Has Science Killed Philosophy?

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 1.51.43 PM.png

Image Credit: Cardiff University

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.

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. 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.

Advertisements

14 responses to “Has Science Killed Philosophy?

  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.

Leave a Reply to Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s