Is Philosophy Dead?

Posted on September 29, 2010

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Doddering old academics in philosophy departments all over the world may very well be preparing to pack the contents of their offices into cardboard boxes now that Professor Stephen Hawking has told us, in his latest book, that ‘philosophy is dead’.

Yet such nonsensical arguments as those offered by Hawking highlight why we are so desperately in need of sound philosophical thought, far better than any apologia for philosophical study could. Take the following example in the Professor’s own words: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist’. The observant reader may have thought the present writer guilty of a typing error when he read the assertion that ‘the Universe will create itself from nothing’, but those are Hawking’s very words. This is, of course, simply a stream of words which signifies nothing. Precisely because there is nothing, as the esteemed Professor points out, there is no ‘it’ to create itself. For something to create itself, whether from nothing or from pre-existing matter, is a meaningless juxtaposition of words, because it holds that something can exist prior to its own existence in order to cause itself to come into existence. Moreover, how could there be such a thing as the law of gravity, when there was nothing?

Among Professor Hawking’s other howlers are his bizarre assertion that ‘the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit’. The ‘multiverse concept’, for the uninitiated, is better known in popular parlance as the idea of ‘parallel universes’. In other words, some opine that there exist, outside of our own Universe, a very large number of other possible universes, with divers characteristics. All possible universes considered, it is argued, it is not surprising that one of them —ours — has the capacity for sustaining life. Why is this bizarre? Hawking claims that ‘[it] is not necessary to invoke God’ to explain the origins of the Universe, yet he seems to see no contradiction in invoking the arguably ludicrous idea of multiple universes. As G. K. Chesterton famously said, ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything’.

It is with some amusement then, that we observe the contradiction of prominent members of the modern scientific establishment sneering at the faith of religious believers as a mindless superstition, while one who has been described by ABC News as ‘the smartest man in the world’ is able to say, apparently without joking, that the concept of multiple hypothetical universes, none of which has ever been demonstrated to exist, and indeed for the existence of which there is not the slightest shred of empirical evidence, simply explains everything we need to know. Who is really the believer in foolish fables, we might legitimately ask?

That Hawking has not been laughed out of Cambridge demonstrates exactly why we need good philosophy, because philosophy has traditionally played the role, amongst others, of a watchman, making sure that the assertions of the other sciences accord with reason. We ought rather to hope that philosophy is not dead, because clear thinking is the only thing that will help us, and Professor Hawking, out of the mess we are in.

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Doddering old academics in philosophy departments all over the world may very well be preparing to pack the contents of their offices into cardboard boxes now that Professor Stephen Hawking has told us, in his latest book, that ‘philosophy is dead’.
Yet such nonsensical arguments as those offered by Hawking highlight why we are so desperately in need of sound philosophical thought, far better than any apologia for philosophical study could. Take the following example in the Professor’s own words: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist’. The observant reader may have thought the present writer guilty of a typing error when he read the assertion that ‘the Universe will create itself from nothing’, but those are Hawking’s very words. This is, of course, simply a stream of words which signifies nothing. Precisely because there is nothing, as the esteemed Professor points out, there is no ‘it’ to create itself. For something to create itself, whether from nothing or from pre-existing matter, is a meaningless juxtaposition of words, because it holds that something can exist prior to its own existence in order to cause itself to come into existence. Moreover, how could there be such a thing as the law of gravity, when there was nothing?
Among Professor Hawking’s other howlers are his bizarre assertion that ‘the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit’. The ‘multiverse concept’, for the uninitiated, is better known in popular parlance as the idea of ‘parallel universes’. In other words, some opine that there exist, outside of our own Universe, a very large number of other possible universes, with divers characteristics. All possible universes considered, it is argued, it is not surprising that one of them —ours — has the capacity for sustaining life. Why is this bizarre? Hawking claims that ‘[it] is not necessary to invoke God’ to explain the origins of the Universe, yet he seems to see no contradiction in invoking the arguably ludicrous idea of multiple universes. As G. K. Chesterton famously said, ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything’.
It is with some amusement then, that we observe the contradiction of prominent members of the modern scientific establishment sneering at the faith of religious believers as a mindless superstition, while one who has been described by ABC News as ’the smartest man in the world’ is able to say, apparently without joking, that the concept of multiple hypothetical universes, none of which has ever been demonstrated to exist, and indeed for the existence of which there is not the slightest shred of empirical evidence, simply explains everything we need to know. Who is really the believer in foolish fables, we might legitimately ask?
That Hawking has not been laughed out of Cambridge demonstrates exactly why we need good philosophy, because philosophy has traditionally played the role, amongst others, of a watchman, making sure that the assertions of the other sciences accord with reason. We ought rather to hope that philosophy is not dead, because clear thinking is the only thing that will help us, and Professor Hawking, out of the mess we are in.
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