Monday, March 13, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

Stephen Hawking has famously said that philosophy is dead. This, as I hope to show in what follows, is wrong, but Professor Hawking is not to blame. Philosophers have brought this upon their heads as they had previously brought upon themselves the indictment of Hume in the eighteenth century and exposed themselves to the scorn of Positivists like Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer in the twentieth century. Philosophers won that indictment and that scorn as they won Hawking’s certificate of death by failing to absorb the insight of Socrates who told us in the clearest terms that investigation into nature and probing meanings and values and purposes constitute two totally distinct non-communicating realms. (See the ‘autobiographical’ passage in the Phaedo, 95e-102a.) Philosophers have failed to pay heed even when Kant re-affirmed the Socratic insight: at the heart of Kant’s universally misunderstood transcendental system is the dual insight that (1) pure reason can yield no objective knowledge, and that (2) empirical investigation can only develop and systematize how things appear to us. I have been harping on this in all my writings.

Back to Hawking. The famous announcement was reported in a news report by Matt Warman in The Telegraph on 17 May 2011. All quotations below are from the Telegraph report.

“Speaking to Google’s Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire”, Stephen Hawking, we are told, “said that fundamental questions about the nature of the universe could not be resolved without hard data …”. Only a moron will quarrel with that, but research “about the nature of the universe” not only tells us solely about things exterior to us, but I venture to say that even regarding those external things it only weaves a mantle of theoretical interpretations around our impressions of natural things. Hawking himself has given a perceptive account of the nature of scientific theory in the first chapter of A Brief History of Time.

Further on Hawking said that

“almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.”

To my mind the questions “Why are we here?” and “Where do we come from?” can be answered neither by science nor by philosophy. When scientists fancy that they have answered or are on the way to answering the question “Where do we come from?” they are only giving a descriptive account of how it has come about that we are here. When scientists trace the origin of the universe to the Big Bang they have only described stages of development within the given universe; the ultimate ‘where from?’ is the eternal child’s question ‘Who made God?’ The Why question is completely outside the purview of science. The Why enquires about purpose and purpose implies will and intelligence, things science has nothing to do with. When a scientist poses a Why question she or he is simply guilty of a bad use of language.

What about philosophy? The “Where do we come from?” question is outside the purview of philosophy as the Why question was outside the purview of science. When philosophers speak about the natural world or about actual things they are simply making fools of themselves as the whole history of thought amply shows.

The “Why are we here?” question is the question for philosophy, indeed it circumscribes the whole business of philosophy. Does philosophy give a true answer to this question? Decidedly No! Philosophy answers the question by creating a myth, and precisely that is the whole use and purpose of philosophy. We are thrown into the world, how or why we will never know. By creating our own purpose and values, by giving the world and all things meanings of our own creation, we make for ourselves a plane of being in which we enjoy a life of freedom and intelligence quite beyond the sphere of nature. The theories of science also are essentially such creations that confer meaning on an otherwise meaningless world.

Thus the notion that philosophy is dead is engendered by a misconception of the nature and function of philosophy. Trying to explain the failure of philosophy Hawking says: “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.” Much as it is desirable to keep up with modern developments in science, that is not in any way necessary for a philosopher. Indeed it is whenever philosophers or scientists mix these two radically different activities that they make their worst blunders.

Hawking says: “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” This is well and good but the discoveries of science are discoveries about the phenomenal world and the knowledge gained is, I say, essentially interpretation of our observations of phenomenal happenings. So that when Hawking goes on to say that new theories “lead us to a new and very different picture of the universe and our place in it” I would say that the scientific picture of the universe has nothing to do with the philosophical vision of the world in which we live our proper life as human beings. Science may speak of ‘our place’ in the physical universe in so far as we ourselves are physical things in the world, but our place in the meaningful world of meanings, purposes, and values is for philosophy to consider.

I refrain from commenting on what Hawking says about the latest and expected developments in physics.

D. R. Khashaba

March 13, 2917

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