Philosophy is Dead – What Hawking Meant

Hi Pascal,

We’ve gone back and forth about what Hawking meant by “Philosophy is dead.” I’ve asked myself several times why it matters. Neither of us are holding up Hawking as a representative of our view. You don’t need Hawking for faith. I don’t need Hawking for my position because science only has experts, not “authorities” (contrary to the depiction in the movie “God’s Not Dead“). We’re all trying to figure out the mystery of existence. Scientists describe laws, they don’t prescribe them. For doubting scripture (my position) I don’t see that an individual scientist’s opinion is relevant. However, Hawking doesn’t seem to disagree with my position, so it really doesn’t impact me one way or another.

Since you’ve brought him up several times I’m curious about what you’re arguing against by disagreeing with Hawking and why it matters to you, or what point you’re trying to make. I think I understand you, but I’d like clarification. I offered an explanation of what I think he meant and why in a previous post. I haven’t heard your assessment of his words, so I’m not completely sure how it differs from my own (other than you disagree). I find it odd that we would come to different conclusions about this, so I think there’s still an issue with what I think Hawking meant by “philosophy” and what I think you mean by it. Or maybe my understanding is incorrect? Let’s dive in and talk it through. 🙂

What I think you mean by philosophy

Here are your comments in-line for simplicity. I don’t know if they’re in order. You can find them in context in Confessions and Small(er)(er?) bites.

Science was never a philosophy.  It was and is a method seeking explanation.  Philosophy seeks meaning. …

I can and will accept the arguments of science for the questions that science answers.  That includes age of the universe and earth.  That includes evolutionary biology writ large.  But I disagree with Hawking that philosophy is not necessary. …

We do need philosophy – – love of wisdom – – and we act like, live like, we do. …

He had time to think, a collaborator to think with, and I believe that he said what he meant.  Provocative?  Yes.  Philosophy is dead.  So, I don’t feel unsteady in disagreeing with him.

From these quotes it sounds like you’re saying something like the following:

  1. Philosophy is the branch of understanding that seeks meaning (“why” questions).
  2. Science is not a philosophy and doesn’t seek meaning, only explanation (“what” and “how”, not “why”).
  3. Science is incapable of weighing in on certain questions related to meaning or God.
  4. Hawking meant “the love of wisdom”, or the need for meaning, is dead.
  5. The need for wisdom and meaning is still very relevant today.

I’m probably missing something about your position, but this is my best first-guess. Please correct my errors in your position.

My original assessment of Hawking’s meaning

Here are my comments about what Hawking meant (from Love, Gray holes, Supernatural Ladybugs, and Scripture):

As we discussed at breakfast, I think Hawking (who recently said “There are no black holes” and meant they are actually slightly gray) is being slightly misunderstood when he says “Philosophy is dead” (the statement is made at 1:12 into the video, but listen to more for context). Due to Hawking’s disabilities is hard to have a back and forth dialogue with him and he didn’t expound much, but from his other resources and similar comments from other astrophysicists, I have an idea of his meaning. His view seems to be that philosophers who do not touch empirical tests and are unfamiliar with science are a dying breed. Most topics that used to be in philosophy have now branched out into various disciplines of science. Science is progressing where philosophy has not been (recently), and now science is able to contribute to philosophy much more than sitting-on-a-couch thinking. His statement is not meant to say that there is no benefit in philosophy or that it is “not necessary”, as Hawking is well aware that his own field of cosmology started as primarily a philosophy, and is largely involved in philosophy today. What he’s trying to accomplish with that “jaw-dropping” statement (like “there are no black holes”) is to get people to realize that the philosophy of the future will be tied inextricably with observation and scientific testing, not isolated from it.

You said you disagreed with this and that Hawking said what he meant, “Philosophy is dead.” However, I didn’t see what specifically you disagreed with. Do you think there might be a difference between my claims about what Hawking meant by “philosophy” and your meaning of “philosophy” (which may be something like “that which seeks meaning/wisdom/etc.”)?

Further resources

I alluded to some other sources I’d seen from astrophysicist presentations that lead me to form my understanding of how they viewed the topic long before I heard about Hawking’s controversial quote. Here are some of those sources. There were several others but I didn’t take the time to find them:

The reaction

If someone believes that philosophy is about meaning and wisdom then I can completely see how such a statement from Hawking would confuse them and make them want to correct him. Some may even seek to press the issue in order to discredit Hawking – believing he is akin to the scientific/atheist Pope (not that you see him that way, but some believers do).

When I heard Hawking’s claim that philosophy is dead, it was not very surprising. It did not offend me or seem at all unreasonable given the context in which I view philosophy and science. I can see why people would puzzle over his claim. However, I don’t know of anyone currently alive who is more brilliant than this man, so I hope few people think he meant the love of wisdom or the need for meaning is dead. He is full of wisdom and one of the main driving forces in his life is the discovery of the meaning to the universe. He doesn’t see meaning as something that his field of cosmology can’t address.

How physicists view philosophy vs science

I agree with how I think Hawking and most physicists’ view of philosophy and science…

For many, science is a philosophy, so it is ultimately about meaning (even if not always directly). It’s a subset of philosophy (or similar enough to one) that seeks explanation. But even those who view it as separate from philosophy usually assert it can answer questions about meaning. Laws are descriptions of reality. Theories are explanations that often include meanings and answers to “why” questions. Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Science deals with knowledge and has had many definitions over time, including “the philosophy of nature” (e.g. things that can be experienced and tested). There is an incredible amount of overlap between science and philosophy because in my more inclusive view of science, science is a philosophy. To my mind, and probably to most physicists, the main distinction has less to do with “why” questions of explanation vs meaning (they both seek both of those). The main difference is “testability”. Philosophy seeks understanding. The sub-branch of philosophy (or the related field) that uses tests to validate or falsify those on-the-couch hypotheses is called science.

