Philosophy is Dead! Long Live Philosophy

It made me choke on my breakfast this morning to read the declaration from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that the subject I’ve taught for the last two years, and which I intend to study this coming year, is dead:

“[On questions concerning the nature of the universe]: Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” (‘The Grand Design’, 2010)

I hope that tomorrow I don’t discover that psychology has fallen too, or that mathematics is suffering from an upset stomach.

But lightheartedness aside, it’s astonishing to see Hawking promote himself to Coroner of the Disciplines in such a clumsy manner. Presumably he is aware that he is echoing Nietzsche’s classic “God is dead”; in fact he should have just literally repeated this line, since this is more representative of the main thrust of this first extract of the book (all I have read). In this respect there’s very little new about his view – basically that God is not needed to explain the workings, or creation, of the physical world.

This is not new either to science or philosophy. Centuries ago, Napoleon famously challenged Laplace on his proposed scientific theory of the universe on the basis that it made no mention of God, and Laplace replied: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” As far as I’m aware, most working scientists don’t need to – and in practice just don’t – take a ‘God hypothesis’ in their explanations of phenomena. The same goes in philosophy, and a large proportion of modern philosophers really do try to keep apace with different branches of modern science, analysing their main assumptions and consequences as they go.

It’s not really clear that Hawking has beef with any part of philosophy except for one branch: metaphysics – studying the fundamental nature of reality. I certainly can’t see his argument against ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science (which he’s surely getting involved in here) etc etc, so I don’t know why he’s taken a sledgehammer to the whole discipline. And, again, this criticism of metaphysics is nothing new. Hume was very happy to commit most of metaphysics “to the flames”. I personally think Hume was far more sensible in acknowledging the limitations of our understanding of these matters, rather than going for grand proclamations on what is the case.

Hawking’s faith in Scientism – the view that Science has the answer to every real question – and his hopes for M-theory conjure up a strange view of the near future. Oh yeah, it’ll be fine for the elite few who fully understand fundamental physics (I suspect these ‘elite few’ are going to only ever be purely theoretical themselves), but what about everybody else? All the people who think about the big questions from time to time, who want to understand their place in this world, who search for their concepts to be clarified, who are unsure about how to live their lives, and who may perhaps be required to make decisions on matters of life or death? Yes, science will help us in extraordinary ways, but it won’t do it all by itself.

7 thoughts on “Philosophy is Dead! Long Live Philosophy”

  1. Well, if scientists want to turn debates into ‘Science vs. All’ then I don’t see a problem in using the term. I would like to see politicians who know more about science, I’d like science taught more rigorously at school, and I’d like to see science informing public opinion in general much more, *but* scientists seeking attention often do it at the expense of other disciplines and I think it only serves to distance themselves from the uninitiated.

  2. Late reply, but I didn’t want to type anything lengthy on a touch phone in Berlin.

    I don’t have much to say about your first three paragraphs as they seem to just be a shrug at the fact that Hawking hasn’t said anything game-changing in his book extract. I don’t agree that he suggested ‘taking a sledgehammer to’ philosophy; it read more like he felt that the discipline was a little out of date, but I have no opinion on that in particular.

    I do, however, take issue with a fairly lazy concluding paragraph that seems to encompass many of the characteristics you quasi-criticise Hawking on.

    >> “Hawking’s faith in Scientism – the view that Science has the answer to every real question”

    This is an incredibly disingenuous strawman communicators of science have repeatedly rolled their eyes at every time it is weighed against them. To use a description that attempts to put the discipline of science in a comparable light to religion is to misrepresent the discipline itself. Interestingly, it is often used by sciencephobic religious folk or pseudoscience peddlers in an attempt to frame the work of science as an authoritative body and thus setting it on equal footing to the spiritual challenger (for want of a better phrase). I know for a fact you know better than this, so it is disappointing of you to use such misrepresentation in your argument.

    Science isn’t a body, an authority or even a set of answers and formulae. It is a method. It is the most thorough, pedantic, demanding method of determining truth from reality of which we know. It requires a huge amount of testing and evidence to create theories and extend our understanding. You don’t need to have ‘faith’ in science because you can check it for yourself, if you have the time; and if you don’t have the time you know that the peer review process means that strong-standing theories have been well checked out by scientists across the board, most of which have no reason to support ideas without merit. I don’t agree that an honest scientist would say that science (lower case ‘s’, it’s not a religion) has the answer to ever real question, only that science is the best way we have of attempting to determine the answers to these questions (a pedant might even say science is the best way possible of creating and testing models to approximate reality).

