Friday, December 08, 2006

Hawking to Join the FIS?

My Stephen Hawking article in The Sunday Times - see this post - has inspired the usual combination of ecstatic praise and savage abuse. What is it about this man? Anyway, last night I was authoritatively informed that, as a result of studying the mathematics of Kurt Godel, Hawking no longer believes in the possibility of a final Theory of Everything. Godel proved the incompletability of any arithmetical system. I and many others could never understand how, if Godel was right - and nobody said he was wrong - any final theory was possible. Hawking and his followers used to pour scorn on such doubts. Now, it seems, he agrees. I find this amusing - the Theory of Everything was the battle standard of the scientism that emerged in the wake of Hawking's A Brief History of Time - but then perhaps I am a little twisted.
Also, since much of the abuse involves an accusation that I do not understand these matters, I'd like to reiterate for the intellectually challenged the most important point I made in my article. Hawking says he is an instrumentalist. He does not believe scientific theories are true, he believes they are the best approximations available at the time, they are useful instruments. He was an instrumentalist when he did believe in a final theory. This is profoundly irrational since he would have to believe that all theories except the final one could be encompassed by his instrumentalism. The final one, to be genuinely final, had to be different - ie true. This glaring contradiction cannot be wished or calculated away by scornful physicists. It is an intellectual error, simple as that. Hawking, should he wish to apply, would be welcomed into the ranks of the Failed Intellectuals Society. It was, after all, his attempt to insult me that inspired the foundation of this great institution.


  1. Oh, how great minds grapple and fail, grapple and fail again. There's a little piece of advice in a now largely discarded book which says we should not concern ourselves with such matters because we're in no position to debate them. I interpret this to mean that we lack a key component in our psyches which would enable us - we're lacking the cookies, so to speak. So we see phenomena but fail to grasp their significance. Anyway, it's just an idea.

  2. "Hawking says he is an instrumentalist."

    funny I always thought him more a percussionist:)

  3. Looks like Hawking has been reading my papers! In one of mine, entitled 'Possible physical universes',

    I argue, on p4, that :

    "A theory T is complete if for any sentence s, either s or Not(s) belongs to T. If a sentence is true in some models of a theory but not in others, then the theory is incomplete. Godel's first incompleteness theorem demonstrates that Peano arithmetic is incomplete. Hence, any theory which includes Peano arithmetic will also be incomplete. If a final theory of everything includes Peano arithmetic, (an apparently moderate requirement), then the final theory will be incomplete. Such a final theory of everything would not eliminate contingency. There would be sentences true in some models of a final theory, but not true in
    others. Hence, the multiverse hypothesis looms over even a hypothetical final theory of everything. Godel's incompleteness theorem dispels the possibility that there is only one logically possible physical universe."

    This is actually not the same thing as saying that there cannot be a final theory of everything; there can be a final theory, but that final theory will have multiple models, and these correpond to the possible universes in a final theory.

  4. Well, thit was my top laugh of the day! Thank you Bryan.

  5. As I sit here in the midnight neon of the newsroom waiting for my story about George W. Bush's agreeing to change "tactics" in Iraq (but not "strategy" or "goal"), I read this apposite quotation in my datebook for this week: "Be curious always! For knowledge will not acquire you; you must acquire it." Attributed to someone named "Sudie Back." Who he? Or she?

  6. Bryan, after reading your essay on Stephen Hawking, I find what is most tragic about the man, I believe, is his evidently willful blindness. He fails to recall that the empirical method first sets to observe a phenomenon, seeks patterns in the observations, carries out experiments, and obtains additional independent data to verify predictions, then should the hypothesis be successful in predicting the results of successive experiments, it can be called a theory. Choosing the simpler theory that explains a phenomenon is the application of Occam's Razor.

    Non-Falsifiable hypotheses are implicitly unscientific. Mathematical models are exactly that, models of reality.

    The time of Newton is past, despite Hawking and his peers desperately clinging to him. And so if one applied the knowledge and laws of Maxwell governing electromagnetism to their logical conclusion, he would see that the science governing electromagnetic plasmas is not only successful in explaining the properties of such plasmas on Earth but successful in predicting the rotational behavior and shapes of galaxies in space. In the twentieth century the pioneer was Nobel Laureate Hannes Olof Gösta Alfvén.

    Space probes have verified separated charge in space; Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin wrote: "The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance -- it is the illusion of knowledge."

    Hawking and the proponents of Newtonian or gravity dominated cosmology, who believe that their mathematical models of superstrings and eleven-dimensional space and unobservable multi-verses, black holes, invisible dark energy and matter, are sadly suffering from that illusion.

    Plasma cosmology explains in simpler fashion, using Maxwell's equations, what we observe in the universe. Unfortunately, it is marginalized by those who have abandoned the scientific method, who have forgotten the empirical method, who have neglected, as Micahael Faraday put it,

    "The scientist should be a man willing to listen to every suggestion but determined to judge for himself. He should not be biased by appearances, have no favorite hypothesis, be of no school, in doctrine have no master...Truth should be his primary object. If these qualities be added to industry, he may hope walk within the veil of the temple of Nature."

    The tragedy of Hawking is that he's neither learned nor understood the wisdom of Michael Faraday

  7. I'm told by my physical science colleagues at Nature, a very clever crew, that Hawking is not that much respected among the real experts in his discipline. He's considered either a bit superficial or wrong, depending on who you ask. This, of course, could just be the usual academic bitchery and jealousy of popular success. I did read B H of T and thought it quite good, though did not understand the last third or so. I've also heard it said that the best bits of that book are the bits where Hawking is summarising other people's work.

  8. Bryan, I presume I was one of the people who responded to your post about hawking with "savage abuse", based largely upon my "intellectually challenged" view that you "do not understand these matters".

    This response not because I am a follower of hawking, it is because it is so spectacularly cringeworthy to see someone expounding upon an entire area of human thought where, yes, they know quite simply nothing. And now you've added Godel to your repertoire! It is quite extraordinary. My degree in theoretical physics taught me one thing of real importance, that I know absolutely nothing. That you can happily theorise about such matters is a consequence of you knowing even less. The debate you involve yourself in has almost nothing to do with physics, but since you (and I) cannot really grasp the maths it is the only one you can have.

    If you are serious about your campaign against "scientism", then I really, genuinely, would advise learning some science. Is there any other subject you would be happy debating from such a position?