“Philosophy is Dead,” Cont.
September 8, 2010

I wanted to highlight two responses to my last post.

bmichael gets to more or less the same conclusion as I in a much more succinct manner:

I mean, it’s like the number “3” is the answer to what? Nothing. It’s not the answer, description, or solution to anything without a context, and where there’s context there’s philosophy.

And pyrrhosrepublic says:

Wouldn’t epistemology and philosophy of science still exist even with a radically positivist (=everything should be explained by science) worldview? Perhaps Hawking should take a note from Ayer and the logical positivists who themselves retreated from their zealous (Ayer’s word) initial view.

However, I disagree that scientists and philosophers should stick to their own disciplines. Ideally, to me, both of them would be fairly well-educated in the other’s field.

I should clarify: I think everyone can benefit from an understanding of philosophy and science, and I think philosophers and scientists can certainly benefit greatly from learning where their disciplines interact. That being said, it’s getting increasingly tiresome to listen to scientists presume they know more about philosophy than academic philosophers (Hawking) and vice versa (Fodor). I’m of the view that any intellectual pursuit should be approached with a surplus of intellectual humility, and that’s doubly true for pursuits in which you’re an amateur.

“Philosophy is Dead”
September 8, 2010

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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