10 philosopher scientists for the 21st century

The 20th century had it's fair share of great philosopher scientists. Names like Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Jung, Whitehead, Einstein, Bohr, Pauli, Buckminster Fuller, Bohm and Penrose come to mind. So who are the Big Names for the 21st century? It's hard to predict the future of science, but we're putting our money on complexity.

Quantum mechanics

Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin is the John Wayne of theoretical physics. In his book ’A different universe' he quotes Wyatt Earp (remember Gunfight at the OK Corral?) as saying "Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything". Laughlin only deals with stuff that can be measured with extreme precision. Basically a good guy, altho sometimes too conservative. Especially when he talks about the future of energy.

Seth Lloyd is one of the 'inventors' of quantum computing. He's able to explain concepts like complexity and quantum weirdness to kids, dancing around like an electron. He believes that computation is one of the most fundamental concepts going on in the universe, so he doesn't mind thinking of the universe as a giant quantum computer.


Stuart Kauffman is a Jewish atheist who believes he has discovered some important clues about the origins of life. We believe that he is probably right. Also, like Laughlin and Sheldrake, Kauffman is on a crusade against fundamentalist reductionism. Kauffman is a broad and careful thinker, but he's allergic to anything that smells of teleology (except for the technical term pre-adaptation).

Ever since Sir John Royden Maddox, editor of Nature, said that Rupert Sheldrake's book A New Science of Life (1981) should be burned, the 'heretic' has gone from strength to strength. Sheldrake has put formerly esoteric topics like telepathy on the scientific agenda, using his theory of morphic resonance as a basis for the design of scientific experiments. Secret services like the CIA are very interested in his work on the sense of being stared at, because traditionally, people involved in cold war and espionage are open minded about the merits of any kind of science, even if it's a bit heretical.

Brain, Mind and Cognition

Together with Hermann Haken, J.A. Scott Kelso is one of the leaders in synergetics and especially coordination dynamics, a stimulating multi-disclipinary field. His practical knowledge of the 'mechanics' of coordination has deepened his philosophical insights. In 2006 he wrote an overlooked philosophical treatise about Niels Bohr's insight (going back to voices like Heraclitus) that opposites are complementary. In The complementary nature he says we should practice looking at opposites in a synthetic way, since that's the way the brain deals with them as well. Perhaps the book isn't fully mature, but the basic ideas are powerful.

If you've ever heard about 'embodiment' or embodied cognition, this is because cognition-heavyweight George Lakoff has done a lot of work in this field. Lakoff even proposes that traditional mathematics emerged in an embodied kind of way. His groundbreaking work on metaphors, analogies, categories and the way these things get wired up in the brain reveals a lot about the nature of reality, cognition, language and so on.

In the 1980's Douglas Hofstadter wrote a very popular book about the nature of Artificial Intelligence (as it was called back in the day), titled Gödel, Escher, Bach. Altho his explanation of the Gödel theorem was perhaps a bit more lucid than his thoughts on art and music, the polymath Hofstadter is able to combine artistic sensibility with philosophical reasoning and a healty dose of skepticism. Recently, the idea of AI was taken over by the ludicrous claims of the first immortal human/software-ish kind of entity known as Ray Googleweil. Leave it to Hofstadter to deal with bad science-fiction and intellectual dog excrement without blinking an eye.


Stephen Wolfram is a meta-mathematician. He does not believe in the idea of mathematics as a Platonic über phenomenon. On the contrary, he thinks there are many new kinds of mathematics waiting to be 'mined'. Preferably using his Wolfram Alpha search engine or his Mathematica software. Unfortunately, his thoughts on the 'computable universe' (see also Lloyd) are less sophisticated than we would hope. Wolfram dreams of finding one final line of code, that explains the universe and everything (as in 42). How silly of him...

Gregory Chaitin is another meta-mathematician who talks a lot of philosophy. Especially metaphysics and philosophy of mathematics. He thinks he can derive a formal definition of life. Better yet, he's going to formalize the origin of life and evolution, and if that isn't enough, Chaitin is also going to tackle the 'hard' problem of consciousness. Altho Chaitin seems over-optimistic we had to include him because he is brilliant, provocative and funny.


Richard Tarnas has a remarkable bibliography. First, he got famous writing one of the best single volume books about the history of Western philosophy. Then he published a book that sets the stage for a re-evaluation of the more certain elements of astrology. Impossible? Perhaps Tarnas was able to write his history of philosophy, science and art precisely because he combined astrological data with more 'accepted' kinds of research.

Bonus: The Universe (and everything)
For certain scientists, Theories of Everything are the 'Holy Grail of Science'. Good luck guys! Is the Universe made of strings or waves or infinitely small particles or is it even an illusion? What the hell is really going on? Well... we suggest you just pick your favorite scientific reality tunnel. Check out these 'popular' books explaining the Universe as a Computer, a Hologram, Information, a Multiverse or whatever you bloody well like.