The problem I think Hawking and most other physicists have with philosophy is only that it is inferior to science in coming up with answers that are more likely true. This is to be expected and it is why his statement made sense to me. Would you more fully trust an idea that you could not test, or one that you could test and verify or falsify? Insofar-as a philosophical idea is subject to experimentation, it is somewhat scientific in nature. Philosophy was the only game in town for millennia, since there was no formal method of hypothesis generation, testing, the use of only natural explanations to explain natural phenomena, etc. When the scientific method was initially formed, the process of “the search for wisdom” gained a powerful new tool, and more and more things that were strictly a philosophy started being tested. New tests were devised, and with each success, new and better hypotheses were formed. Science began surging forward and has been ever since, while philosophy has been mostly stagnant since science became formal three hundred years ago. The reason is not that philosophy is bad, it’s just that as a philosophical subject comes up with things that can be tested, it moves into a science. Philosophy has been steadily shrinking over the past several hundred years as more and more things that could once only be thought about on the couch (a-priori vs a posteriori reasoning), slowly started becoming testable. Again, this is what happened to the field of cosmology since the 1960s. It, like many many other subjects, went from being primarily a philosophy to being primarily a science.

Is philosophy dead?

So is philosophy dead? In some sense, I can see why he would choose to represent it that way. Of course we still need critical thinking, discrete math, and truth tables, but most college students can get that part of philosophy in their philosophy section of their specific science courses. The once non-testable areas of philosophy are almost entirely testable now, thanks to clever advances in technology and other tools that open up new ways to test things. The areas of philosophy that still remain untestable have made little progress compared with science, so they are fruitless in many areas. If you can think of a philosophy that has made progress, it’s probably due to specific things that have been tested within that philosophy (even though the larger branch of philosophy in consideration may not have moved to a science yet).

I’m not prepared to say “philosophy is dead” because most interpretations of that phrase would not match my meaning. Philosophy is excellent at coming up with and framing questions that science can then investigate. It’s also has great applicability to the creation, governance and management of the art of science. It provides a set of checks and balances that keep science in line by establishing its proper domain. To further complicate the issue, my inclusive view of science encompasses much of philosophy. Thought experiments are deeply engrained in philosophy and they are scientific experiments that are subject to tests using logic. So what philosophy uses to come up with the applicable domain of science, is itself a science in my view.

Is philosophy dead? It depends on what a person means, but I can sympathize with a physicist who might see it that way, given the very minor overall applicability of non-scientific thought to his/her field of hard numbers and raw data.

Are wisdom and meaning worthless?

Do we still need wisdom and a search for meaning? Absolutely, and I sincerely believe Hawking and most other physicists would agree. But given this context of what they mean by philosophy, I hope it’s clear that wisdom and meaning are not what is meant when they speak of philosophy in general being trumped by the specific philosophical sciences that offer testing.

More on the overlap and questions science can’t answer (yet?)

Here’s the question as I see it. Can it be tested in some way? Then think of it as a science (it has the potential to make progress via observation and testing – we can know something about it – so it isn’t fruitless). Can it not be tested? Then it is a philosophy that is currently not a science, so it is unlikely to yield much progress until tests can be devised (at which point it will become a science no longer be dead). Much of the thinking done in a scientific fields is philosophical. And much of the thinking done in the few domains that are still primary philosophical are scientific (because some testing can be done, but not enough to classify the whole domain as a science). As I mentioned, there is a lot of overlap. The point, though, is that even a science is interested in meaning an answers to the “why” questions (though it typically doesn’t presuppose a purpose as the ultimate cause, so it may frame it as “how” but it’s still after meaning), because it is ultimately a philosophy (it just may not address the “meaning” questions directly much of the time).

When you say there are questions science cannot answer, that is like saying there are questions for which we do not currently have a means to evaluate whether or not they are true (i.e. we cannot test them). I agree. There are many big questions (most do involve meaning) that we do not have a good way to validate or falsify yet. Philosophy is alive in well when thinking about these questions. But will it make progress. Can we come to a knowledge (science) of some answer without an ability to validate or falsify our on-the-couch conclusions? I doubt it. I have hope that as we think about them philosophically, and as our knowledge and tools improve, we will begin to be able to test more and more of them in small pieces until a potentially accurate picture snaps into view. We can get into Non-Overlapping Magisteria another day, but I think at least some of the questions that we are putting out of the domain of science are not unaddressable by science. In particular, science is great at falsification, even for domains in which it cannot provide positive evidence.

Finally, in Small(er)(er?) bites you said:

Either you or Linuxgal could probably understand Hawking’s technical works.

Thank you for the compliment, but please don’t mistake me for a competent physicist or mathematician. I have a lot to learn, about that and many other subjects, but I love the journey.

I hope this clarifies my position on science vs philosophy. 🙂

Have a great day, friend.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

2 comments

  1. hawking says philosophy is dead according to understood physics that should be applicable to the mind, but his approach fails to apply physics to the part of philosophy he claim is dead, mainly the mind he wants to own from philosophy, why he says it’s dead

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