Some people will square science against philosophy arguing that the former is still relevant whereas the latter isn’t. While science and scientists continue to make groundbreaking discoveries, philosophers busy themselves discussing pointless and redundant concepts that have no real impact on the world or on human life. In the words of physicist Stephen Hawking,
“Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics” (1)
In other words, what Hawking argues is that science is capable of answering the important “traditionally” philosophical questions. And if by any chance science cannot answer these questions, then they no more than pseudo problems not worth thinking about. Thus, Hawking stands in for others who typically propose the “philosophy is dead” or “philosophy vs. science” rhetoric, hence making him a suitable candidate for us to consider. And as we will see below this is a statement fraught with its own share of problems. It will also assist us in showing that science has not, nor could ever, kill philosophy.
The first problem with the statement is that it is obviously self-contradictory. The one claiming that philosophy is dead always proposes a philosophy of his or her own, Hawking being no different. Hawking is himself a naturalist. Naturalism is a philosophical worldview with its own sets of propositions and truth claims about reality. On that account Hawking’s is declaring the death of philosophy while holding to an entire philosophical system of beliefs (further, Hawking’ book in which he makes this statement is pregnant with dozens of philosophical statements). Second, what undergirds Hawking’s statement is the philosophical view of positivism (mostly known today as scientism). Positivism, see my fuller examination here, is the view that we can only know what can be “attained by scientific means; and what science cannot discover, man cannot know” (2). This is a view that is self-defeating, and explains why it has fallen out of fashion with contemporary philosophers. After all, how can Hawking verify such a statement using science? On what scientific grounds did he come to that conclusion? Did he do an experiment? Of course not. Philosopher of science John Lennox says that “For any scientist… to disparage philosophy on the one hand, and then at once adopt a self-contradictory philosophical stance on the other, is not the wisest thing to do – especially at the beginning of a book that is designed to be convincing” (3).
Second, if philosophy really is dead then it would likely be the death knell for science too. Why? Because science is permeated with philosophical assumptions about the world without which it cannot work. Philosophical beliefs that science requires are, though are certainly not limited to, the existence of the external world exists (the objective reality of the universe), order, uniformity, and regularity of nature, the basic reliability of human cognitive faculties and sensory organs, the existence of truth, the laws of logic, and so on. Science requires all these things (4). One thus wonders whether or not Hawking would still be willing to claim the death of philosophy if his science is undercut along with it.
Furthermore, philosophy asks questions that science cannot. Science cannot answer the questions such as what is reality? What is morality? What does it mean to be human? Does God exist? Do other minds exist other than my own? And so on. These questions fall squarely into the domain of philosophy. Influential German philosopher of the 20th century Friedrich Nietchze quite rightly said that philosophy is the only real “meta” discipline that considers the totality of all things (5). On a similar wave length, Bertrand Russell argued that philosophy is a paradigm through which science can be interpreted in that science busies itself about getting to facts about the world whereas philosophy provides the framework through which one understands science (6). Posed with this same question, 20th century philosopher Will Durant explained that “Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom… can tell us when to heal and when to kill. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom” (7).
Moreover, despite some skepticism to the contrary, philosophy still has relevance today given that contemporary philosophers are enormously influential at the present moment. For example, in ethical philosophy, moral philosopher Peter Singer has provided some valuable insights with regards to animal ethics. How society sees its responsibilities to non-human animals owes much to Singer, especially given his views presented in his 1975 book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals in which he argues in favour of vegetarianism. If one believes in the God of theism, philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig has articulated and pondered deeply the doctrines of divine aseity, divine eternity, divine omniscience, and so on, and has made them accessible for viewers to read. The way many of us now see gender identity and gender roles has been influenced by feminist philosopher Judith Butler. Noam Chomsky continues to inspire millions with his views on social criticism and political activism. Thus, by encouraging people to question and contemplate the world around them, philosophers have helped in creating new, improved, and more realistic ways of changing society to the benefit of the individual and the collective.
Thus, quite to the contrary of what Hawking claimed, science has not, nor ever could, kill philosophy. Nor is philosophy irrelevant. Philosophy is also still very much alive today, and it continues to live on in the valuable contributions made on behalf of a number of contemporary philosophers.
1. Hawking, S. The Grand Design. p. 5.
2. Russell, B. 1935. Religion and Science. p. 243.
3. Lennox, J. 2011. God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design Is It Anyway? p. 16.
4. Gauch, H. 2002. Scientific Method in Practice. p. 154. Craig, W. & Moreland, J. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. p. 349.
5. Friedrich Nietchze quoted by Tom Butler-Bowden in The Literature of Possibility (2013). p. 2.
6. Russell, B. 1961. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell.
7. Durant, W. 1926. The Story of Philosophy. p. xxvii.