    >> “Oh yeah, it’ll be fine for the elite few who fully understand fundamental physics, but what about everybody else?”

    Well what exactly is this supposed to mean? Something either is true or it is not. Whether it is understandable to everyone is another matter, but your tone suggests that physicists should keep the physics to themselves and let the less educated dream and philosophise in peace? Or that M-theory (badly named) won’t be able to help people make complex personal decisions or attempt to understand the hows of the universe?

    >> “Science vs. all” / “Science at the expense of other disciplines” etc

    I think you’re missing the state of the board at the moment. The field of science is constantly under attack, misrepresented, underestimated and mischaracterised by other disciplines who wish to have their two cents. I don’t begrudge anyone their two cents, and many disciplines have a lot to offer – including philosophy – but “Mr. Scientist” is the easy punching bag that everyone seems to quick to lay into: partly because they know the general audience doesn’t know any better to see the smoke and mirrors; partly because the field of science doesn’t have a big voice of communication to stand up for itself. It’s not (generally) about presenting itself to the world, rightly or wrongly) but rather about advancing knowledge.

    And it’s frustrating to see such bad arguments used against it by people with big voices who, a lot of the time, ask the wrong questions. (I dont mean you)

  3. OK firstly I’ll admit two things: 1) I agree that it was a slightly lazily written paragraph, 2) basing an argument just on the introductory chapter from a book is bound to involve a bit of light-hearted straw-manning. Guess I’ll have to read the whole book to argue about Hawking’s views in any more detail.

    On Scienticism (or scientism)

    In fact the first time I heard this word was in the book, ’36 Arguments for the Existence of God’, where the person arguing against Scientism is a borderline lunatic/genius (it depends who you ask, but probably a 95% / 5% split), who fears that science is taking over universities completely, and who much prefers esoteric Jewish mysticism. Probably not the best person to side with. Yes, I guess I did make a straw man of an ardent scientist, and my only defence is that’s precisely what Hawking seems to have been going for. I’m sure that scientists like Hawking and Dawkins are excellent in their own fields, and are both excellent at communicating their field of science to others, but when they try to frame science in the broader picture of human behaviour and understanding, as is their wont, they can appear confrontational and dismissive of other disciplines, which puts many people off. In fact, in the novel I mention above the protagonist is called ‘the atheist with a soul’, and I think this was a marvellous, albeit oxymoronic, creation, because I think that’s what secularism appears to lack at the moment. In ‘Faith Schools Menace’, it was very cute to see Dawkins being nice to children and praising the cultural contributions from Christianity from a lovely hot air balloon, I think he is moving in the right direction. There’s one thing being ‘right’, and there’s another communicating this to others in the right way.

    On science determining truth

    I almost completely agree with your whole paragraph on how science is a method, and how it’s our best way to determine answers to many of life’s questions. However, I believe that something like philosophy gives you the opportunity to step back a little and question some of the assumptions and arguments going on within science, as well as in other areas. Firstly, ‘truth’ is by no means a settled issue: do we ever know the ‘real truth’ or do we just settle for something that works? Is the ‘truth’ of other cultures and eras comparable to ours in a meaningful way? Etc etc. Secondly, many religious people would say that they have an alternative way of “determining truth” so how are we going to decide which is best? You may say, ‘well Science is a method’, but they may answer that faith is a more valid and trustworthy method. So again I think it’s useful to be able to take a step back to compare these alternative approaches. I’m sure I’d come to similar conclusions to you on these sorts of issues, I guess I’m saying that it’s important to know how our science is grounded. A more practical example is on the issue of the peer-review process. This itself has to be scrutinised very heavily, and recently has been called into question with regards to various biases (confirmation bias, publication bias, bias towards your own culture etc.). Now, I’d also agree that the best people to work on this sort of thing are probably working scientists, who dabble in more philosophical thinking from time to time. But I’m inclined not to accept that there is One Science; as you say, it is a method, or a bundle of methods, which change, can be improved, and must be critiqued.

    Will discuss other issues if have time later, g2g, radio is telling me how Pope is rolling up fists against secularist England…

  4. Called scientism or physicisalism or whatever, any motivating thought or intuition that would back the phrase “philosophy is dead” is ignorant of an entire field of lively debate that often has important things to say about science (including physics and more). That may not be obvious to scientists, such as Hawkins, but that’s not important, for as Chain Bear said:
    “Something either is true or it is not. Whether it is understandable to everyone is another matter.”

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