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.
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.