Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.*
The man who wrote those words is very famous. In fact, he is thought to be one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. Unfortunately, this man does not understand what philosophy is or why it is important. If he did, I doubt he would have written these words, because he would have known how foolishly naive they make him sound. They make him sound that way because, if it is true, it means his own profession is dead, as well. You see, philosophy is the foundation upon which this man’s life work is based. Without philosophy, his work would not only have no meaning, but it would not even exist. This is why understanding what philosophy is and why it is important is something that should interest each and every one of us — especially Stephen Hawking (yes, he is the foolishly naive man who wrote those words).
Now that I have called Stephen Hawking foolishly naive, I suspect you might be ready to dismiss me. After all, how can I possibly know any better than Dr. Hawking — right? Well, perceived genius does not imply wisdom. In fact, the two are seldom connected. If you will stay with me through this entire post, I think I can show you that, in many ways, you are wiser than Dr. Hawking. But you have to stay with me to the end, OK?
What is philosophy, and why should we care?
Well, there is more than one answer to each side of this question: more than one meaning of ‘philosophy,’ and more than one reason we should care about each meaning. Let’s start by looking at a few definitions. Before we go to the English dictionary, we will look at what the word meant in its original Greek. In the Greek language, ‘philosophy‘ is a compound word. It is formed by combining the words ‘philio‘ (friend, lover) and ‘sophos‘ (wisdom). So, in the original Greek, ‘philosophy‘ means ‘friend or lover of wisdom.’
Hold on to this, because we will come back to it at the end of this post.
Now let us consider the many modern meanings of the word, ‘philosophy.’ From the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary:
1 a (1) : all learning exclusive of technical precepts and practical arts (2) : the sciences and liberal arts exclusive of medicine, law, and theology a doctor of philosophy (3) : the 4-year college course of a major seminary b (1) archaic : physical science (2) : ethics c : a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology
2 a : pursuit of wisdom b : a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means c : an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs
3 a : a system of philosophical concepts b : a theory underlying or regarding a sphere of activity or thought the philosophy of war
4 a : the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group b : calmness of temper and judgment befitting a philosopher
Notice that the many meanings connected to the 1st part of our definition are all associated with the notion of learning, especially in those fields of study that we do not associate with ‘science.’ This connection to ‘science‘ is important; do not pass over it. Notice how this 1st set of definitions acknowledges that ‘philosophy‘ once included the physical sciences, but now that meaning is said to be ‘archaic (i.e. old, antiquated, out of date). Today, the meaning of ‘philosophy‘ is understood as explicitly excluding the physical sciences. Hold on to this, too.
The 2nd set of definitions get closer to the original meaning of the word (the love of wisdom), but it also includes the notion that one can learn without actually testing or observation. Here again, we are going to come back to this. It is connected to why I say Stephen Hawking is foolishly naive.
Whether or not we realize it, we use the 3rd set of meanings all the time. This is the meaning of ‘philosophy‘ where concepts such as religion and political ideology live. As you may have expected, I want you to hold on to this as well.
Finally, we come to the definition that is most important to the life of the individual — that means you and I. This definition of ‘philosophy‘ is connected to an individual’s personal world-view; how they understand the meaning of life. It also includes the set of beliefs that help you decide what is right and what is wrong in any given situation.
If a person has a consistent and coherent world-view, it can help them make good decisions which then helps them to avoid the creation of bigger problems in their lives. On the other hand, people without a well thought out personal philosophy tend to live as a friend of mine puts it: like a speeding car with no steering wheel. They often make poor and usually inconsistent decisions, which then lead to the creation of more, even bigger problems. This can cause people to feel as though they have no control over their lives, which can then cause them to feel helpless and depressed, or frustrated and angry — neither of which is conducive to a happy life. This is why each of us should spend some time working through the things we believe because, even if we do not put in the conscious work to do it, we will still end up with a personal philosophy. It’s just that, if we chose not to work on it, the philosophy we end up with will be that speeding car with no steering wheel.
Now, why is all of this important? Let’s go back to the 1st set of definitions for ‘philosophy.’ Because I have spent a great deal of my life working through what I believe and why, I know that philosophy is still as important to modern science as it has ever been — even the physical sciences. Philosophy is inseparably connected to logic: logic being the primary tool with which a philosopher works. This means logic is found in this first group of definitions (i.e. doctor of philosophy). But mathematics and the ‘scientific method‘ are built upon the foundations of logic. This means that the physical sciences are built upon the things in this 1st set of definitions. If we remove that foundation (philosophy/logic), all those things built on it collapse. So, how can one justify the exclusion of the physical sciences from this first meaning of ‘philosophy?‘ We’ll answer that in a few moments.
Now consider the 2nd set of definitions. In this set of definitions, we find that the meaning of ‘philosophy‘ is connected to both the love of wisdom, but also to the quest for knowledge without actually experimenting or observing: knowledge just by reasoning (i.e by thinking). Well, this excludes the ‘scientific method,’ which is based upon observation, hypothesis, experimentation, more observation and repeating this process until the hypothesis is proven or disproved. So we are left with two meanings here. One is basically trying to think knowledge into existence, the other is the quest for wisdom.
The 3rd set of definitions for ‘philosophy‘ is connected to the notion of a set of related ideas or principles that work together to form a coherent and consistent way of dealing with specific issues. Think ‘Liberal’ and ‘Conservative,’ or ‘Religious’ and ‘Atheist.’ Anyone who embraces any of these ideas is actually embracing the philosophy behind them. In other words, they are embracing the line of reasoning or explanation common to each of these ideologies. True, a person can have personal ‘tweaks’ to an ideology or philosophy, but then that leads us to the 4th set of definitions.
