on splice today: why they suck (2): stephen hawking. really the topic is contemporary physics, which i've been attacking on and off for years, with mixed success. hit the 'science' tab, below right, and scroll down for some of the discussion.
the point of 'why they suck' is to attack people who have been placed above criticism, people who cannot be attacked (or their ideas, or songs, etc). i want to do critiques on things and people that provoke the 'you can't say that!' response. i think really we often engage in apparently-unanimous idolatry of members of our species that isn't good for the people treated that way and definitely isn't good for ourselves or our art or our ideas. sheer peer pressure is not a good way to form tastes or figure out what to believe. and when the whole world gets unanimous, it really is extremely likely that everyone will pretend not to notice or really will not notice the sucky part.
so, because it's hawking, or just any apparently super-genius physics professor, people happily swallow things they cannot and should not possibly believe: the universe has every possible history, all of which we produce by observation. you can't even begin to make that anything like coherent. and yet you're flummoxed by the blackboard of scribbled equations.
ok, just to nail a couple of things. 'the universe has every possible history' is a pretty crisp formulation, but it nevertheless runs maximally afoul of occam's razor: it postulates as many entities as any theory of anything can possibly postulate: every thing that could possibly exist has existed. i am not sure myself whether or to what extent the razor is a good principle of theory choice; it would be, in my opinion, only if more ontologically economical theories were more likely to be true. i don't see quite why that should be the case. but i know that hawking makes it his first principle of theory choice and then commits the strongest possible violation of it a few sentences later. that's a mistake by anyone's standards.
well, he doesn't say these are criteria of theory choice; they are standards for generating a 'real model'; if the 'model' is 'real' then it will have these features. just to quibble: by real he means 'true': the model is real, i suppose; there it is, expressed in the text or the equations. only it's incoherent and false. i would prefer to formulate this by asking what is a good explanation, which would also mean a true explanation. these are very vexed and complex issues, but they are handled by people like hawking in, let's say, a stunningly cavalier fashion. even the standards of theory choice he gives are sort of an eclectic checklist from the history of answers to these questions, giving you a little occam, a little logical positivism, and a little popper, along with that utterly vague and arbitrary thing about arbitrariness and adjustments (2).
i am aware that the book i'm reading is 'popularized': good heavens i'm choking on the sub-atomic particles as soccer balls etc.: a lot of this sort of writing has a very condescending quality. maybe there is much much more sophisticated thinking about explanation, theory choice, modeling, etc. underneath? but if there were, it wouldn't look this bad on the surface i think. hawking has argued - and many people, even philosophers, take this stance implicitly or explicitly - that science has replaced philosophy. i don't think so, because hawking and such so desperately need much more precision about basic terms, categories, and the ground-clearing assumptions. like: 'how do we recognize a good theory?' being a killer mathematician or a good collider of particles doesn't necessarily help you with these tasks.
but really it's the crazy, casual apparent subjectivism that i would most viscerally reject, and which is also incompatible with everything else (such as stating that the universe begins with a bang). it's just german idealism again, i tell you; dead as a doornail in philosophy, for extremely good reason.