Has Science Killed Philosophy?: A Response to Stephen Hawking

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Some commentators pit science against philosophy arguing that the former is still relevant whereas the latter is not. The claim is that 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 human life. The scientist Stephen Hawking articulated this perspective writing that,

“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).

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 are no more than pseudo problems not worth thinking about. Hawking represents others who propose the “philosophy is dead” rhetoric, hence making him a suitable candidate for us to consider here. As demonstrated below, Hawking’s statement is permeated with problems and he offers us a case study by which we can argue that science has not killed philosophy.

The most obvious problem with the statement that “philosophy is dead” is that it is self-contradictory. The one who claims that philosophy is dead proposes a philosophy of his own. Hawking was himself a naturalist with a scientistic outlook. Both naturalism and scientism are philosophical worldviews with their own sets of propositions and truth claims about reality. Hawking’s declaring the death of philosophy while at the same time holding to a philosophical system of beliefs is inconsistent.

Hawking’s scientism is also, as just noted, a philosophy affirming that one can only know that which has been “attained by scientific means; and what science cannot discover, man cannot know” (2). This is a view largely rejected by contemporary philosophers because it is self-defeating. One need only consider if Hawking or others could verify the statement “we can only know that which is provable by science” using science. Such a statement is not a scientific one, but a problematic philosophical view held by those who embrace scientism. Philosopher of mathematics John Lennox noted this in his review of Hawking saying 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…” (3).

Further, if philosophy is dead it would be of huge consequence to science itself. Science is permeated with philosophical assumptions about the world without which it could not work. Such beliefs are, but 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 to operate (4). Was Hawking even aware that by claiming the death of philosophy he is dismantling science along with it? Probably not.

Philosophy cannot be “killed” by science because it is catered to asking and answering questions science is not equipped to answer. There are many such questions. For example, science cannot answer the questions such as what is reality. What is morally right or wrong in our treatment of others and animals? What does it mean to be human? Do humans have souls? Does God exist? Do other minds exist other than my own? Is there human free will? And many other such questions fall into the domain of philosophy. Posed with this same question, the philosopher Will Durant noted 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” (5).

Despite Hawking’s and others’ skepticism, to the contrary philosophy still has relevance contemporary relevance in philosophers who are enormously influential. In ethical philosophy, for instance, Peter Singer has provided what many consider valuable insights regarding animal ethics. How society today views its responsibilities to non-human animals owes much to Singer’s world, notably in his book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals (1975) arguing in favor of vegetarianism. Further, if one believes in God, philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig has articulated and pondered deeply the doctrines of divine aseity, eternity, omniscience, and so on, and has made them accessible for many to read. The way many today view 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.

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.

It should now be clear that to the contrary of what Hawking and others have claimed, science has not engendered the death of philosophy.

References.

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. Durant, W. 1926. The Story of Philosophy. p. xxvii.

14 comments

  1. Excellent read. Very much debunked the rather arrogant claims of certain scientists. As much as I admire what figures like Hawking and Dawkins have done for the scientific community, their views in other areas of life are often rather naive and simplistic. But given their standing in society and expertise in their own field, what they say is too frequently taken as truth, rather than just a layman’s opinion.

    • Agreed. It’s sad. Just because one is a scientists like Dawkins, a good one one ought to admit, doesn’t make him an authority on other disciplines such as philosophy, philosophy of science/religion, and theology.

  2. Hawking’s statement is even more bizarre when it is obvious that the scientific method, measurement, logic and mathematics are all philosophies themselves!

  3. I’ve now read a few works by academics who have addressed this problem in great deal. I think this article does a good job at providing a high-level answer to the title question, simply because it phrases the question in a very specific way. Unfortunately, it fails to provide much of the really interesting, juicy details, or important analogies that can be found in the debates and works of other academics.
    Perhaps that is not the intention of this piece.

    Understanding that James must limit his content to the length of a typical blog post, and not an essay, perhaps for next time, consider providing a laundry list of “Further Reading” that may be further help to the audience. I’ll jump in and provide; if anyone else is looking for an expanded position on this topic, I highly recommend reading Neil Shenvi’s case for the very real, and seemingly undeniable harmony between Science and Religion. It is a fascinating (but rightfully long) read and so deserves an honorable mention.

    http://www.shenvi.org/Essays/SAR/ScienceAndReligion.htm

    Moving on to the meat of my response here: although the title question is practically-relevant within the perverted discourse that is today’s social media, I propose that there’s a more important question related to apologetics – one that James may find a bit more challenging to address – and one that we desperately need a good answer.

