Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

The Death of Philosophy: A Response to Stephen Hawking

Academic journal article South African Journal of Philosophy

The Death of Philosophy: A Response to Stephen Hawking

Article excerpt


In his 2010 work, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking, argues that '... philosophy is dead' (2010: 5). While not a Philosopher, Hawking provides strong argument for his thesis, principally that philosophers have not taken science sufficiently seriously and so Philosophy is no longer relevant to knowledge claims. In this paper, Hawking's claim is appraised and critiqued, becoming a meta-philosophical discussion. It is argued that Philosophy is dead, in some sense, due to particular philosophers having embarked on an intellectual path no longer in keeping with the ancient definition of Philosophy. Philosophy as the seeking of wisdom necessarily includes the consideration of findings of other intellectual pursuits, including physical and natural science. While Philosophy has justifiably evolved through its long history, is it unrecognisable in the terms by which it historically defined itself? Seeking consistency, Hawking is critiqued for appearing to practise 'dead' Philosophy. Indeed, Hawking's appeal to multiverse theory and his core discussion of the metaphysical problem of being are philosophical. The question of the death of Philosophy has contemporary relevance for the discipline which is particularly under threat for its survival in the academy, oftentimes assumed to be irrelevant.

1. Introduction:

Philosophy finds itself in a precarious position. While the discipline is thriving with research conducted and more students exposed to it, there is pressure from financially minded University managers who close Philosophy departments for lacking in 'economic' or 'utilitarian' value. Our constant argument against such positions is that philosophers have something unique to offer the academy: our critical method of engagement with ideas from virtually any discipline and their integration.

In as much as philosophers may want to define, describe, and develop an apologetic for our discipline, we would be inauthentic were the concerns, criticisms and commendations of other scholars not considered. Non-formal philosophers are of consequence for Philosophy's continued relevance and survival in a broader context.

A critic of Philosophy is the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, of vast influence through his popularising 'hard' science. In this paper, Hawking's critique of Philosophy as contained in his work, co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, 'The Grand Design ' (2010) will be considered. In addition to taking note of his position, Hawking will be deconstructed by exploring the philosophical nature of his recent work, especially multiverse cosmology. While Hawking's position could be perceived as extreme, and - at times - flippant, there may be some worth for philosophers in considering his critique.

2. The 'death' of Philosophy :

Hawking and Mlodinow begin The Grand Design by posing philosophical questions:

'Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator?' (Hawking & Mlodinow 2010: 5)

The acknowledgement is made by the authors that these are questions properly posed by Philosophy (we might add: by metaphysics specifically) (2010: 5). They continue:

' . . . but Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics... The purpose of this book is to give the answers that are suggested by recent discoveries and theoretical advances' (2010: 5).1

A number of prejudices lie behind the Hawking/Mlodinow statement. Physical science is emphasised as the only means to verifiable 'scientific knowledge'. Implicit is the need for experimental evidence for scientific theories. Moreover, a distinction is drawn between philosophical investigation and 'hard' science to the extent that philosophy is removed from consideration: it is 'dead' (2010: 5). …

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