This is the controversial conclusion Professor Stephen Hawking has now famously (or infamously, if you’re a philosopher) come to in his latest popular work The Grand Design. Hawking claims that which was once in the realm of philosophy is now in that of science. He went on to say that philosophy has failed to keep up with science in general and physics in particular (a strange claim, seeing as physics, as noble a pursuit as it is, was spawned by philosophical curiosity). He goes on to say that philosophers have lingered on concepts such as the theory of knowledge, the foundations of knowledge, what can and cannot be known, the problem of induction etc for too long. As someone who’s main interest area is early modern metaphysics, I am not out of the woods but I am casting a sidewards glance to the epistemologist, regarding these main criticisms of Hawking against philosophy.
His claim has received a lot of attention in the months since the publication of the book, and it’s a pretty hard claim to ignore especially when it comes from a man who is frequently bestowed with the title of the most intelligent man on the planet and is one of the great, influential voices of physics.
It seems Hawking is calling for philosophy to be cast aside, in favour of all-encompassing science. There is a disparaging name for this kind of perceived over-reliance on scientific explanation; scientism. Scientism is the kind of common belief, criticised by Karl Popper amongst others, of scientists that the natural sciences are the best way (and in some cases the only way) of understanding the world and the conditions people in the world find themselves in, which can very easily lead to scientists holding the methods and study of science as an ideology, and attempt to explain things in scientific terms when such an approach is not appropriate.
As it could be accused of scientism Hawking’s claim has provoked an interesting response from Christopher Norris, professor of philosophy at Cardiff University in the pop-philosophy magazine Philosophy Now. Obviously, considering the author and where the article was published, the piece is in defence of philosophy. He points out that science has always had a philosophical strain running through it, both at the basic level of presuppositions and the later speculative stage of scientific enquiry. Philosophy helps avoid fallacies or fictions. Norris argues that without philosophy, or more precisely philosophical critical thinking, science could find itself mired in an unquestioning ideology of scientism, much as religion is. He cites Kant’s criticism of reason as an absolute, as this can lead to false intuitions. He concedes that, yes, science has made breakthroughs by pursuing the theoretical and breaking off from the common understanding to come up with something brilliant, however that science has this ability should not take away from the fact that philosophy can bring “empirical evidence, logical validity, inductive warrant, corroboration, falsification, hypothesis-testing, causal reasoning, probability-weighting” etc.
Norris goes on to point out that the very kind of theoretical physics that Hawking busies himself with (quantum cosmology, spacetime foam, string theory and more recently M-theory) is ultra-speculative and is not in itself self-evident, and therefore could perhaps be thought of as philosophy in itself.
This last point is the clincher. I am a huge fan of physics, and theoretical physics has to be one of the most fascinating fields out there, but it has to recognise it’s debt to and similarity to philosophy. I am generally of the belief that science can be put to task to explain everything that exists in the universe (by this I mean physical processes such as motion, life etc), but I do not think that science should be allowed to escape the rigour of critical thinking. Perhaps philosophy has fallen out of touch with science, but this seems to me to be no reason to disregard the discipline in favour of something which could become very narrow and, in the end, fallacious.
Symmetry and the Metaphysics of Physics by David John Baker
Introduction to the Epistemology of Causation by Frederick Eberhardt