Have You Heard About the New Philosophy of Cosmology?

In an article from The Atlantic I learned about a new discipline called the Philosophy of Cosmology. This is a new field of study within the philosophy of physics. The field was established by “a group of professors from America’s top philosophy departments, including Rutgers, Columbia, Yale, and NYU.”  Another group of scholars from Oxford and Cambridge have launched a similar project in the United Kingdom. The Atlantic article is an interview with one of the founding members of the American group Tim Maudlin. Here are some of the highlights of the article.

On the content of a Philosophy of Cosmology: “This is a branch of the philosophy of physics, in which you happen to be treating the entire universe–which is one huge physical object–as a subject of study, rather than say studying just electrons by themselves, or studying only the solar system. There are particular physical problems, problems of explanation, which arise in thinking about the entire universe, which don’t arise when you consider only its smaller systems.”

On Stephen Hawking’s dismissal of philosophy: “Hawking is a brilliant man, but he’s not an expert in what’s going on in philosophy, evidently. Over the past thirty years the philosophy of physics has become seamlessly integrated with the foundations of physics work done by actual physicists, so the situation is actually the exact opposite of what he describes. I think he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I mean there’s no reason why he should. Why should he spend a lot of time reading the philosophy of physics? I’m sure it’s very difficult for him to do. But I think he’s just . . . uninformed.”

On quantum mechanics: “The problem is that quantum mechanics was developed as a mathematical tool. Physicists understood how to use it as a tool for making predictions, but without an agreement or understanding about what it was telling us about the physical world. And that’s very clear when you look at any of the foundational discussions. This is what Einstein was upset about; this is what Schrodinger was upset about. Quantum mechanics was merely a calculational technique that was not well understood as a physical theory. Bohr and Heisenberg tried to argue that asking for a clear physical theory was something you shouldn’t do anymore. That it was something outmoded. And they were wrong, Bohr and Heisenberg were wrong about that. But the effect of it was to shut down perfectly legitimate physics questions within the physics community for about half a century. And now we’re coming out of that, fortunately.”

The interview is a fascinating read and if you have any interest in philosophy as it intersects with cosmology this is a budding field with much promise. William Lane Craig is planning a three-part podcast in response to the interview. His first one is already available on his website. For more information see the Rutgers Templeton Project in Philosophy of Cosmology.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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One Response to Have You Heard About the New Philosophy of Cosmology?

  1. What comes across clearly in the Atlantic article is that even the most thoughtful and brilliant scientists of our day (over the objections of Bohr & Hawking) just can’t seem to escape the fundamental questions of *purpose* — “WHY are we here?”. It is such a compelling, inescapable question (though it has literally NO answer in modern cosmology). The very fact that they can’t suppress the question (despite generations of desperate attempts by cosmologists to do so), is itself the most telling argument of the inadequacy of cosmology. And yet, even these new philosophers — though at least they admit the conundrum — still flail about so seduously in the vain hope that physics will someday answer Everything. Note the (in my estimation) evasive response to the question about whether there is still a need for an external “Agent” to “fine tune” our universe. They cling to their faith that some unseen, almighty Equation will finally solve the mysteries, answer all questions and unify the multiverse. Well, I’m glad they are at least still asking the questions. Great post, Louis! Thanks for pointing out this fascinating article!

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