    How do we *substantiate today* that science/naturalism will never be capable of completely explaining the nature of reality?

    Relying on various axioms, abstract mathematics is moving closer to this knowledge under the study of multi-dimensional string theory.

    So where and when will we see that elusive, unified theory of science? Where is the M-Theory? Will we actually ever achieve it? Why not? Does our species need to evolve [read: computerize our minds] to achieve it? Is it safe to say we will never achieve this within our current lifetimes? Will humanity simply approach the collective understanding of naturalism asymptotically? What impacts does this have on the current atheism-theism debate?

    If we can answer this question rationally, the answer should provide a case for us to reason that God is fundamentally un-characterizable by homo sapiens, and the only way to completely realize the truth of being, purpose and reality is to put trust and faith in Him. Many atheists I’ve engaged with will assert that without a reasonable answer to the above, all other existential answers are simply “unsatisfying”.

    So, I propose we play the game on their court, and see what happens.

    • “for us to reason that God is fundamentally un-characterizable by homo sapiens, and the only way to completely realize the truth of being, purpose and reality is to put trust and faith in Him”

      Uhm, yeah. About that. This is what has driven a lot of us to atheism. “God is fundamentally unknowable, but let me tell you what he wants you to do with your penis.” Uhm, O.K. See, it’s at this point we back away slowly and turn and run. Either God is unknowable, or it’s not. So, yes, there is certainly a need to be honest.

  4. The problem isn’t that philosophy is “dead” the problem that science, as a means to knowing useful things about our physical world has shown itself to be infinitely more useful in approach. And philosophy get’s used all the time by scientists. A lot of cosmology, pondering the early universe, is philosophy. The difference is that these guys check their results, and throw out what doesn’t work. Therefore they get a more and more succinct model of reality, unlike religions, which tend to splinter and divide and breed more disagreements over time. This is also not saying that religion and philosophy are the same thing, although for a time this was the case. It’s just saying that the philosophy that is most satisfying to many is that which can be empirically verified. Even basic logic is thus. If it didn’t comport to reality, we’d discard it and use something else, because our models would be wrong. If you can’t “show” something, how can you know it?

    • “If you can’t “show” something, how can you know it?”

      Because not everything that we human beings think we are rational to hold to can be empirically verified. In fact, I’d suggest that this very question you asked is itself philosophical and cannot be empirically demonstrated to be true (the question is suggestive of an underlying positivism/scientism in that only that of which can be scientifically shown is knowable). And since you cannot empirically verify that philosophical view then you must at least accept a proposition that cannot be scientifically shown.

      Further, one should avoid conflating, as i think you do, the progress and development in the sciences with positivitism/scientism. Even though science progresses it does not in any way suggest, or argue in favour of the view that science is the only way to get at truth.

  5. I think people so often forget that philosophy never intends to be about atheism (and in that guise Darwinism) and that it’s really not about whether Yahweh exists or not. Western (analytic) philosophy has taken a really horrific turn in that since Kant, people think that proving that free will is some kind of objective universal truth is of higher worth (to cosmopolitanism) than whether human life might be transcendental, which it is (but the opposite being the subject of eastern and comparative philosophy and even continental philosophy in parts).

    I think the most influential and revolutionary philosophy today is lied about. For instance, the most common lie that Nietzsche was some kind of fascist, genuinely turns this issue on its head, whether or not it’s actually true, which it isn’t… and so on and so forth..! Darwinists have a seriously mind-numbing game they want us to play. Personally, I wouldn’t have any of it.

    I think that what these arrogant scientists mean in the end is that philosophy is academically dead, which it physically kind of is, with massive under-funding of extremely important philosophy departments all over the world that deviate from the Americanised norm of traditional analytical philosophy. Not to mention, that many of these philosophy departments have closed down altogether.

    Nice work, though!

  6. Science has assumed the charge of metaphysics when Philosophers themselves discarded it. Science adopted something at least but Philosophy lost everything. Wittgenstein then gave them the task of only finding language errors in works of others.

  7. Coming to terms with the fact the philosophy is in a period of crisis is probably the first step in reinventing it. The contributions of Singer, Chomsky and Butler, however brilliant and original they undoubtedly are, I feel are not sufficient for the survival of philosophy in the long run. They are still too reminiscent of brighter days in the history of philosphy. We have no adequate philosophical system to hold on to anymore and I fear the style of 20th century philosophy will not work in the technological society. We need a new methodological framework that can make sense of that quantum physics which scientists,like the late Hawking, failed to comprehend themselves.

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