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There’s been an interesting bun-fight in the media recently between physicists and philosophers. As you know, physics and ethics were once conjoined in one subject: philosophy. The first philosophers, like Parmenides or Empedocles, were also physicists, searching for the unifying material elements of the universe much as CERN is now searching for the God Particle.

The first ethical philosophers, like Pythagoras and Heraclitus, tried to build ethical systems that fit with the scientific facts of the universe. Stoicism, Aristotelianism and Epicureanism are ethical theories and physical theories of the cosmos. That’s part of their beauty – they’re trying to be theories of everything.

That all changed with Copernicus, who shattered the hegemony of Christian Aristotelianism in the sixteenth century, and severed the umbilical cord between ethics and physics. You see some ethical philosophies in the Enlightenment try to imitate the extraordinary achievements of Isaac Newton and the new mechanistic science – Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example.  But other philosophers saw clearly that, if the universe was entirely ruled by mechanistic and predictable laws, it left no room for conscious free choice, thereby rendering much ethical thinking absurd. How could the little atoms of man possibly become self-aware and choose to change themselves?

Descartes suggested the soul might exist in the pineal gland, which became in his philosophy a battleground between the body’s ‘animal spirits’ and the soul’s celestial yearnings. But clearly this is an unsatisfactory solution from a scientific point of view – anatomists cut open the pineal gland but alas no angel flew away.

So physics and ethical philosophy simply ignored each other, and carried on their separate way. Physics grew in stature and success – we put a man on the moon! – while ethical philosophy became less central to our cultural conversation. Physicists like Einstein typically maintained a polite silence about the implications of their cosmic speculations for people’s ethical or religious beliefs.

In the last few years, however, this gentleman’s agreement has broken down. Scientists like Richard Dawkins have felt more prepared to go on the offensive and rubbish people’s religious beliefs. And this has encouraged physicists to also weigh in and announce that ‘philosophy is dead’, as Stephen Hawking charmingly put it last year. They’re usually particularly vocal shortly after publishing a new book, for some reason.

Which brings us to this month’s bun-fight. Last year, the physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called A Universe From Nothing, about how the universe could spontaneously come into being from quantum instability, without any need for an Aristotelian ‘First Mover’ pushing the start button (watch him give a talk about it here). Richard Dawkins declared it another nail in God’s coffin, and it’s since been reviewed a staggering 156 times on Amazon – those Skeptics sure are enthusiastic!

Last month, the New York Times published a rather rude (and certainly remarkably late) review by the philosopher David Albert, criticising Krauss’ theory of nothingness: if fundamental laws of physics already existed, then something existed before the universe.

This in turn prompted Krauss to give a somewhat intemperate interview to Ross Andersen of the Atlantic, hitting back at ‘the moronic philosopher’ of the NYT, and at philosophy in general.

Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers…Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.’


This in turn promoted various ‘WTF’ pieces, including NPR asking ‘why are physicists hating on philosophy?’. The atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote to Krauss suggesting he may have gone a bit far, so Krauss wrote a slightly less punchy piece saying, OK, philosophy is fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but it hasn’t contributed much to science recently, and anyway theology is a goddam disgrace.

Now you can say this is just a ridiculous bit of departmental handbags, but I think it’s great. In the words of Rod Tidwell from Jerry Maguire: ‘You think we’re fighting, I think we’re finally talking!’ It is good that physics and philosophy are talking to each other again, and that people are seriously trying to build a theory of everything that incorporates both the very small, the very big, and the very weird fact that humans are conscious beings reflecting on the cosmos.

There are going to be some arguments along the way, like any separated couple giving it another go, but both sides are engaged in the same mission – trying to work out the nature of reality, how humans fit into it, and how we can build the best possible lives and societies within it. Philosophy has a lot to bring to that conversation, not least to the question of how we define ‘the best possible life’, and also to the question of how we can transform our emotions.  That question is both a biological question, a psychological question, an ethical question, and also a physical one – how is it that humans are capable of consciously examining their automatic programming, and changing it? How can we enhance this remarkable capacity?

I was on the radio show and podcast Little Atoms yesterday, talking to Neil Denny about  how people use ancient philosophy today. He’s been running that show for a few years as a sideline project after his day-job. What an incredible success it’s been – it’s hosted many of my heroes, from Adam Curtis to Jonah Lehrer. Neil and I had a good chat, though sadly ran out of time before we could discuss the contemporary Skeptic movement and community, which fascinates us both. But here’s a video I made of The Amazing Meeting – the annual gathering of Skeptics in Las Vegas. I talk about my time among the Skeptics and also interview James Randi in my book.

Which was finally published on Thursday, by the way. We had the launch party at the Idler Academy – it was good fun. The book had a nice review in the FT, and the Independent did a great article on the rise of philosophy clubs. But it’s still somewhat battling against the odds as a first-time book – so do please spread the word and, if you feel very altruistic, write the first review on the Amazon page.

I also had a goodnatured scrap with Anne McElvoy on Radio 3’s Night Waves (I’m on 21 minutes in) this week.  Anne, who studied analytic philosophy at university, was horrified by the suggestion that philosophy was or could be a form of therapy for the emotions. But this is not a controversial claim – for those who think it’s ‘tosh’ (as Barry Gardiner MP put it on Twitter), have a look at Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, or, even better, read my book!

Here’s a fascinating study highlighted by the blog Neuroskeptic, which suggests there is a connection between whether a person thinks they are ‘depressed’, and how depressed they think other people are. The study found a person might actually have a lot of depressive episodes, but not consider themselves depressed (and therefore not seek help) because they think that everyone feels that way.

Neuroskeptic wonders if this study suggests anti-stigma campaigns are a bad idea – if people believe that everyone has emotional problems, perhaps they will feel they should stop making a fuss and not bother to seek help. Well, maybe, but hopefully anti-stigma campaigns also highlight the fact that there are many different ways to do something about emotional problems: support groups, CBT, other talking therapies, SSRIs, and so on. Personally, I remember how terrified I was when I had depression etc, and how ashamed I was – and I’m sure that me hiding the condition from almost everyone I knew (out of shame) simply exacerbated the problem.

The Occupy movement now has a lunatic fringe (as it were) – Occupy the DSM. And Luke Fowler’s films about RD Laing were just nominated for the Turner Prize. Not on YouTube alas, so here is Laing from Adam Curtis’ The Trap.

Finally, here’s a lovely piece by Robert Zaretsky from the Wall Street Journal, looking at the 150th anniversary of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which featured the godless student Bazarov, an inspiration for Friedrich Nietzsche. The problem, says Zaretsky, is we’ve all become so bored and un-curious that no one even believes in nihilism anymore. To misquote Walter from the Big Lebowski, say what you like about nihilism, at least it’s an ethos!

See you next week,