Thursday, May 16, 2013



Going through some forgotten material on my computer, I found the following piece which apparently I had written to post as a comment on a review article but for some reason failed to do so:

Comment on “Philosophy Lives: Why Stephen Hawking’s attempt to banish natural theology only shows why we need it” by John Haldane, in First Things, January 2011 issue:

This is another example of the interminable feud between theology and science in which philosophy is victimized by both sides. Obedient to my inveterate habit, I put down my raw comments as I read.

In the opening lines of his article, Professor John Haldane quotes a sentence from The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow which encapsulates the misconception under which all empiricists labour in their approach to philosophy. Apparently the authors of The Grand Design maintain that philosophy is dead since it has “not kept up with modern developments in science.” Some twenty-five centuries ago Socrates answered that objection, but it seems that the simple truth that Socrates spoke out in plain words was too simple to be taken in by highly sophisticated minds. Science and philosophy, Socrates found out, set themselves questions that are not only different, but are of two radically different kinds, so that no answers arrived at by scientific methods can answer a philosophical question. It should follow from this that philosophy has nothing to learn from science and whether it does or does not keep up “with modern developments in science” that can have no effect whatever on philosophy.

But we may find some excuse for scientists in their assault on philosophy when theologians, masquerading as philosophers confidently give answers to questions that can only be dealt with by the methods of science. Let us now see how Professor Haldane rebuts Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s contention about philosophy, which Haldane seems to equate with natural theology.

To speak of ‘spontaneous creation’ as “the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist”, is strictly nonsensical. It empties ‘reason’ and ‘why’ completely of meaning. In what sense is spontaneous creation the ‘reason’ for existence? How does it tell us ‘why’ there is something? That there is something rather than nothing is, to my mind, an ultimate mystery that we can only stand before in awe. But we may take ‘spontaneous creation’ not as the ‘reason’ or the ‘why’, but as an ultimate principle, itself a mystery, that we have simply to acknowledge. That is exactly what I do in my philosophy: I call it the Principle of Creativity. But Haldane’s natural theology too does not have the humility to confess the mystery a mystery. There must be a God who created the universe out of nothing; and to the five-year-old’s question, “And who created God?”, there is no answer, and God turns out to be no better than the scientists’ ‘law of gravity’ that apparently was before there was anything to gravitate.

I will not comment on Haldane’s discussion of details in Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s argument, because it would not be right to critique these at second hand. But when Haldane states that the universe’s “inexplicable regularity will have an adequate explanation if it derives from the purposes of an agent”, I permit myself to say that, although we may say – and I do say – that we only find the processes of the universe intelligible when we picture them as purposive, because that is how we find our own activity intelligible, yet that does not justify our asserting that there is actually an agent – and that outside the universe – whose purposes explain the processes of the universe. A purposiveness that I know in myself and the concept of which makes natural things intelligible to me is one thing; but “a transcendent cause outside of the universe” is quite another thing.

The idea of “multiple universes aris[ing] naturally from physical law” – a physical law that apparently had the power to create when it itself had no actual existence – and the idea of a transcendent God that suddenly had the whim to create the universe out of nothing — I find both these equally fantastic and equally hubristic, because they amount simply to our unwillingness to confess our ignorance.

If we were to ask Socrates what he thought of all this, he would repeat the words he gave when asked what he thought of the traditional tales about the gods: “I have no leisure for such inquiries … I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous” (Plato, Phaedrus, 229e-230a, tr. Jowett). That is the sole concern of philosophy, to try to understand what is of importance to us in our character as human beings. It is the absence of this kind of philosophy that is plunging humankind in barbarism, a barbarism armed with all the achievements of science and technology and with all the sophistications of our prolific theologies.

D. R. Khashaba

5 January 2011.


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