Is Philosophy Dead?

Professor Stephen Hawking hath spoken – philosophy is dead!

His battle-cry concerning philosophy was no doubt intended to cry out with controversy and has given critics on both sides of the debate a motivation to open dialogue. Perhaps though his voice will encourage philosophers to rear their ugly heads, and in the end may do more to reignite the flame for philosophy than to extinguish it.

Hawking attacks philosophy a little too broadly, though, he cannot mean all of philosophy; he is concerned however with the state of metaphysics or in other words: philosophy concerned with the nature and composition of reality, space and time, consciousness and the likes. His comment also highlights something of the current professionalised state of philosophy. Philosophical journals being more or less exclusively exchanged between University professors and Ph.D. students, i.e. soon-to-be university professors.

The main problem is that Mr.Hawking is undeniably on to something, and it shows in mainstream culture. While it certainly isn’t true that studying philosophy has nothing to offer today, it certainly is the case that the voice of philosophy has quietened for around half a century or so. Perhaps in part because of a lack of adequate response to scientific developments in the way that philosophers traditionally have, though this certainly is not entirely accurate, nor is it exclusively the issue.

A quick web-search demonstrates the issues at stake in the strained relationship between science and philosophy. From the side of science is a disinterested, misconceived view of what philosophy is about. The result oriented nature of science in all it’s empirical glory sees all of the efforts of philosophy to have been a labour in vain, a type of vague conjecture which was the best we had until we found science – leaving philosophy in a similar state to religion.

The problem with Hawking’s viewpoint is that it is exemplary of an entirely reductionist mentality and one that fosters idle thinking. Philosophy is not a science, if anything, science is more like a philosophy, a branch or methodology for knowing certain things. Science has arbitrarily labelled systems for measuring say – temperature, to which particular objects relate, according to the rules which govern them; boiling or freezing points for example, but science has no sense of hot or cold. And science is destined to remain detached in this way, which philosophy often isn’t.

At the heart of the dispute is the issue of subjectivity and objectivity. Science considers “objective truth” as it’s realm of priority, grasping at knowledge which is undeniable, testable, and practical. To philosophers though the sense that somehow from the bubbling ingredients of the cosmos arose a self-concerned, conscious (whatever that means), perceiving subject, is an unavoidable concern.

And given that the Scientific explanation of consciousness pretty much boils down to conclude that the “mind” – a term which we might still find used by the hill-folk – is the sum of electrical impulses in one’s neural circuitry. A collection of electrical impulses, no less, capable together of asking what they would all look like if they were to be seen simultaneously as the body to which they are confined ingests a banana for example, or thinks of a puppy; and then which design an experiment and find out the answers.

Though this may well be the physical side of things, it seems laughable that someone might then reduce everything that we usually think and speak of as our mind to only this. That a collection of impulses is the most proper way of thinking of a mind. Or likewise the idea of love as a sort of addiction to physical or mental states. An interesting and entirely valid perspective, though certainly not our full and final answer.

Humanity has shifted substantially, from considering our existence in relation to and thanks to a divine creator. Our bodies were shells for souls; we were all wingless angels awaiting an afterlife. Innumerable revolutions in science and society, though, have led us to a renewed perspective on things. The sun and universe do not revolve around us, we are perhaps closer to hairless apes than soon-to-be angels, and for most now in the West, our existence lies in the narrow cavity between birth and death.

Today we have machines to transport us, by land, air, or sea (and even into space); automatons replace us in manufacturing, and even service industries. A homogeneous global culture is born, where cola brands may seem the strongest uniting feature, and where one can marvel at the pyramids, the toil of thousands of slaves labour while chewing on a Big Mac.

Meanwhile, a generation who have seemingly few moral lines left to colour inside (or outside) of is grown. A new species of FOMOsapiens; selfie-obsessed, tinder using teens who will inherit the earth. Amidst all this it does seem futile to ask perhaps – what ever is it all about?

And with all of our pre-supposed gratitude and praise of science (that we can read this text right now) taken to one side, we seem less confident than ever in many respects about the most decisive questions which define our species’ search for truth and enlightenment. Or at least, our education having given faith that science will deliver its grandiose claims and find all the answers, the concerns seem simply to have evaporated from our collective consciousness, leaving us intuitively uncertain, utterly un-opinionated, devoid of any interest at all. What happened to the opium of the masses?

