Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking

Philosopher Carlin Romano has a nice article on Hawking and Mlodinow's The Grand Design in The Chronicle of Higher Education ("Cosmology, Cambridge Style: Wittgenstein, Toulmin, and Hawking"). The bullet points are...
  • Many scientists take Hawking's side; others do not.
  • Hawking admits: you can't prove God does not exist.
  • "Hawking's orotund pronouncements about God are, to be charitable, simplistic." Philosophical Cambridge showed that a long time ago. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stephen Toulmin "inoculated us against the naïve view that science shows God does not exist and is irrelevant to cosmology."
  • Their message? "Scientists eager to delete God exceed their job description."
  • Romano spends time discussing Wittgenstein's belief in God and his religious, Christian faith. It involves trusting the "historical narrative." I think it would be interesting to compare Wittgenstein's understanding of faith and giving himself over to the Grand Narrative of Christianity with N.T. Wright's understanding of the Grand Narrative. Romano gives a nice little synopsis of what has been called "Wittgensteinian fideism."
  • Wittgenstein 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.
  • Many years ago, in the last century, I studied philosophy of science with Harold I. Brown. What a great privilege that was for me, even though I did not realize it at the time! Brown introduced me to Stephen Toulmin who was, at that time, teaching at the University of Chicago. Toulmin, upon being influenced by Wittgenstein, morphed from being confident in "the scientific method" to a rejection of "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.""
  • "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."
  • Hawking has ignored philosophy-of-science developments as he focuses 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.'"" (Emphasis mine)
  • In conclusion, "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."
I found Romano's entire essay worth reading, and especially fascinating to me, reminding me of Dr. Brown's use of Wittgenstein and Toulmin as regards the history of science.