Philosophy – Is It Really Dead?

The late Stephen Hawking once claimed philosophy is dead. A careful observation of the scientific endeavour shows that philosophy is very much alive. 

In his gripping book The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life (co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow) cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking proclaimed that philosophy “is dead”. People who received his words with a kind of ignorant approbation made his announcement seem more convincing than it actually is. Louder were the voices of the philosophically inclined, who abhorred even the consideration of such a possibility, accusing Hawking of philosophical ignorance or even unconsciously constructed philosophical assumptions.

How can philosophy possibly be dead? Are we not still wondering about the nature of reality, human consciousness, the origins of the universe, and the existence of God? This kind of response, however, just begs the question against Hawking´s central claim, which does not question the value or importance of these questions, but the principle authority responsible for investigating them.

Notwithstanding whatever success they have made in advancing our knowledge of the world, philosophers haven´t been able to keep up with scientific discoveries, especially physics. Scientists, not philosophers, “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”.

Are we not still wondering about the nature of reality, human consciousness, the origins of the universe, and the existence of God?

According to Hawking, philosophy is an outmoded and increasingly out of touch discipline, employing pure speculation or reflection to explain how nature works. Furthermore, deductive arguments, thought experiments, counterfactuals, and other kinds of philosophical techniques of valid reasoning are totally useless tools for explaining empirical facts; careful observation, measurement, and experimentation are the only reliable methods of reaching true knowledge of the natural world. If Hawking is right, does this mean philosophy is at death’s door?

Putting things in perspective, consider for a moment Hawking´s “model-dependent realism“, his theoretical framework for understanding science. He starts by observing that we create models of the world from our sensory inputs (this is the typical idea of anti-realism) then he “jumps” to a pragmatic or instrumentalist criterion of usefulness, by claiming that models which best fit observational data and are most successful in predicting future events are designated as “true”. Richard Dawkins eloquently rehearses this pragmatist moto in his afterword to Lawrence Krauss´s book A Universe From Nothing: “Science may be weird and incomprehensible – more weird and less comprehensible than any theology – but science works. It gets results.”

philosophy, science, Stephen Hawking,
Stephen Hawking claimed that Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. (Lwp Kommunikáció / CC BY 2.0)

Measured by the success in producing practical results, it’s no surprise that science is  having the upper-hand, but it’s perhaps unfair to draw this kind of comparison. Why do philosophers need to be constrained by requirements of a practical and/or technological kind in order to earn their livelihood? Furthermore, isn’t it the case  the philosophy creates (or perhaps constructs) meaning and value around scientific facts necessary for the scientific enterprise?

What lies at the basis of Hawking´s rejection of philosophy, it seems, is the false assumption that philosophy is intrinsically anti-naturalistic (therefore his lack of sympathy for what he considers to be armchair method of speculative philosophy), in contrast with hard naturalism of science, which postulates that the world consists exclusively of natural phenomena governed by scientific laws and theories. If this distinction is representative of Hawking´s delineation between science and philosophy, then the latter is a very simplified interpretation of the complex interrelation between the philosophical and the scientific domain of inquiry.

Most philosophers today conform to a “weaker” version of naturalism, rejecting the existence of supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, souls, and God, but still believing that there is more to the (natural) world than science tells us. Exactly what should constitute this category of intermediary phenomena is still a matter of dispute; proposed solutions usually take the form of new theoretical frameworks for understanding scientific concepts and theories, or more liberal interpretations of physicalism – the metaphysical view that everything in existence is reducible to physical states and properties.

What lies at the basis of Hawking´s rejection of philosophy, it seems, is the false assumption that philosophy is intrinsically anti-naturalistic

What arises from this concerns the source of this peculiar knowledge: Is it subjective or objective in origin? Avoiding sceptical solutions to this question, German philosopher Immanuel Kant called this knowledge “transcendental”, aiming at the inextricable unity of the subjective and the objective. The very notion of philosophical truth as a unity, as something undifferentiated, immutable and eternal has roots that extend all the way back to the very beginning of philosophy.