Finally, we are back to the 4th definition for ‘philosophy:‘ how do we, personally, as an individual, see and understand the world? Well, let’s test your personal philosophy right now. It’s time to put everything we’ve covered so far together with all those things I asked you to hold on to and then see where it leads us.
Suppose you are a genius and you work in the field of astrophysics. You have concluded that philosophy is dead. You then go on to explain that this is because ‘science’ has out-stripped philosophy, making philosophy irrelevant. And, since you work in the physical sciences, this means that philosophy is not only dead, but you have helped to kill it. Therefore, you think nothing of boasting: “Philosophy is dead…” But then you also write:
“Until the advent of modern physics it was generally thought that all knowledge of the world could be obtained through direct observation,… But the spectacular success of modern physics,…has shown that this is not the case.”
Remember when I told you that I thought I could show you that you are wise enough to say Dr, Hawking is foolishly naive? Well, here is where you show yourself that I was correct. Remember how Dr. Hawking said the 1st definition of ‘philosophy‘ is dead, but also how I showed you that, if this is the case, then so is science because science is built upon the first definition of philosophy? Now look at Dr. Hawking’s last words. If we no longer need to observe and can just ‘think’ knowledge into existence as Dr. Hawking claims, are we not meeting the very terms of the 2nd definition for ‘philosophy?‘ Go ahead, go back up and read the 2nd set of definitions again. Did you see where it specifically says the act of learning without observation is ‘philosophy?‘ I bet you are starting to see the problem with what Dr. Hawking has done. Here, let me make it easier to read and consider:
According to Dr. Hawking, on one hand, if philosophy is dead, but then, so is science — because science collapses when philosophy dies.
On the other hand, science has supposedly shown that we can ‘think’ knowledge into existence (i.e. learn without observing), but this is the very definition of ‘philosophy,’ which means philosophy is alive.
Do you see the contradiction? According to Dr. Hawking, philosophy is dead, but, at the same time, the ‘science’ he boasts about is philosophy! Both things cannot be true at the same time, therefore, Dr. Hawking has created a contradiction. In logic, there is a saying: from a contradiction, all things follow. In other words, after a contradiction, nothing is true and everything is true — at the same time. It is lawlessness, and it is usually a sure sign that someone has not thought things through very well at all — not even someone like Dr. Hawking.
But we’re not done. Let’s take another look at the third meaning of ‘philosophy.’
The third meaning of ‘philosophy‘ deals with things like religion, which includes atheism. Dr. Hawkin is an atheist, and as such, he has certain pre-supposed ideas that guide what he will and will not even consider. For example: when he first did the math that proved the universe will expand into nothingness, he said this was proof that there must be a Creator. This was because his equations showed the universe could not have created itself. However, he later changed his claim — and his equations — to show how the universe could ‘spontaneously’ generate itself. It is true: his equations now show a self-producing universe, but those equations are based on imaginary math. They contain things like the square root of -1. The point of this is that his equations do not exist in reality: they only exist in his mind and on his papers. To make them work, you have to use real numbers and, the moment you do that, you arrive back at a universe that cannot create itself.** You see, Dr. Hawkin’s adheres to a philosophy (atheism) that precludes him from even considering any explanation that might rest on the notion of a Creator. Therefore, if given two possible explanations, he will always chose the one that does not require a Creator. If necessary, he will create an explanation that does not require a Creator. But this is not ‘scientific,’ and that is because it is based on a presupposition before that possibility is disproved (in this case, that there is no and can be no Creator). And yet, Dr. Hawking’s life’s work is based on this flawed foundation of suppositions and contradictions.
Are you starting to understand why I said Dr. Hawking made a foolishly naive assertion when he boasted “Philosophy is dead…?” Are you starting to see why I say philosophy is important to each of us? I hope so, but I want to offer you one more point to consider before I leave you to digest everything we have covered. Remember that philosophy is connected to the quest for wisdom. In fact, that is the original meaning. We will have to discuss the meaning of ‘wisdom‘ in another post, but — for now — let us just say that wisdom is that thing which lets us use things correctly. Whether it is reason, or science, or even the tools of our trade, like a saw or hammer, wisdom is what tells us how, when and where to use these things — and even when we shouldn’t. Now, Dr. Hawking is very intelligent, but is he wise? Well, I’ll let you decide for yourself, but remember, he has already said the foundation of his tools (i.e. mathematics and ‘science’) is dead, which means his tools are dead, as well. Then he proceeds to say that thing he declared dead have proven the old method of testing and observation is no longer necessary. Add to this the fact that he has built his entire personal philosophy (meaning 4), not to mention his professional philosophy (meaning 3), on equations that use imaginary numbers to prove that the universe created itself. There is a certain degree of hubris in all of this, and, when you read the first chapter of his book, “The Grand Designs,” it borders on out-right arrogance. Well, this brings us back to the very beginning of this post, when I first told you to hold on to the Greek meaning of ‘philosophy.‘
In the New Testament, the word we know as ‘philosophy‘ is always used to refer to secular or human wisdom, and always in a negative context. It is used to contrast those who seek their own wisdom over that of God’s. Now, I am not going to try to walk you through this one. I am just going to leave it with you and ask you to think about what this means — really think about it.
The original Greek, philosophia, is used by the New Testament to negatively compare and contrast those who seek/love their own wisdom over God’s.
By now, I hope I have shown you what philosophy means and why it is important. I also hope I have shown you that — whether you agree with my personal beliefs or not — you are wise enough to conclude that it was foolish and naive for Dr. Hawkin to have declared “Philosophy is dead!”
* “The Grand Design,” by Stephen Hawking, pg 5
**Physicist William Lane Craig in “The Case of a Creator,” by Lee Strobel, chapter 5