A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

In The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and fellow physicist/co-author Leonard Mlodinow declare that philosophy is dead because it has not kept up with modern developments in science. Ironically, they then proceed to outlay a philosophical proof of their audacious claim. It seems, for the most part, that they feel quantum physics has developed sufficiently to warrant the putting to bed of metaphysics. To this end I would agree, although I have very strong atheistic views that I have yet to defend ubiquitously against philosophical arguments.

I would like to assert here, philosophically, that philosophy is certainly not dead but that it is, rather, alive and well – and perhaps more vital than ever. Science is certainly an essential tool for acquiring knowledge, although an understanding of what exactly constitutes knowledge remains firmly rooted in the realm of epistemology – a branch of philosophy, not science. For most people, including me, epistemology may often seem like a bunch of fart-sniffing navel gazing, but even I cannot refute the necessity of at least a cursory ponderance of epistemology in establishing a basis for evaluating one’s own beliefs.

The evaluation of one’s own beliefs must be a central tenet of any form of skepticism espousing itself to be free of hypocrisy. Such evaluations, and skepticism itself, rely on critical thinking skills that are firmly rooted in philosophy. Whether or not the skeptic embraces ontology, the skeptic’s demand for evidence relies on ontological evaluations of empiricism and rationalism as a basis for evaluating what constitutes evidence at all.

Indeed, in the absence of philosophy scientists become nothing more than technicians left unable even to determine what knowledge they should seek. Where science seeks answers, philosophy posed the question. Where science seeks truth, philosophy establishes our motivation for seeking in the first place. Where science establishes proof, philosophy finds meaning in that proof.

It is a scientific certainty that all of man’s folly will come to an end. Timespace is finite leaving entropy to erode all flesh and, with it, all knowledge. Nothing that man can learn will prevent our ultimate demise and so we must ask: what, if anything, can be gained by our intellectual pursuits? This very question and any answers to it are the very essence of philosophy, which, more than ever, is alive and well.

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Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 21, 2011 at 10:57pm

Scientifically we are very certain at this point that all human existence will end: perhaps from a natural/man-made extinction, perhaps in 5 billion years when the earth is gone, or perhaps in 30 billion years when nothing but photons are left and matter has fully dissipated - or whatever the cosmological models are telling us.  From a scientific perspective there is absolutely no point to our existence because all that our species could ever come to know will be disintegrated by the flow of entropy - nothing we do or learn will make a difference.


On the other hand, what we do and learn does make a difference to the lives we have, both as individuals and as a civilization/species.  Pure hedonism may return the greatest gain for the individual but it limits the expected returns of others.  Even within our own lifetime, even subscribing to pure hedonism, we do hope that others will continue to follow some semblance of order; this is why we create and uphold laws.  With or without any permanent record being possible, we can engineer ourselves to provide ourselves (in the greater sense) some sort of worthwhile existence.


This leads me to think about a pilot who had to fly a 757 under total hydraulic failure.  There was no steering left, no stick or rudder control, and all he could do was adjust the engine thrust to try to keep things more or less level in each axis.  He was a dead man, but all he could do was just keep making those adjustments, just trying to draw his life out for one more round of adjustments.  We are driven, as animals, to do that.  We our empowered, as humans, to make that happen.


Comment by John Camilli on May 21, 2011 at 10:24pm

I agree, but where does one even begin in deciding personal meaning? Are we all to become hedonists and call that which feels good "right," and that which feels bad "wrong?" Are we to trust that easily misled gut of ours and decide that whatever makes us feel guilty is wrong and whatever makes us feel proud is right? These are hypotheticals, really, I don't expect answers to them. The only answer seems to be 'whatever works for you." But doesn't that mean that laws are a ridiculous concept, if anyone at all disagrees with them? Don't they have just as valid a point of view as mine, when it can't be shown that any perspective is universal?


This is a another perspective from which it could be said that philosophy is dead, I suppose. If there is no chance at a commonly understood foundation, then there is no structure on which to build interpersonal philosophical ideas, which would mean you'd have to construct your personal philosophy from scratch, without using anyone else's ideas to support them, because if they aren't your ideas then you can't understand them. It becomes impossible for anyone to explain anything to anyone else. Frankly, and I'm not joking, I think that's the way we all operate, regardless of what we say. We all adhere only to our own rules, and never to anyone else's. I'm curious if you think that as well.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 21, 2011 at 9:31pm

Well, John, a lot to think about.  I think philosophy has become more important than ever - not because it offers answers but because it offers the toolbox that allows one to set off on their own quest for answers, be that quest scientific, spiritual, or secular.  If physics has proven anything, it is that our instincts can, at any time, be way off the mark.  I happen to enjoy living with a Newtonian outlook, but I realize that Einstein has proven our natural instincts in this regard to be unfounded, and quantum mechanics only takes that proof further.


I think H&M are correct in asserting that physics has show us the 'why' question is dead, although the 'why' question really only needs to be rephrased.  Rather than 'why' we are here from a cosmological perspective, we should be asking 'why' are we here from a personal perspective.  Our personal answers to that question are more relevant than ever in a world where we now know the universe really doesn't give a crap.

Comment by John Camilli on May 21, 2011 at 8:06am
Well......we're still here. And I had all my hopes up for a swift end, but my faith is dashed. I must cry now.
Comment by Glen Rosenberg on May 20, 2011 at 11:21pm

But John, not all bubbles are created equal. Those who fill their bubbles with bubble gum procured and paid at the house of worship want to impose and stick their dirty gum all over everything and everyone.

Atheist/existentialists are along for the ride and here to enjoy the occasional buzz of existence, not to gum stuff up unnecessarily.

I stand by the superiority of atheism/existentialism. Human affairs and civilization would be markedly improved without the bad bubble spitting, mucking bazooka chewers. Bazooka is the best gum.

I only hope the good lord lets the preakness unfold before lights out.

Comment by John Camilli on May 20, 2011 at 9:20pm

I can't say there's anything wrong with it, but I can't say there's anything right with it either. Ultimately, I say 'to each his own,' since no objective knowledge has been found that can replace subjective opinion.


The times when people do say there's something wrong with having one's own bubble of meaning is when theirs conflicts with someone else's, and they believe there's is correct. That's why I argue so vehemently against people who make claims of superiority of ideals, like you saying science is superior, lol. Or, conversely, when you guys say religion is inferior. To me, that's the same claim of one subjective opinion trumping another.


But who cares anymore, the world is gonna end tomorrow, right? I say good riddance to us all.

Comment by Glen Rosenberg on May 20, 2011 at 11:06am


I largely agree with you here.

"Meaning" or "purpose" is strictly a human concept or perhaps mamalian concept. It has no intrinsic place in the universe. I dont see at this point how modern physics can shed any light on philosophy.

But what is wrong with constructing our own little bubbles of meaning, knowing all the while that life is devoid of meaning? It is not as schizophrenic as it seems.

Comment by John Camilli on May 20, 2011 at 4:58am

I think another reason H&M may have said what they did about philosophy is because of something that both you and Wanderer have said: that philosophy seeks the answers to questions of 'why.' Modern scientists, and physicists specifically, have begun to abandon the idea that 'why' questions can even be answered. Many can be quoted as saying something along the lines of 'it is what it is, there's no reason for it at all.' From that perspective, science could be seen as the end of philosophy because it invalidates the search for meaning by asserting that there simply is no meaning.


I have that philosophy myself. I do not seek to ascribe meaning to anything because I do not think any of us, or any of This is here for any purpose. To me, purpose can only exist for something that is created with intent, and I do not think existence was created because of the logical loophole of explaining who or what created any hypothetical creator.


I think humans are in the habit of ascribing meaning beacuse of the relatively limited perspective we have, which gives us the impression that things are happening to us, or are caused by us, rather than that things are just happening.

Comment by John Camilli on May 20, 2011 at 4:48am

To give a specific example of why philosophy is in need of attention, I'll mention something I brought up briefly in your last post: quantum entanglement. Perhaps you have heard of the experiements where two photons (or neutrons) are created at some epicenter and then sent speeding off in opposite directions. A measurement is made of one, and because of the laws of conservation of momentum, spin and energy, the properties of the other particle can be known instantaneously.


This has raised some very important philosophical questions because it seems to be a violation of the principal of locality, which holds that time is required for information to travel across space. Locality is a primary facet of epistemology because the idea that things can be seperated by space allows for the law of identities, which is the root of all ontological description. That the results of the experiements remain unexplained has been a thorn in the side of philosophers of epistemology because it leaves room for the possibility that the principal of locality and the law of identity could be wrong. That would be a huge setback to all of what humans call knowledge, but the debate cannot be resolved until physics moves ahead with an explanation.


To me, that's very interresting stuff. Hopefully someone else think so too, lol.

Comment by John Camilli on May 20, 2011 at 4:37am

Heather, I like your writing here, and I think the issue is an important one. That someone bothered to contradict H&M's assertion is evidence enough that the philisophical debates are ongoing. I do, however, think they have lagged far behind scientific progress in that there is scant understanding of the meaning of modern scientific theories. In otherwords, I don't think anyone really understands yet the implications of, for example, superstring theory. There was a funny cartoon I saw recently on this site that illustrated this point. Two scientists are chatting and one says "Hey, what if everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings of energy?" The other says "That's an interresting idea, but what would it mean? And the first responds "I don't know."


That's pretty much the current state of affairs with regards to much of modern science, which is to be expected. It takes time to understand such all-encompassing theories, especially when the theories are still in their growing years. I think, rather than saying philosophy is dead, H&M might have done better to say that philosophy is in the process of being reborn, and that it is in its infancy with regards to the last 40 years of discovery. That's why modern physics seems so erudite and ethereal to most people; they can't relate to it. I think discussions like some of the ones we have here are an important part of the process of continuing to develope philosophy, so I'm glad to see any interrest in it.

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