Krauss, Hawking, Atheism and (a lack of) Philosophy

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Since scientific issues often crop up in discussions about the existence of God, it isn’t surprising that some high profile scientists get involved. If these scientists take an atheist position, it isn’t surprising that they don’t have much time for theology. What is very surprising, however, is that some have a similar disregard for philosophy. Two eminent physicists who fall into this category are Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss. In the history of physics, many leading figures have engaged with philosophical questions in very profound ways: Newton, Einstein and Bohr are obvious examples. By contrast, Hawking and Krauss seem to think that philosophy has nothing to offer because science has all the answers.

The naivety of this viewpoint is quite breathtaking. In many areas of science, philosophers engage in very detailed ways on foundational and conceptual issues of great importance. For example, quantum mechanics is shot through with philosophical and conceptual issues on which philosophers of physics and physicists interact closely. The same is true in biology, where philosopher’s of biology address important conceptual issues. In my own area of work, there is an almost seamless overlap between computer science and philosophy where issues relating to probability theory, evidential support, explanation and causation are addressed.

Now, of course, there are many areas of science where philosophical issues are not so important and so scientists can, if they wish, ignore them, but that brings me to my second point: Hawking and Krauss can’t help pronouncing on philosophical issues. They seem to think that science is really the way to answer these questions and so they tell us the ‘truth’ from a scientific perspective. The irony is that, having ignored philosophy, they proceed to give us their own philosophical answers dressed up as the simple ‘scientific truth’. Doing poor philosophy in the name of science does nothing for the credibility of science.

For example, in Hawking’s book The Grand Design, he and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow tell us on the first page that ‘philosophy is dead’ apparently because philosophy hasn’t ‘kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics’. I wonder what the philosophy of physics group at Oxford would make of that! Then in chapter 3 they discuss the nature of reality and mention debates between realists and anti-realists. Now, if anything is a philosophical dispute, this is. An enormous amount has been written on this by philosophers of science, but Hawking and Mlodinow breezily ignore recent debates on the topic and then propose their own solution: model-dependent realism.

According to this viewpoint, ‘it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation’. In other words, their brand of realism is actually a version of anti-realism! It’s not that Hawking and Mlodinow don’t say anything sensible about models in science – that’s not my point. My point is that they address a philosophical issue in an incredibly naïve way while ignoring what philosophers of science have to say because they think ‘philosophy is dead’. Similar points could be made about the way in which they ignore philosophical issues in their dismissal of belief in God.[1]

As for Krauss, one has to look no further than his claim that the universe came into existence out of nothing without God. It turns out that what Krauss calls ‘nothing’ isn’t really nothing but something and he was taken to task for this by an eminent philosopher of physics, David Albert.[2] Krauss wasn’t at all happy about this and in an interview described Albert as a ‘moronic philosopher’ while also disparaging philosophy more generally.[3] I’ve come across some of Albert’s work and it seems to me that he knows a lot more about the conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics than most physicists including, I suspect, Krauss himself.

In fairness, Krauss did offer an apology of sorts for dismissing philosophy in general; but had he taken philosophy a bit more seriously in the first place he wouldn’t have made such a straightforward mistake when talking about ‘nothing’. The same rejection of philosophy is apparent in his recent debates with William Lane Craig. Here are two examples. First, he seems to think that philosophy can be by-passed because science itself has established the non-existence of God, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this itself is a philosophical claim. Second, he seems to think that science can account for morality, again seemingly unaware of the significant philosophical problems with such a claim.

Some atheists might think that just as Krauss and Hawking can be criticized for their poor philosophy, so Craig and other theists can be criticized for their poor arguments. But there is a difference here. As many atheists recognize, even if one disagrees with Craig, there can be no doubt that the arguments he uses for God’s existence need to be evaluated on philosophical and logical grounds and cannot simply be dismissed by quick appeals to science. And there are many thoughtful atheist philosophers who have responded to Craig’s arguments in detail and Craig has offered his own responses in turn. The irony here is that Krauss (and Hawking) could strengthen, not weaken, their arguments by drawing on the best atheist philosophers! It’s a pity that such high-profile intellectuals have opted for the extremely weak philosophical claim- and it is a philosophical claim- that science has all but disproved the existence of God.

Dr David Glass has publications in computer science, physics and philosophy and is the author of Atheism’s New Clothes (IVP). His PhD in theoretical physics and MA in philosophy are from Queens University, Belfast.

[1] See, for example, John Lennox, God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design is it Anyway? (Lion, 2011).

[3] For an atheist philosopher’s perspective on Krauss’s attitude to philosophy, see

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