“Philosophy Is Dead”

What, again? Apparently Stephen Hawking is unaware of the fact that this rhetorical strategy for winning philosophical arguments has been tried before, without notable success. It is not only a classic ploy for physicalists, who hold that reality consists entirely of whatever physicists can talk about in their professional capacity, and who hold that we know this to be true primarily because physicists tell us this, in their professional capacity. It was tried by the old Vienna Circle boys, who made the philosophical assertion that philosophical assertions are nonsense, and therefore ought not to be made, excepting, of course, this last one, which should. It has been tried by Hegel and Heidegger, who both claimed that because one could discern a kind of narrative arc in the history of philosophy thus far, that therefore the story must be over (confusing the lights coming up in a movie theater for enlightenment itself). In a different way it was tried by Russell, who suggested that philosophers continue to do philosophy, but to act like scientists in doing so, dividing the problems up and parceling them out to teams like chemists—in this case, there’s no pretense that philosophy as such is dead, but the age of the system is said to be (more on why this is wrong momentarily). And followers of Derrida suggest that… well, without any mockery intended, I really have no idea what it is that followers of Derrida suggested, though I suspect that once you understand it, you would regard continued philosophizing as naive too, and do something else… which would be more philosophy, alas.

Now the thing that is really dismaying to me is that the defenders of philosophy have offered so little that is cogent in response to such amateurish pronouncements as Hawking’s. First, there are the usual wooly remarks from the religious: science cannot answer ultimate questions, blah blah blah. Now as far as I can tell, this is just to take philosophy’s name in vain, by making it refer to religion, its ancient adversary. Philosophy is not the wooly sense that when all things scientific are said and done, we still find ourselves hankering after cosmic parental substitutes. Philosophy is not the state of mind one is in while shopping in the supermarket of religion just prior to settling on a brand to purchase. With all due respect to religion, this is ridiculous in the same way that thinking Einstein’s primary contribution to humanity was to coin pithy slogans about world peace is ridiculous.

Another response I’ve seen, the arrogance of the academics who insist that all is well without ever explaining why what they do isn’t simply a game with symbols and pretensions akin to astrology, is inadequate too. Yes, philosophy as practiced in the academy requires years of training, is technical and difficult and being any good at it is at least one sign of superior intelligence, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t astrology. And saying that philosophy’s existence is justified because exposure to it will help you get into law school is like saying that the purpose of running after a bus is to build muscle strength.

Lastly, one occasionally sees what I would call the megalomaniacal response, though it seldom spells itself out explicitly because, like most megalomaniacal propositions, being spelled out explicitly pretty much kills it. This is the “everyone has a philosophy whether they are aware of it or not, and every philosophy comes, ultimately, from philosophers, which means that everything that happens in the human world is ultimately controlled from a distance by philosophers.” This is essentially Lord Keynes’ remark about economics in a different key. How could such a claim be made remotely plausible, assuming that one is not oneself a philosopher and predisposed in its favor? (And by the way, though professional philosophers know enough to know that this is preposterous, watch what happens when some caviling sophomore in an Introduction to Philosophy class raises their hand and suggests that the whole thing is pretty stupid: this and other ill-considered and ultimately indefensible characterizations of philosophy’s importance will get trotted out more often than not. Defending against an attack on rational reflection with church music is pretty self-defeating though. Far better to refuse to answer.)

The problem with Hawking’s assertion is not just that it betrays no familiarity with philosophy, but that it fails to situate it appropriately. So let me try to do that.

Human beings, once they’ve got some time on their hands, like to have some sense of the larger world around them, and because of this, we tell stories, invent rituals, etc. This is religion. I think it is too highfalutin to say that religion begins in wonder. I think it begins in something far more earthy: a need to know the lay of the land. Call this orientation. Proponents of science generally confuse this with the need for scientific explanation and then point out how badly everyone but scientists go about it, but this is a misunderstanding. When I find myself in a new city that I will be in for a time, the first thing I do is get a map. The map doesn’t answer a need for an explanation; it answers a need to form a picture in my mind of my larger environment, so that I can situate myself. Even if I need not worry about getting lost (say I have a guide who will be with me the whole time) the map is satisfying nonetheless. In the classic TV show The Prisoner, one of the first things Six asks is “where is this?” and one of the first things he tries to do is buy a map. Though obviously being oriented is a useful means to any number of ends, reflection on the word “disoriented” suggests that the kind of animal we are is built to not like feeling disoriented. Even if you’re not going anywhere, you still want to know where you are, what’s going on, etc. (This, by the way, is part of the reason why we consume “news” which is generally non-actionable information for most of us most of the time).

Though there is more to religion than this, this is one of its crucial functions. But there are problems. First, for the orienting effect to work, you have to come to believe that certain claims are true. This, by the way, is why attempts to reduce religiosity to attitudes, feelings, ethical commitments, etc. are misguided. Though Christianity may be unusual in its emphasis on crucial cognitive commitments one must make, every religion offers potential cognitive commitments, and a religion without them is no religion, but rather, a social club, like Unitarianism.

