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September 16, 2010

The Faustian Pact: Hawking's Greedy Reductionism

by Philip Stott

“… in their eagerness for a bargain, in their zeal to explain too much too fast, scientists[...]underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers or levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.” [The American cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett, on ‘greedy reductionism’]

In his new book, The Grand Design, published on September 9, and part-extracted by The Times, Stephen Hawking claims to have killed off not only ‘God’, but also philosophy, and to “have found the grand design”, for both after, and before, time zero. For such a brilliant mind, I find this ToE-curlingly naïve. The very idea of a ‘Theory of Everything’ is itself a philosophical trope by which ‘all knowledge’ is to be unified and reduced to one theory in physics. The arrogance is worthy of a jealous God, and it is a classic example of what Daniel Dennett has termed ‘greedy reductionism’. It is also paradoxical that, while Hawking embraces eleven dimensions and multiverses, he can grasp neither the concept of a dimensionless ‘God’ nor the existence of multiphilosophies.

Hawking is not the first physicist to fall for the Faustian Pact of seeking ‘all knowledge’ - “Daß ich erkenne, was die Welt/ Im Innersten zusammenhält” (Goethe’s Faust, lines 382-3). Most famously, perhaps, there was Paul Dirac at the 5th Solvay International Conference in 1927. After much discussion on religion and science, the Austrian physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, who had been brought up as a Catholic, wryly commented to much laughter: “Es gibt keinen Gott und Dirac ist sein Prophet” (“There is no God and Dirac is his Prophet”). Mephistopheles was already in mocking flight.

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Philip Stott

Philip Stott

Philip Stott is emeritus professor of biogeography in the University of London.