by theologian Stanley Hauerwas on philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre.  Hauerwas is one of my deepest theological influences and MacIntyre's After Virtue has deeply affected my thinking on the virtues and practice of ministry.  In the essay, Hauerwas discusses the virtues of MacIntyre's work, particularly a focus on his philosophy of action.  An excerpt:

The “plain person” is the character MacIntyre has identified to display the unavoidability of the virtues. Plain persons are those characterized by everyday practices such as sustaining families, schools, and local forms of political community. They engage in trades and professions that have required them to learn skills constitutive of a craft. Such people are the readers he hopes his books may reach. Grounded as they are in concrete practices necessary to sustain a common life, they acquire the virtues that make them capable of recognizing the principles of natural law and why those principles call into question the legitimating modes of modernity.

MacIntyre has sought, within the world we necessarily inhabit, to help us recover resources to enable us to act intelligibly.

Descartes wrong about the self

He was wrong about so many things, but still so important to read and teach.  I often tell my students that his most lasting impact were the questions he raised, rather than the answers he gave them.

Here's a good essay critical of his influential notion of the self, arguing against an independent self and for a more relational view.  An excerpt:

So reality is not simply out there, waiting to be uncovered. ‘Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction,’ Bakhtin wrote in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929). Nothing simply is itself, outside the matrix of relationships in which it appears. Instead, being is an act or event that must happen in the space between the self and the world.


The importance of Foucault's analysis of power

An essay discusses the continuing importance of Foucault's work on power.  An excerpt:

Herein lies the richness and the challenge of Foucault’s work. His is a philosophical approach to power characterised by innovative, painstaking, sometimes frustrating, and often dazzling attempts to politicise power itself. Rather than using philosophy to freeze power into a timeless essence, and then to use that essence to comprehend so much of power’s manifestations in the world, Foucault sought to unburden philosophy of its icy gaze of capturing essences. He wanted to free philosophy to track the movements of power, the heat and the fury of it working to define the order of things.


To be sure, disciplinary training is not sovereign violence. But it is power. Classically, power took the form of force or coercion and was considered to be at its purest in acts of physical violence. Discipline acts otherwise. It gets a hold of us differently. It does not seize our bodies to destroy them, as Leviathan always threatened to do. Discipline rather trains them, drills them and (to use Foucault’s favoured word) ‘normalises’ them. All of this amounts to, Foucault saw, a distinctly subtle and relentless form of power. To refuse to recognise such disciplining as a form of power is a denial of how human life has come to be shaped and lived. If the only form of power we are willing to recognise is sovereign violence, we are in a poor position to understand the stakes of power today. If we are unable to see power in its other forms, we become impotent to resist all the other ways in which power brings itself to bear in forming us.

African Enlightenment

An interesting essay today on Aeon about African Enlightenment philosophers--the Ethiopian Zera Yacob (1599-1692) and the Ghanaian Anton Amo (c1703-55)--who do not receive their due in the history of philosophy.  

Regarding Yacob:

For two years, until the death of the king in September 1632, Yacob remained in the cave as a hermit, visiting only the nearby market to get food. In the cave, he developed his new, rationalist philosophy. He believed in the supremacy of reason, and that all humans – male and female – are created equal. He argued against slavery, critiqued all established religions and doctrines, and combined these views with a personal belief in a theistic Creator, reasoning that the world’s order makes that the most rational option.

And Amo:

Amo matriculated at the University of Halle in 1727, and became well-respected in German academic circles of the time, holding lecturing positions both at the universities of Halle and Jena.

Also interesting to note the international faculty at the University of Halle, "The Arab teacher Salomon Negri of Damascus and the Indian Soltan Gün Achmet from Ahmedabad were others who arrived in Halle to study and teach."

Objective moral facts

As my Ethics class approaches the end of the semester, there is now an ongoing conversation with my students about whether morality is based upon objective facts or not.  I defend that it is, as virtue theory understands that.  

So, today I enjoyed reading this good essay on Philippa Foot and how she and other like Elizabeth Anscombe and Iris Murdoch rescued philosophy from emotivism and existentialist ethics by insisting that the virtues describe something real.

I delighted in this sentence from the essay, "To say that vice is a natural defect is not an answer to any question; it is simply a way of interpreting the question, of telling us where we should be looking."

So often students wrestle with virtue theory because they expect some set of rules to tell them how to decide ethical matters, rather than the more complex and nuanced activity of character formation.

The Questions of a Toddler

Preparing for next week's classes, there's this great line for parents of toddlers from Susan Neiman--"The adamant child who wants every question answered expresses something about the nature of reason." This is part of a larger conversation on how our reason demands a world that makes sense and that the philosophical impulse arises from this basic childhood need. So your toddler is exhibiting one of the most important traits of human intellect--the demand for reason and morality.