Is Science the new philosophy? Is philosophy dead? Is science still based on hypothesis? Can science make categorical statements about philosophy, theology, and cosmology? People like Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow speak assertively that science has the answers to all questions and that we can do without God terminology.
Science can explain the universe without the need for a Creator. In A Brief History Of Time I used the word “God” like Einstein did as a shorthand for the laws of physics. However, this is not what most people mean by God, so I have decided not to use the term. The laws of physics can explain the universe without the need for a God. 1
Furthermore, Hawking and Mlodinow state that even philosophy is dead. They refer to the vast questions of how the universe has come to be when they say,
Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. 2
I wonder what Rene Descartes would have to say about such certainty in theoretical scientists. Descartes’ writings about science and philosophy have been looked to for generations and suggest a more humble, impartial, and ambiguous approach.
What if we were to call science back to its original skepticism and emphasis on hypothesis? Marilynne Robinson suggests that we are only sane if we recognize that all of our interactions with the world are based on hypothesis.
I tend to draw analogies from science because I believe that our sense of the world is always hypothesis, and we are sane in the sense that we understand this. To proceed by hypothesis is the method of modern science, ideally. It is one of the dominant assessments of modern culture that science, by its nature, drives back the shadows of error. It is this confidence that very often leads science to forget skepticism and to take itself for the unique domain of truth. Many of the darkest shadows of the modern period have been the products of science, and there is no reason to call it by any other name than science simply because it was grossly in error. Racial theory and eugenics are cases in point. I say this because I wish to assert that all thought always inclines toward error. The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error.3
Robinson is suggesting that “all thought always inclines toward error.” Now by that she does not mean that all thought is error; but rather that all thought has a bias and an inclination toward error. We must necessarily guard against this inclination by starting from an hypothesis, testing our hypothesis, and then proceeding to further hypotheses. This indeed is science and can also be applied in the areas of philosophy and theology. Robinson’s novels 4 show examples of the error that persists when an idea becomes unquestioned truth rather than a tentative hypothesis and shows the compounding of error upon error when “truth” can never be questioned. She is calling us to something different; something more cautious and humble.
My prayer is that, in theological debate, in philosophical and scientific debate, we might be much more tentative than assertive. May we hold all of our cherished truths as hypotheses requiring further evidence. I pray that we might be able to live with uncertainty and hope until all uncertainty is banished and we see clearly the object of our hope.
Guardian Editor. “Gods of science: Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox discuss mind over matter.” The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/sep/11/science-stephen-hawking-brian-cox), September 2010.
Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.
Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Robinson, Marilynne. “On “Beauty”.” In The World Split Open:Great Authors on How and Why We Write, 121-139. Portland: Tin House Books, 2014.
1 Steven Hawking in “Gods of science: Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox discuss mind over matter” Guardian Editor, “Gods of science: Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox discuss mind over matter,” The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/sep/11/science-stephen-hawking-brian-cox), September 2010., September 11, 2010.
2 The Grand Design, Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.
3 Robinson, Marilynne. “On “Beauty”.” In The World Split Open:Great Authors on How and Why We Write, 121-139. Portland: Tin House Books, 2014.
4 See for example, Gilead, Robinson, Marilynne; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; (2004).