In traditional philosophy from Plato to Kant, general terms that expressed relations between particular things and their general properties were taken to have real (eternal and immutable) existence, unlike the accidental existence of physical things to which they gave their essential characteristics The presence of this underlying metaphysical unity of the physical and the mental cannot be grasped conceptually or empirically, but only by intuition – a conclusion Plato inherited from old mythological narratives and mystical traditions.

Aristotle was the first to pass judgement on Plato´s theory, offering a more empirically oriented perspective, and in that way started a long philosophical debate that culminated in the 17th century when two opposing theories of knowledge emerged. Empiricism would eventually prove subsequent to Aristotle’s philosophy, believing that ideas, memories, beliefs and other higher cognitive functions are originally sensations. Rationalism promulgated a contrary view, holding that external objects exist only as ideas – starting from this general assumption, a correct methodological procedure is then formulated consisting of clear and precise deductive inferences from self-evident, intuitively true axioms.

Philosophy, Science, Stephen Hawking
Aristotle was the first to pass judgement on Plato´s theory, and in that way started a long philosophical debate that culminated in the 17th century (Wikimedia Commons)

It is important to keep in mind, however, that these two competing philosophical projects were actually more closely connected to each other than originally thought. Empiricism needed some kind of rational structures coupled with derived sensory information to explain why some sensations (physical properties of size, shape, solidity, number, and motion) were objective in origin, unlike subjective senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Rationalism, on the other hand, didn´t have an answer to how knowledge or justification independent of experience could possibly apply to perceptual experiences in order to constitute objective knowledge of the world.

Kant tried to solve this distinction by proposing a unifying framework as a possible solution to the problem. In doing so, he postulated the inexplicable unity of the subjective and the objective, which he termed “noumena” – the world of things-in-themselves. Similar to the photographic image insofar as it’s determined by the structure of the camera, what we think and perceive is determined by our innate sensory and cognitive structure. What lies beyond these limitations remains forever unavailable to us.

Sometimes the concepts we use in describing nature are only marginally adequate for capturing her spellbinding mystery beyond our human capacities. In certain situations, however, intuition can help us surpass our biological limitations.

Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum physics, when asked whether it is true that the quantum world exists independently of the quantum-mechanical descriptions, supposedly said that this is wrong way of looking at it, since the task of physics is not to find out how nature is, but what we can say about it. Accusing Bohr of metaphysical obscurity, his critics reproached him for allegedly negating objective existence of quantum objects in favour of a mystical, quasi-religious view of mind and reality existing in inextricable unity.

Stephen Hawking, Science, Philosophy
Niels Bohr claimed that the task of physics is not to find out how nature is, but what we can say about it

Bohr’s critics ignore the fact that he believed in the objectivity of knowledge, but still thought it had to be re-invented and re-conceptualised if it were to adequately explain the latest scientific discoveries in the realm of the subatomic. Echoing Kant, this philosophical outlook invites us to see that Nature – acting like an endlessly expanding mirror-like surface – reveals to us our own reflections. This shows something important about philosophy insofar as we contrast it to science: given that  even if in time our image becomes larger, sharper, and richer in detail, we come to realise that it is after all just an image, preventing us reaching into the depths of the unknown.

As Einstein put it, without the feeling of the mysterious, which is is the source of true art and science (and philosophy), we are surely stultified, lacking the awe, inspiration and excitement necessary for pushing the boundary between the known and the unknown further and further ahead.

If Science reveals facts, Philosophy reveals (or perhaps constructs) meaning and value around these facts, wondering about the human nature of reality rather than the objective nature of human existence. Science alone is unable to answer our deep yearning for knowing the answers to these big questions. If philosophy is dead, then our efforts are meaningless, but if anything, this is exactly what they are not. Those who decry philosophy for being defunct, the salient questions to which philosophy still has a role in answering are still as relevant and as rich as ever.

Dino Jelčić

Writer based in Croatia who typically writes on the relationship between science and philosophy.

Dino Jelčić has 1 posts and counting. See all posts by Dino Jelčić

Dino Jelčić

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