“Philosophy is Dead”

NASA StarChild image of Stephen Hawking.
Image via Wikipedia

So says Stephen Hawking, apparently, in his latest book. I wish I knew the full context for this claim, but right now I can only speculate based on the range of responses he’s received. I suppose the argument he’s making here is that empirical science can answer or make irrelevant all of the questions we typically associate with philosophy.

Bold statements like this are evidence, I think, of why scientists should stick to science and philosophers should stick to philosophy (and philosophers of science and experimental philosophers should, well, keep doing their thing). But I think it’s worth making two not-at-all-novel observations: that philosophy is the mother of science, and in fact that the English term for science used to be “natural philosophy.”

Even if you take a strictly empirical view of the nature of the universe, that is a philosophical position—one closely associated with the British empiricists of the Enlightenment and best expressed in the modern era, I think, by Alfred Ayer. In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer took the position that all metaphysical claims were incoherent, full stop.

Let’s take a charitable view of Hawking’s remarks, and assume that this is what he meant. What does that do to ethics? Epistemology? Well, Language, Truth and Logic is a work of epistemology and philosophy of language, so suffice to say those two disciplines remain intact. And while Ayer argues that ethics is only slightly less incoherent than metaphysics—that moral claims tell us about the disposition and emotional states of the speaker, not a true or false fact about the universe—that matter is by no means settled.

There’s a lot in empiricism I’m sympathetic to, but I’d caution Hawking and other scientific triumphalists like Sam Harris to learn a little intellectual humility and recognize the limitations of scientific inquiry. Speculating on matters that lie outside of science’s explanatory power doesn’t mean we need to abandon logic and reason entirely, but it does mean recognizing that empirical models are not the only tools in our cognitive toolbox.

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