The Chronicle Review

Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

September 26, 2010

Hawking Said, "Let There Be No God!," and There was Light!

That headline flashed to all corners of the media universe this month. Of course, we don't know whether a universe has corners. Truth is, we don't know much about the universe that isn't astonishingly inferential. Alas, you'd hardly know that from listening to the retired Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and his media echo chamber.

The breaking news originated in the latest book by Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (Bantam), co-written with physicist Leonard Mlodinow. It excited front-page editors as few science tomes do. Britain's Mirror exclaimed, "Good Heavens! God Did Not Create the Universe, Says Stephen Hawking." Canada's National Post drolly chimed in with, "In the Beginning, God Didn't Have to Do a Thing."

In his new book, Hawking, the celebrated author of A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1988), declares on the first page that "philosophy is dead" because it "has not kept up" with science, which alone can explain the universe. "It is not necessary to invoke God," the authors write, "to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." Hawking sound-bited the hard stuff for interviewers: "Science makes God unnecessary," he told Good Morning America. Something simply came out of nothing.

If you've followed the science-religion debate in recent times, there's nothing new about such claims. Many scientists take Hawking's side, some do not. Almost everyone agrees that, as Hawking told ABC News, "One can't prove that God doesn't exist." The Templeton Foundation, which specializes in prodding believers and nonbelievers to discuss such things in civilized ways, has published all sorts of booklets, like "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?," in which some eminent scientists answer "Yes" and others answer "No."

Why, then, the uproar? Largely because Hawking has been anointed by the media as possibly "the smartest man in the world" (ABC News) and the "most revered scientist since Einstein" (The New York Times)—a genius, and so on. A genius, presumably, must be right about everything. Especially if he managed to sell nine million copies of a book.

Hawking's latest claims also sparked attention because A Brief History of Time ended with his observation that, if we could achieve a unified theory in physics, we would "know the mind of God." While Hawking's fellow atheists took that coda as a play on Einstein's earlier use of the phrase, many believers chose to read it as open-mindedness toward a possible creator, making this new book a sharp U-turn.

The ironic part of the current media tizzy is that philosophical Cambridge—that lesser-known slice of the university historically eclipsed by the Nobel accomplishments of its physicists—long ago showed why Hawking's orotund pronouncements about God are, to be charitable, simplistic. In fact, it is Cambridge's greatest contributors to 20th-century philosophy—Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) and his most trenchant disciple, the Cambridge-trained physicist and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009)—who inoculated us against the naïve view that science shows God does not exist and is irrelevant to cosmology.

Before one gets edgy over Hawking's latest ex cathedra squawk, then, consider a thumbnail version of what Wittgenstein and Toulmin taught us about religion, science, and cosmology. Their message to Hawking? Scientists eager to delete God exceed their job description.

Wittgenstein turned decidedly religious during his World War I service in the Austrian Army, when he read the Gospels repeatedly. He prayed often. Even before the war, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience exerted a powerful influence on him. Later, during the only public lecture of his career, he explored the psychological state of "feeling safe in the hands of God."

From his mid-20s on, Wittgenstein referred to God regularly. In his Notebook of 1916, he writes that "to believe in God means to see that life has a meaning." In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922), Wittgenstein contends that "God does not reveal himself in the world." Wittgenstein's God is beyond human understanding. In Culture and Value (University of Chicago Press, 1980), Wittgenstein remarks that it is a mistake to "try and give some sort of philosophical justification for Christian beliefs."

Wittgenstein's religiosity was overwhelmingly ethical, indirectly metaphysical, and almost never institutional. When his friend Maurice O'Connor Drury headed to war, Wittgenstein told him, "If it ever happens that you get mixed up in hand-to-hand fighting, you must just stand aside and let yourself be massacred." In Culture and Value, the contrast between his beliefs and Hawking's empiricist approach to God becomes clear.

"Christianity is not a doctrine," he writes, then elaborates: "Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it gives us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative—rather: believe through thick and thin." Wittgenstein acknowledges the emotional intensity involved: "If I am to be really saved—then I need certainty ... and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what my heart, my soul needs, with its passions ... not my abstract mind."

After World War II, Wittgenstein apparently stuck to such views. In 1948, he distinguishes "religious faith" from "superstition," writing that the first is a "trusting," while the second is a "false science." On the matter of evidence for God, Wittgenstein offers a characteristically shrewd angle in 1950: "A proof of God's existence should really be something by which one could convince oneself of God's existence. But I think that believers who have provided such proofs ... would never have come to believe through such proofs."

In contrast to his enormous respect for truths of religion that cannot be said, but only acted upon, Wittgenstein displays little appreciation for science's hard-won descriptions of physical reality. Instead, he criticizes scientists for their arrogance. In Culture and Value, he writes, "What a curious attitude scientists have—: 'We still don't know that; but it is knowable and it is only a matter of time before we get to know it!'" Later, he seems almost to rebuke Hawking from the grave: "Science: enrichment and impoverishment. One particular method elbows all the others aside. They all seem paltry by comparison."

According to his foremost biographer, Ray Monk, Wittgenstein in his later work sought to preserve "the integrity of a nonscientific form of understanding." Wittgenstein didn't think his views would persuade a "typical western scientist." But Stephen Toulmin was not typical. He built on his teacher's insights, explaining science as a creative form of knowledge that shifts with changing historical practices.

