Friday, 11 March 2011

Is Philosophy Dead?

I am reminded of the latest book Stephen Hawking published late last year titled The Grand Design. In it, he proclaims that "philosophy is dead."

I can only hope that he said those words in the spirit of a publicity stunt, because if he really meant it, I must say that I am sorely disappointed. For someone whose enterprise is dedicated the search for knowledge, meaning and truth (and no less someone many people admire for his intellectual brilliance), the statement demonstrates that he has completely and utterly missed the point.

Since the beginning of man's ability to philosophize, thinkers who consider themselves the end-all-be-all of knowledge have been trying to kill philosophy over and over again to no avail. I am reminded of Hegel's belief that philosophy ended with him.

One only needs to return to Albert Einstein for insight on why seekers of knowledge even do what they do:

"The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religion."

To quote a few useful rejoinders to the statement that "philosophy is dead,"

By Angie Hobbs from Angie Hobbs' Blog:

"It's an extraordinarily ill-informed view of what philosophy is, even if we leave to one side the vital work that philosophers like Zeno did in kicking off mathematics. What of the valuable work in, for example, ethics and political theory and aesthetics and philosophy of mind that philosophers do when they have studied the supposed 'facts' with which scientists present them?"

"... What of the fact that philosophers are often asking different kinds of questions from the ones that Hawking asks? Aristotle says that one can look for four different kinds of 'cause' or 'reason' (aitia) when examining any thing or fact or state of affairs: material, formal, efficient and final. I suspect that if Aristotle were to read The Grand Design he might suggest that Hawking has concentrated on the material and efficient explanations of the cosmos, and simply not fully understood the force of questions about possible formal and final explanations."

"To say that the law of gravity allows the universe to create itself from nothing won't do: is the law of gravity supposed to be 'nothing'? Why is there a law of gravity and not no law of gravity? Appeals to M-theory will not satisfy either. Quite apart from the fact that this theory is by no means polished or finalised [...] appeals to M-theory are only pushing the problem upstairs: even if all the maths eventually works out, we can still ask 'Why M-theory and not nothing?' This does not mean that the answer is necessarily a designer God [...] though again, there is space for such a view. It does not even mean that there has to be any answer at all to the search for a 'final' cause of the cosmos; but humans can and will still ask the question, and some of us will feel that Hawking has not understood what such questioners are asking."

By Wes Alwan from The Partially Examined Life:

"... We should really ask people what Hawking and his ilk think of literature and the humanities in general. “I am only interested in the hard sciences and everything else is squishy and impractical and insufficiently number-ish” is not an argument. It simply reflects an orientation toward activities that are as far away from social concerns as possible. It’s what we associate with being a nerd, and in a sense these sorts of pseudo-philosophical Papal Bulls by the popularizers of science are simply the ultimate revenge of the nerds.

Worse, they are a rejection of interiority, a rejection of the idea that reflection is a worthwhile endeavor. Our own thoughts and feelings cannot be “data”; me [sic] must concentrate only on empirical objects. It’s an attempt to kill off large areas of inquiry, because those areas of inquiry defy easy answers and point to the limits of scientific inquiry."

And personally, as a cheap jibe at "philosophy is dead" (Hawking, 2010), the statement is inherently self-defeating because it is a philosophical statement.

Returning back to Einstein's quote, if philosophy ever dies, so will humanity.

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