Now in a closed society, these orienting beliefs circulate more or less effortlessly, because people are designed to believe what they are told. Consider, in this connection, why you are confident that North Dakota exists, though you have never been there. Also, people acquire vested interests in the beliefs being true (I’m not just talking about the people that perform rituals, as there are many kinds of interests that might be served in many kinds of ways, nor am I suggesting that there is anything disreputable about having a vested interest in something being true, because if there is, we’re all in trouble).

At some point, these beliefs get challenged. This can happen in any number of ways: someone has a contrary interest, a puzzling inconsistency in the orienting beliefs bothers someone, encounters with other societies which have quite different orienting beliefs. It doesn’t matter. The point is that a verbal challenge produces a new thing that didn’t exist before: a verbal defense. And now we’re debating. And with debating comes the tacit commitment to regarding those beliefs which survive verbal challenge in a debate as more likely to be true, more worthy of belief. One half of philosophizing emerges from this setting: religious debate. And this is why, as a cognitive activity, it is rational and yet fundamentally different from science. Science seeks explanations. Religion doesn’t seek anything, it is simply the stories we tell and the pictures we paint that orient us in the world (part of the confusion here is that there are explanations present in the stories too; a story that makes no sense is ultimately too boring and difficult to follow to be satisfying enough to circulate widely). Religion on the defensive is also not science (notice how in scientific debates it is generally not sufficient to prove that it is possible that you are not wrong, but that this sort of thing dominates religious debate—the purpose is never to establish something new, but to restore confidence in something old). However, once religion enters into debate, it has given rise to, and surrendered to, a Higher Power: philosophy. It is no coincidence that so many philosophical topics seem to relate, directly or indirectly, to religion. But once the game is on, and one allows that it can be scored independently, philosophy exists.

This, by the way, is why Russell’s conception can’t be the whole story: philosophy is up to its eyeballs in discussion of large, orienting world pictures and their components, and therefore as soon as a philosopher provisionally endorses a position on a philosophical topic, the odds are good that they have asserted something large and orienting themselves.

Philosophy is not important because it is the source of rationality, or necessary if one is to be rational in non-philosophical domains. It is perfectly possible to develop one’s ability to think well about non-philosophical topics without ever thinking about philosophy, and to claim otherwise is to steal the thunder of others’ success. Nor is philosophy important because it concerns itself with the loftiest, most profound, etc. etc. questions. Its importance lies in being an attempt to rationally adjudicate arguments about religious topics. If that is correct, then the discussions that swirl around people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are actually closer to the heart of what philosophy is really about than most of what goes on in philosophy departments, even if what goes on in philosophy departments is more technically accomplished, because they are closer to the point of philosophy. This, by the way, is the ultimate, market-based defense of philosophy’s value: people actually want it. Like Thomas Pynchon’s “kreplach”, they love it until you tell them what it’s called. And this is why Hawking saying that philosophy is dead as a form of cheerleading on behalf of his orienting picture derived from the sciences is so inadequate, because it suggests that the need philosophy meets, the rational adjudication of debate about fundamental orienting pictures, is more easily met by simply acquiescing in a particular picture for no reason at all. Well of course that is easier! But going to church is, cognitively, even easier still, so it is unclear what speaks in favor of non-rational acquiescence here. And playing the “science gives us widgets” card really won’t help Hawking much here, since religious people are perfectly happy to let technology happen, and can even contribute to its development. And Hawking is perfectly happy to develop his world-picture using his methods in ways that will probably never bake bread for anyone. That’s not to say that Hawking’s picture isn’t, at the end of the day, the better one. But to say “rational debate about world pictures is stupid; just adopt mine” is, if I may, the Peter Venkman approach to philosophy. And it invites, nay, urges passionately, the response religion is more than happy to offer, which is to say that nothing speaks in its favor, and that it is no more or less a leap of faith than religion is.

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6 responses to ““Philosophy Is Dead”

  1. Pingback: What I wish I’d said about Stephen Hawking « next theology

  2. Thank you for part 1 of “Philosophy is Dead?” Found the link to this blog from the recent Economist review on Professor Hawking’s new book.

  3. Oxford is not far from Cambridge. Perhaps Dworkin and Hawking need to talk. In spite of my two degrees the idea of the death of philosophy bothers me little. The problem hits when the people declaring it dead continue to do it, and do it poorly.

  4. Your description of the “Vienna Boys” is wrong. The “Vienna Boys” did not assert that “Philosophical” propositions are nonsense.

    • Well, this is a compressed allusion to verificationism, and various versions of a verificationist account of meaning were used to criticize various “metaphysical” claims as lacking verification conditions, hence meaning. People in the Vienna Circle did say things likes that, for example, Rudolph Carnap, in “Überwindung der Metaphyik durch Logische Analyse der Sprache.” In the context of the essay, and the Hawking remarks it is responding to, the topic is metaphysics, but I was following for convenience Hawking’s over-broad use of the word “philosophy” since I take it that his claim is “philosophy is dead because philosophy is metaphysics and metaphysics is silly.”

      • Ok. Logical positivists did assert that metaphysical propositions are nonsensical. So that’s Hawking’s problem. Thanks.

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