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The Faustian Pact: Hawking’s Greedy Reductionism

“… in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists[…]underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.” [The American cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett, on ‘greedy reductionism’]

In his new book, The Grand Design, published on September 9, and part-extracted by The Times, Stephen Hawking claims to have killed off not only ‘God’, but also philosophy, and to “have found the grand design”, for both after, and before, time zero. For such a brilliant mind, I find this ToE-curlingly naïve. The very idea of a ‘Theory of Everything’ is itself a philosophical trope by which ‘all knowledge’ is to be unified and reduced to one theory in physics. The arrogance is worthy of a jealous God, and it is a classic example of what Daniel Dennett has termed ‘greedy reductionism’. It is also paradoxical that, while Hawking embraces eleven dimensions and multiverses, he can grasp neither the concept of a dimensionless ‘God’ nor the existence of multiphilosophies.

Hawking is not the first physicist to fall for the Faustian Pact of seeking ‘all knowledge’ – “Daß ich erkenne, was die Welt/ Im Innersten zusammenhält” (Goethe’s Faust, lines 382-3). Most famously, perhaps, there was Paul Dirac at the 5th Solvay International Conference in 1927. After much discussion on religion and science, the Austrian physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, who had been brought up as a Catholic, wryly commented to much laughter: “Es gibt keinen Gott und Dirac ist sein Prophet” (“There is no God and Dirac is his Prophet”). Mephistopheles was already in mocking flight.

Hawking is just the latest example of an eminent scientist beguiled by the temptation of revealing the one, beautiful answer. It is as if the more brilliant the scientist the less the resistance to usurping ‘God’ power, while denying the concept. For Hawking, M-theory replaces both God and philosophy. But M-theory is not yet a proper theory, testable experimentally. Moreover, even among reductionist physicists, it is but one candidate. And, as a philosophy, it is narrow and dangerous. Hawking and those driven by the Faustian Pact are like Henrik Ibsen’s master builder, Halvard Solness, as they construct their towering castles, their grand designs, from which they will surely topple.

Interestingly, the great Christian apologist, Augustine of Hippo Regius, in his Neo-Platonic masterpiece, Confessiones, written in CE 397-8, asked the same questions of time and space, but was more modest in his answers. “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” he mused; to which he answered: “You are the Maker of all time…But if there was no time before heaven and earth were created, how can anyone ask you what you were doing ‘then’? If there was no time, there was no ‘then’.”

As we move backwards in time towards t = 0, the initial singularity, our normally expanding universe contracts, and, as it does so, it becomes denser and denser. At the staggering density of 1095 g/cm3, we enter the Planck era, in which physics functions at the Planck scale. This is very, very close to time zero, but it is not time zero. We can only push the cosmic clock back to ~ t = 10-43s. We moderns can no more approach time zero than could Augustine. We have no more insight into ‘time’ before time zero: is there ‘then’ or no ‘then’, ‘time’ or no ‘time’?

These matters remain resolutely in the realms of philosophy and metaphysics. In these spheres, theologians and physicists are equal in their degrees of ignorance. Indeed, Hawking has no more authority to speak on origins, and on time before zero, than Augustine, and, more pertinently, than the proverbial woman on the Clapham omnibus. As Frank Close, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, observes, Hawking’s ‘grand design’ “adds nothing to the God debate.”

It reminds me of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, and of Harold Pinter’s seminal play, The Homecoming, with Hawking cast as Teddy, the intellectual, who is brutally brought down to earth by his rumbustious family. Where the big questions of LIFE are concerned, Teddy collapses before rougher men, while a plain-thinking woman overpowers all. One recalls the great Catholic mathematician, Blaise Pascal, in 1654, and his “Dieu”, not “le Dieu des philosophes et des savants”.

I fear that Hawking is stringing us along like any old huckster. The essence of being a scientist is to be open to being proved wrong, and to resist the beautiful conceit of ‘all-knowingness’. Greedy reductionism denies the very multiverses of knowledge, about which we remain as thick as two short Plancks.

Professor George Ellis, President of the International Society for Science and Religion, rightly concludes: “Philosophy is not dead. Every point of view is imbued with philosophy.”
Philip Stott is emeritus professor of biogeography in the University of London.