Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hawking: Philosophy is Dead

As I begin my meander through Stephen Hawking's controversial and fascinating new book, the first thing I encounter, right there on the very first page, is an interesting proposition.  Hawking notes that humankind has all sorts of questions about meaning.
"How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves?  How does the universe behave?  What is the nature of reality?  Where did this all come from?  Did the universe need a creator?"
And then, he drops it:
"Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead."
I have two responses to this rather impressively broad assertion.  First, it's completely wrong.  Second, it's totally correct.  How can that be?  Well, there are two different clauses in that sentence.  Let's look at the second one first.

The statement that philosophy is dead is zigzackly precisely right.  Philosophy has clearly and incontrovertibly left the building.

The era in which philosophical thought had anything meaningful or transforming to say about purpose or truth or being began its demise with Descartes.  It was Cartesian thinking that marked the transition from philosophy as ontology (meaning the exploration of being) to philosophy as epistemology (meaning philosophy as the exploration of the means by which we know what we know.)  Once philosophical discourse turned away from questions of cosmology and broader meaning, and turned inward towards an exploration of the rational frameworks upon which it was constructed, it wandered off muttering incoherently to itself, chainsmoking Gauloises until it slowly withered and died.  Are there important things to learn in the fossilized remains of those thoughts?  Sure.  There's still tremendous value in some of those ancient human insights.  But they aren't living

Yeah, I know, there are still departments of philosophy.  There are still people racking up pointless student debt to study postmodern semiotics so they can spend their post-graduate career waiting tables at some funky little vegan place.  But the Western tradition of philosophy, the one that began with the Greek Eliatics in the 300s BCE, that way of approaching the world no longer is a culturally relevant or living tradition.   Hear the angry protestations from the vibrant philosophical community?  Neither did I.  So score one for Hawking et al.

The first part of that statement, though, is waaaay wrong.  Even if you're not a Christian, and not a theist, it's wrong.  Philosophy certainly attempted to answer those questions, but it was joined by...and often intermingled  Human beings explored the nature of reality not just through the rationally constructed systems of philosophy but more notably through the ecstasies of faith.  Human beings came into transforming encounters with the Numinous, and struggled to put words and frameworks around it as they grasped at what can't be grasped.   Across all human cultures, they told from those experiences the defining stories of their mythopoetics.   Faith has always been the primary way humankind has tried to answer that subset of questions.  So saying "traditionally, these are questions for philosophy" is just plain incorrect.

I wonder, honestly, if in some early iteration of this work that sentence didn't make the more provocative statement:  "Traditionally, these are questions for religion, but religion is dead."   Perhaps such a statement was deemed too inflammatory.  Who knows.  But it is clear, particularly from some of the argumentation that follows, that the authors know the case it is making does not have to contend with philosophy as a competing worldview.  It is faith, and the practitioners of faith, who really have to wrestle with this stuff. 

Further up and further in...


  1. So I take it in your opinion there is no such animal as the "Christian philosopher"? What do we call it when 'people of faith' use the tools of philosophy?

    I'd agree that certain schools of philosophical thought are on life support, mayhaps even "shuffled off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible". But the practice of philosophy in toto is certainly still a legitimate means by which to explore cosmology, cosmogony and all points in between.

    I am getting the impression that Hawking is simply easing into the seeming consensus in scientific circles that cold, hard science will soon give us all the answers and that faith and philosophy have no place in that exchange of idea and theory. See Sam Harris upcoming salvo
    , as well.

    By the way, I've got that one on order as well. Care to read and blog on it's content? It might be fun...ish.

  2. @ Jonathan: Actually, I think the only viable philosophers these days are theologians. Descartes leads, in the absence of faith, into a blind alley of solipsism.

    So we get to pick up the slack.

  3. Ah, then we'd be in total agreement after all. ;o)

    A philosophy that doesn't presuppose some sort of transcendent referent (i.e. Creator) isn't much of a philosophy.