Paul graduated from Leicester University, having studied Philosophy of Science. UK born and raised, he now lives in Florida.
Writing about his collaborator and fellow scientist Roger Penrose following their work on black holes and gravity, the physicist Stephen Hawking said of Penrose: "He's a Platonist and I'm a positivist."
Hawking's observation highlighted the fact that scientists can not only disagree on the nuts and bolts of how the universe functions, but also have very different philosophical ideas on how to investigate the nature of reality.
What the essential truths are, as well as how they might be approached, has been much discussed by scientists and philosophers over the centuries, but there has never been universal agreement.
Platonism and positivism are two of the most influential schools of thought. Essentially, (and perhaps in over-simplified) terms:
- Platonism is rooted in the Ancient Greek philosophy of Socrates/Plato and sees rational thought as being the correct approach when it comes to understanding reality. The physical world, and therefore empiricism, are too flawed to be relied upon.
- Positivism has its origins in the work of the French 19th Century thinker Auguste Comte, who's generally considered to be the first modern philosopher of science. This doctrine considers empiricism to be the best way to understand reality.
To understand better how and why these philosophical systems differ, it's useful to understand each separately and in more detail.
Below is a more detailed overview of each school of thought.
What Is the Platonic View of Reality?
As previously mentioned, this philosophical belief system goes all the way back to Ancient Greece. Plato was a student of Socrates and his epistemology involved distinguishing between knowledge, which is certain, and mere true opinion, which is not certain.
He defined the two ideas thus:
- Truth is eternal, immutable, and perfect.
- Opinion is transient, mutable, and imperfect.
Plato noted that the physical world goes through constant change, including transformations and decay. He also argued that we regularly misinterpret our senses, asserting that: "we neither see or hear anything accurately."
Empiricism, which depends upon the physical world via our senses, is therefore suspect and cannot be trusted. Truth is therefore not found in the physical world, but is only discoverable by the employment of reason.
According to Platonic thinking, we all have an innate knowledge when it comes to underlying truths and the application of rational thought enables us to recall the fundamental nature of reality.
Plato was a dualist. He believed that there was non-physical place that he called the "realm of forms" where trustworthy knowledge could be found (truth). He contrasted this with the changing, decaying physical world, which he saw an as unreliable source of knowledge (opinion).
What Is Positivism?
Positivism, in the philosophical sense, is the idea that only objects and events that can be experienced directly should be the focus of scientific enquiry.
Adherents of this belief system see the world through the lens of scientific method. They believe that there are facts about the human world that are objectively true. These facts are discoverable and interpreted via the scientific method.
Consequently, positivists reject metaphysical and theistic speculations. According to positivism, every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified, or demonstrated by logical or mathematical proof.
The Father of Positivism, as well as the first philosopher of science in the modern sense, was the French writer Auguste Comte. He argued that a combination of observation and experiment should be the principle method for discovering the truth.
Knowledge of reality for Comte essentially progresses only to the degree that it is grounded in experience and observable facts, and is rooted in sensory experiences that be shared with other people.
Platonism Vs. Positivism: Hawking's Observation About Penrose
Here's my take regarding Hawking's comment about Penrose.
My understanding is that Hawking believed that Penrose has a tendency to over-prioritize a priori knowledge (ideas that are gained through rational thought) over empirical knowledge (that which is gained through experience of the physical world).
He was also perhaps taking a side-swipe at Penrose because he saw Penrose as being overly interested in metaphysical ideas and explanations. This is a criticism that's often been leveled against Penrose over the years, particularly in regard to his theory of quantum consciousness.
Unlike most scientists, Penrose's original academic background was in mathematics and this perhaps influences the way that he approaches many problems. He's very comfortable with non-material and abstract concepts, connections, and constructions and often appears happiest when operating on the fringes, or outside, the realm of classical physics.
Overall, however, it could be argued that the partnership of Hawking and Penrose was so effective precisely because of their differing approaches.
Will Humans Ever Understand Reality?
Some philosophers and scientists believe that it's unlikely that human beings will ever truly grasp the nature of reality.
There is, after all, no good reason as to why we should be able to understand it. While we may yearn for greater insight, our limited senses and brain power may simply not be up to the task. Just as a chimpanzee will never be able to understand quantum mechanics, human thinking may never be capable of understanding the true nature of reality.
Evolutionary studies suggest that each organism is designed for very specific survival tasks and it's these tasks that dictate the development of the senses and thinking capabilities of the organism. In short, humans, like all the other animals, have not been enabled to gain an objective understanding of their environment. The brain operations are geared exclusively for survival and reproduction.
Empiricists, though, argue that the invention of scientific tools for investigation and measuring, as well as ongoing developments in computer technology, have the potential to overcome many, if not all, of the problems associated with the biological limitations of humans. Much of modern science already relies upon devices for collecting data, and artificial intelligence will inevitably provide further revolutions in the processing and interpretation of information.
For thousands of years, the Earth was universally seen by humans as flat. All the empirical information available appeared to confirm this. It was only when scientific tools, such as telescopes, were developed that we learned that, regardless of how our world might appear to our senses, the truth was remarkably different.
As far as a greater understanding of reality goes, we're perhaps only waiting for the right tools to come along.
Sources and Further Reading
- Plato | The Phaedo
- Plato | The Phaedrus
- Grabowski, Francis A. III | Plato, Metaphysics and the Forms (2008)
- Bourdeau, Michel. (2014). Auguste Comte. Archived 11 October 2017 at the Wayback Machine in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
- Donald Hoffman | Do we see reality as it is? 2015 TEDTalks
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Paul Goodman