How is a subject born of a world of objects? And how does a reality full of somethings, come from nothing? What is consciousness / the mind? Do we have free will? Is there a creator? What the fuck is time?! And of ought questions, we have no informed basis to work from. There is no formula for whether or not marriage rights should extend to a homosexual couple. Why would gay folk or straight folk want to get married anyway? What is marriage or monogamy if God isn’t making the rules? Ought we prioritise slowing the destruction of our planet for future generations to enjoy? Ethics. On these, observation has no legs; our instinct has no qualms about making an easy judgement, though.

And has metaphysics actually “not kept up with modern developments in science”, as Hawking imagines? Science and mathematics have had a pretty strong few centuries or so, but in the same time-span philosophy too has seen it’s most explosive revolutions, as in art, literature, the social sciences, music, oh and like, democracy, women’s rights and so on.

From whichever viewpoint we take our stance, the history of human ideology has, in the very recent past, had to accept and embrace the change of moving from adolescence into young manhood. As a young boy, for me the relation of God and Santa Claus was stark, in a single fell swoop Santa, the tooth fairy and God were all consigned to the realm of imaginary, along with werewolves and the monster under my bed. School prayer time and kumbaya sessions were excellent ways for adults to bring children up I thought, closed case. And for this type of religious sentiment, I think we can rightly say that it was modern science which puts the final nail in the Jebus.

The death of God gives birth to nihilism, an array of perspectives which calls for the meaninglessness of life, and which are all too rife and contemporary to us. If God doesn’t give our lives meaning, then we are just transient blips in the cosmos which will never perhaps be known to anything other than ourselves, the context of our lives shifts, and our foundation for morality seems to slip away.

In response to this, we can look only to the arts and philosophy. Existentialism, or phenomenology and an array of diverse areas of speculation which give new questions, and new answers to this new context. A new world of possibilities for the ‘I’ at the heart of existence, and for reality itself, which genuinely respond to the concerns of a post-god reality and culture, with new: meaning, sense, duty, and freedom. How could one navigate Western culture coherently without some sense of these doctrines/systems of thought?

More toward the point, physics is in a crisis of its own, with many cries from within physics to lead us to doubt the claims of the absolute universality, and objectivity of its current understanding of the nature of reality. Physicist Lee Smolin, for example, seems decidedly keen to plunge physics into a revolution concerning Time.

Breaking from our conception since Newton, and through Minkowski and Einstein, that Time is fixed and immutable. Smolin does not believe that the current understanding of time as an abstract entity will allow us to push any further in our progress of physics, and that to reconcile Einstein’s relativity with quantum mechanics, we must firstly re-conceive time. Here we seem to hear an echo of physicist Alan Sokal’s hoax text “transgressive hermeneutics of quantum gravity” which seems to take on a new light given Smolin’s theory.

Smolin believes the problem goes back to Newton’s theological faith that mathematics would serve as God’s blueprints. Thus like God, we made Time – eternal and immutable, fixed, and universally applicable. To Smolin though, time is something real and is more than another dimension of space-time. Thus, we find in Smolin a dynamic theory of time. One which champions evolution in the natural order, in which the laws which govern nature are subject to change and evolution, from simpler, to more complex systems, and it is only through a moving Time, Smolin thinks, that we may solve our contemporary problems.

In a sense then Smolin diagnoses physics with a fallacy of naivety for which physics would certainly not be the first to fall to, namely a problem of applying it’s conclusions far more broadly than it has the reason too.

The connection might be slight, but we recognise much of what Smolin speculates in Time Reborn about the nature of Time from the work of mathematician turned meta-physician, Henri Bergson. Likewise, Bergson believed that mathematics, by freezing time (which is never still, but always dynamic) was reducing our reality to a series of dead moments, which were abstractions, and which do not resemble the true nature of reality. For this Bergson turned his back on mathematics, for the import of what he considered invalid metaphysical assumptions.

We find implicit in Smolin’s thought the notion of a paradigm shift as introduced by Thomas Kuhn. That science does not follow from first principles, building up from the bottom. Rather science is prone to ground-breaking discoveries which turn many notions on their head, to be re-conceived or discarded. Forcing us to consider science less as the language of God, and more as a practical method for understanding, which surely edges toward the objective, though perhaps never quite touching it.


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