In his preface to Return to Reason (Harvard University Press, 2001), Toulmin recounted how he first adopted "a Wittgensteinian approach" to science. Years before, he wrote, natural scientists shared a confidence in "scientific method." Now, he remarked, the phrase was "pronounced with a sarcastic or ironic tone."

Toulmin recalled that he once also felt the fascination of working scientists for exactly how the universe operates: "As a teenager in the 1930s, I would sit in bed reading books with titles like The Restless Universe." Yet decades later, Toulmin demanded humility of scientists after the death of "positivist" approaches to science. He argued in Human Understanding (Princeton University Press, 1972) that we should talk more about understanding, less about knowledge. In a 1992 interview, Toulmin summed up the core theme of his works as: "the limits of theory."

Already in Foresight and Understanding (Indiana University Press, 1961), Toulmin had explored what makes a scientific theory "successful." He rejected the unitary notion of scientific methods. "There is no universal recipe for all science and all scientists," asserted Toulmin, "any more than there is for all cakes and all cooks. ... Much in science ... cannot be created according to set rules."

Instead, he suggested a Darwinian vision: that scientific concepts and theories catch on by being "better adapted" than rivals. It was "fruitless" to look for an all-purpose "scientific method": Growth of scientific ideas will always call for "different enquiries." Like Wittgenstein arguing that the activities we call "games" share no one necessary condition, Toulmin showed that whether we choose "prediction," "experimentation," or any other putative sine qua non of science, no one criterion captures all the things we call science.

For these reasons and more, Toulmin, in Wittgenstein's Vienna (Simon & Schuster, 1973), embraced Wittgenstein's skepticism toward science as deliverer of a unique, objective account of the world. He argued that such skepticism requires us to police science's positivist ambitions: Wittgenstein's "philosophy aims at solving the problem of the nature and limits of description. His world-view expresses the belief that the sphere of what can only be shown must be protected from those who try to say it."

As a result, Toulmin, like Wittgenstein, never overvalued science. Science simply devises pragmatically useful descriptions. Rejecting "the naïve extrapolation of scientific concepts into nonscientific contexts," Toulmin extended his maturing vision to cosmology—Hawking's main concern.

In The Return to Cosmology (University of California Press, 1983) and Cosmopolis (Free Press, 1990), Toulmin praised cosmology for stretching "our powers of speculation" but also worried that perhaps "the truth about the Universe as a Whole is unknowable" and "can be expressed in no human graphs, equations or languages." He argued that truths within the universe, by the very definition of "universe," cannot be extrapolated into truths about the universe, as if the universe had an outside. Still, he expressed his desire for a cosmology broader and smarter than science alone can produce. Introducing The Return to Cosmology, he wrote, "These essays neither identify the concerns of cosmology with those of science nor do they try to separate them entirely."

Toulmin urged scientists to learn from other intellectuals. In ancient times, Toulmin pointed out, cosmology meant more than how the universe mechanically operates. Rather, it captured the Greek notion that the entire world "forms a single, integrated system united by universal principles."

For Toulmin, that "traditional world picture" happily combined "an astronomical, a teleological, and a theological picture." Unfortunately, Toulmin argued, the rise of Cartesian modern science undermined this tradition of broad-based cosmology and interest in "cosmic interrelatedness." Eventually, "nobody in the sciences any longer needed to think about 'the Whole.'"

But Toulmin ended his story on an upswing. Developments in 20th-century philosophy of science—from Thomas Kuhn's vision of a historical practice with changing paradigms to quantum theory's uncertainties—invited a return to traditional cosmology. According to Toulmin, sophisticated scientists increasingly recognized that "Laplace's ideal of the scientist as 'an unobserved, uninfluencing observer'" was "unattainable in principle for reasons of basic physical theory."

Hawking seems to have ignored these philosophy-of-science developments as he focused on such hypotheses as splintered string theory and the vaunted M-theory of everything. Ironically, as some reviewers have pointed out, it is he who seems not to have kept up with philosophy. Hawking insists that any notion that is "incompatible with modern physics" must be wrong. But the history of science's errors and misconceptions shows that extraordinary confidence to be unjustified. In arguing for a cosmology that's not exclusively scientific, Toulmin warned that the "disciplinary specialization of the natural sciences can no longer intimidate us into setting religious cosmology aside as 'unscientific.'"

Scientific cosmologists like Hawking still want to do that. Many would rather be bound, gagged, and abandoned in a rundown multiverse than take nonscientific cosmology seriously, or admit that some matters, if not matter itself, fall outside their expertise. Toulmin, for his part, warned us to be wary of any "off duty" scientist who "started laying down the law about things on which his calling did not make him an authority." For Toulmin, "human candor should also lead us to admit that matters of faith are intellectually unprovable and accordingly uncertain."

Wittgenstein's and Toulmin's Cambridge antidote to Hawking's smugness about God and philosophy combines analytic acuity, mastery of scientific history, and, at times, pure art. As he did so often, Wittgenstein captured his view in a compelling image. In Culture and Value, he writes: "An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it."

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave this summer as a Templeton-Cambridge Fellow in Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge.