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 19, 2011 at 10:24pm
I actually didn't really get into philosophy until I started debating theists online and had to explain to them the epistemological errancies in tautologically ontological arguments (circular reasoning, if I am not mistaken).  Anyway, navigating the Rube Goldberg constructs of William Lane Craig's rhetorical gymnastics sure gets one reflecting upon the nature of reason and knowledge as well as how easily they can lead an otherwise seemingly intelligent person down the garden path of god-think.  It has really helped me though, by motivating me to audit my own beliefs with a bit more scrutiny.  It's also helped me recognize a debate opponent who is wriggling away so I can set up some more weirs to keep them pinned in a little better.  Finally it has helped me realize that all that philosophical navel gazing has real merit when one wants to be certain of just what one knows and what to do with that knowledge.
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on May 19, 2011 at 9:36pm
Thanks Heather, for someone "not well educated in philosophy" I think you did I very nice job indeed. Not too many people outside of philosophy are even aware of epistemology, let alone ontology or even philosophy itself! I have met many people who really don't even know what philosophy is. I myself went to school for philosophy, and though it hasn't helped me "in the real world", I am proud that I have discovered it and realized its value. I've even had one or two people on here tell me that philosophy is not good for anything, that science has replaced the need for philosophy. I almost missed out on it myself, only realizing what philosophy was in my mid 20s, which points to 1. a serious failing of our school systems, and 2. the urgent need for philosophy itself. When one looks at how crazy the world has become, even by its own outlandish standards, I think the need for philosophy has never been greater. Would love to chat some more philosophy with you anytime!
Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 19, 2011 at 9:08pm
Thanks, Wanderer - I believe you have constructed a better defense in your reply than I put forth in my blog.  I am not well educated in philosophy but I found Hawking's claim to be an affront to reason itself - especially that he laid out his defense in a very standard philosophical format.  I just hoped to raise some awareness of the claim so that those who are far better versed than I could start preparing their rebuttals.
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on May 19, 2011 at 8:54pm
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on May 19, 2011 at 8:54pm
Hey, glad to see a defense of philosophy here. Physicists often make awful philosophers , imho. You make some good points, especially concerning epistemology and the fact that when asking for rational explanations of anything, one must at the same time be able to explain what reason is and why it must be of a certain form or type. And yes, philosophy approaches the questions of why we should do anything, whereas how we do it is approachable through scientific means. While philosophy certainly is important in the areas of metaphysics and epistemology, I think it becomes still more vial in more human pursuits such as ethics and political philosophy. When we use our intuitions regarding what we in fact desire, in the absence of a science of psychology which can decipher and analyze vast numbers of people's minds, we use philosophy, and that doesn't seem to be about to change any time soon. Were we able to use genetics and psychology to understand and predict human nature and the future course of human history, philosophy might find itself shrinking into a far narrower area of inquiry. Until such a time, philosophy is only becoming more important for our understanding of ourselves and our values, for analyzing our values and figuring out what they should look like and how to get there, and perhaps most importantly for our ability to pose the difficult questions and judge the merits of the possible answers.

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