July 2, 2012, by Jonathan

Stephen Hawking is Wrong: Philosophy is Alive and Well

What use is philosophy, given the phenomenal success of modern science? According to many contemporary scientists, the answer is: no use at all. Most famous of the current anti-philosophy scientists is Stephen Hawking, who recently proclaimed that ‘philosophy is dead’.  The influential physicist and author Lawrence Krauss talks about ‘moronic philosophers’ (including Columbia University philosophy professor David Albert, who recently reviewed Krauss’s latest book).

The complaint that all of these anti-philosophers has is that philosophy doesn’t get us anywhere. Compared to the methods of modern science, a priori reflection is a pretty ineffectual route to the truth. Perhaps philosophy once had a point, back in the infancy of the physical sciences, but not now. So says the anti-philosophy chorus.

It’s often pointed out, in reply, that philosophers are interested in issues that science just doesn’t talk about: morality; justice; aesthetic value; freedom. What the anti-philosophy brigade are most vehemently attacking is metaphysics, that branch of philosophy that tries to discover what reality is really like. If you want the truth about how the world really is, they say, science is your best (and only) bet.

They do have a point. Questions that were once good philosophical questions have been settled by the sciences. We can expect that many other deep questions we have about our world and it’s origins, will in time, likewise be settled by the sciences. It’s no good having philosophers who live in a bubble, ignorant of the latest scientific developments. It’s not the place of metaphysicians to contest the best scientific theories.

To think that this makes metaphysics redundant is misguided, however. That view seriously misunderstands the aims of metaphysics, and philosophy in general. Scientific theories always need interpreting. I don’t mean that they need a popular book written about them, so that the non-scientists can see what the theory means. I mean that a scientific theory, on its own, is an insufficient resource for anyone to understand the world around us. Here’s a simple example to illustrate the point, taken from mathematics (but the point holds for physical sciences too). Mathematical theories tell us there are numbers, sets, groups, rings, fields and other wonderful entities, and tell us what properties they have. But do such things really exist? Are they really part of what makes up our universe? If so, are they ‘out there’ beyond the physical realm, or are they creations of human minds? Mathematics itself doesn’t answer any of these questions, but they are nevertheless important questions if we want to grasp fully what mathematics tells us about the world. For sure, we can apply mathematics without worrying about such matters. But that’s not the same as reaching understanding.

Just the same goes for physics. How should we think about the fundamental particles, wave-functions and fields described in modern physics? What is spacetime? Why, if time is just a dimension of spacetime, can we travel in any direction in space, but only forwards in time? Physics gives us the equations for reasoning about these concepts. Understanding them, and how they combine to make up the world we experience, is a task beyond science: it’s a job for metaphysics.

Metaphysics is ultimately about understanding the world around us. We can’t do that without science. But neither can we do it with science alone. Metaphysics is at its best when it works alongside current science, rather than in opposition to it.


Mark Jago

Posted in Explanation