Cosmology

Philosophy is dead files: And then the corpse sat up, right in the middle of the wake, and demanded a swig, and …

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At Philosophy Now, Christopher Norris offers more evidence that Stephen Hawking should either take courses in philosophy or refrain from commenting on its supposed uselessness:

Stephen Hawking recently fluttered the academic dovecotes by writing in his new book The Grand Design – and repeating to an eager company of interviewers and journalists – that philosophy as practised nowadays is a waste of time and philosophers a waste of space. More precisely, he wrote that philosophy is ‘dead’ since it hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in science, especially theoretical physics.
[ … ]Predictably enough the journalists went off to find themselves media-friendly philosophers – not hard to do nowadays – who would argue the contrary case in a suitably vigorous way. On the whole the responses, or those that I came across, seemed overly anxious to strike a conciliatory note, or to grant Hawking’s thesis some measure of truth as judged by the standards of the natural science community while tactfully dissenting with regard to philosophy and the human sciences.

After that, Norris goes absolutely out of on a limb and suggests that inference to the best explanation is a useful regulatory principle:

No doubt there is a fair amount of ill-informed, obtuse, or ideologically angled philosophy that either refuses or tries but fails to engage with the concerns of present-day science. One can understand Hawking’s impatience – or downright exasperation – with some of the half-baked notions put around by refuseniks and would-be engageniks alike. All the same he would do well to consider the historically attested and nowadays more vital than ever role of philosophy as a critical discipline. It continues to offer the sorts of argument that science requires in order to dispel not only the illusions of na ïve sense-certainty or intuitive self-evidence but also the confusions that speculative thought runs into when decoupled from any restraining appeal to regulative principles such as that of inference to the best explanation. To adapt a quotation by Kant in a different though related context: philosophy of science without scientific input is empty, while science without philosophical guidance is blind. At any rate it is rendered perilously apt to mistake the seductions of pure hypothetical invention for the business of formulating rationally warranted, metaphysically coherent, and – if only in the fullness of time – empirically testable conjectures.

But who today will take seriously a mere philosopher who thinks that evidence has any relevance to fashionable cosmologies. You’d have better luck Frodo the Hobbit.

8 Replies to “Philosophy is dead files: And then the corpse sat up, right in the middle of the wake, and demanded a swig, and …

  1. 1
    nullasalus says:

    One thing that gets buried in Norris’ response, but which is important, is this: Hawking doesn’t eschew philosophy. His book regularly makes use of it. What Hawking apparently dislikes is philosophy other than his own.

    To adapt the economist Keynes’ famous saying: those scientists who claim to have no use for philosophy are most likely in the grip of a bad old philosophy or an insufficiently thought-out new one that they don’t fully acknowledge.

    I would add, ‘or maybe they’re just engaging in some willful sophistry, pretending their philosophical and metaphysical speculations are scientific when they know they aren’t in any reasonable sense of the term.’

    On the flipside, I’m not a big fan of Norris’ response either, in a way. It really comes across less like “Scientists need philosophy” than “Scientists need philosophers.” I’m a fan of philosophy. I’m not a fan of many philosophers.

    I respect Norris for wanting to say bluntly what other philosophers said more delicately – I guess because they feel as if they’re up against a greater authority and don’t want to be branded ‘anti-science’. But maybe it could have been blunter still. Something like, “Hawking disavows philosophy, then proceeds to rely on it throughout his book. He either doesn’t realize this, and is exposing himself as a rube on his subject, or he does realize it and he’s damn insincere.”

  2. 2
    StephenB says:

    It is a simple and easily demonstrated fact that philosophy, by virtue of its subject matter, always takes logical precedence over science. Reason’s rules inform evidence; evidence does not inform reason’s rules. Unfortunately, a small number of well-educated people understand that fact, while a large number of badly- educated partisans do not.

    In our dumbed down culture, the latter group can get by with saying just about anything, no matter how irrational. Witness the recent spectacle of highly honored scientists who claim, with triumphant stupidity, that a universe can come into existence without a cause.

  3. 3
    kornbelt888 says:

    I wish I had a nickle for every statement that Hawking has made that is bad-philosophy-not-even-close-to-science I’d have a mountain of money. Right next to the pile of money because of my sins:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-Q3cp3cp88

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    Ah, folks:

    Before we try to get to even phil 101, I think we need to get basic critical thinking right, starting with first principles of right reason and first worldview-building truths (many of which are properly self-evident — a point Norris seems to miss). And while we are at it, I think we need to learn how to de-spin the media, professorate, pols and policy wonks, etc too. G

  5. 5
    Upright BiPed says:

    SB, lol.

  6. 6
    allanius says:

    Wow, Denyse, you’re on fire!

    Philosophy is dead, dead, dead, but not for the reason given by the typically clueless Hawking. Once upon a time something called philosophy arose out of nothing on the promise of happiness. Plato and Aristotle both agreed that philosophy was the pursuit of “the good” of happiness, and it was this highly enticing promise that made philosophy seem important and sexy in its day.

    Philosophy is dead because it has abandoned happiness. If you don’t believe me, take a poll of the smart set over at “Philosophy Now.” Two things happened that killed philosophy. First, it has been an open secret since the time of the Greeks that philosophy’s notions of “the good” are hopelessly divided between sense and intellect, or between Plato’s equation of the good with pure intellect, which leads to pure negation, and Aristotle’s attempt to overcome this negativity by describing it as pure action, or a ratio of intellectual and material causes.

    Sorry Charlie, but this divide is the product of intellect itself and its difference from sense and cannot be overcome. There was an explicit attempt in the modern era to overcome it by marrying philosophy to the new science, which seemed so promising after Galileo. Descartes laid down the gauntlet by claiming to have identified a way to go beyond the divide between the “analytic and synthetic methods,” as he called ‘em, but simply instituted a new version of the divide by claiming to be able to obtain perfect science through pure reason. His love of pure analysis was then attacked by Newton and, more effectively, by Kant and Hegel, the new synthesizers.

    Hegel tried to trump them all by claiming that philosophy was evolving toward knowledge of the Absolute Idea, but his description of this value, this coming-together of being and nothingness, was, after all, synthetic, and incapable of satisfying the lovers of “pure” values and pure resistance. So the bold new philosophers, beginning with Nietzsche, decided to embrace evolution—in Darwin’s sense of the word—and nothingness itself. They claimed that the Absolute Idea and the good were simply nothing, did not exist. They negated “the good” of classical philosophy and killed God, on the premise that the very boldness of this negation would enable them to create “new gods and new ideals” as well as new creatures called over-men.

    But guess what, Denyse? When you negate “the good” you negate happiness itself. When Plato and Aristotle used the term “the good,” they meant a transcendent state of being in which happiness is possible. Our modern savants, by negating this transcendent state of being, by declaring that “God is dead,” negated happiness itself. It is no longer permitted in respectable philosophical circles to dream about happiness or even use the word. If you don’t believe me, turn to the gray pages of “Philosophy Now” right now and see if you can find one single reference to the word that once made philosophy famous—just one (that isn’t negative).

    As for Hawking—for God’s sake, put it to bed. Like the rest of his clan, this egotistical, arrogant clown doesn’t have a clue about “philosophy.” Count on it—if his navel-gazing ramblings are representative of philosophy in the modern age, then philosophy is dead, dead, dead. There are people who are still as vain as Plato and Aristotle, still think they know more than other people, but they have made themselves completely irrelevant by killing God and trying to put themselves in his place.

  7. 7
    rental elf says:

    Nice article, thanks.

  8. 8
    jstanley01 says:

    I could be wrong, but it may be that Hawking not only senses but dislikes some of the avenues down which an honest philosophy of science may lead the sheeple.

    BTW, here’s an interesting blog post on what a “dovecote” is:

    What’s Dovecoat Got to Do With It?

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