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Philosophy’s Untimely (& Over Exaggerated) Death

Stephen Hawking: “Philosophy is dead.” Me: “Can you prove that scientifically?”

In our modern world where scientism has seized hold of western culture, famous scientists tend to hold more sway than most other educated thinkers. Men like Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse-Tyson, and even Bill Nye are held up as celebrity experts to be heeded. In their opinion, science and metaphysics are non-overlapping magisteria; however, even though these scientists claim that science is the best source of truth and understanding, they frequently slip into metaphysical claims. The purpose of this paper is to show how their lack of understanding on how metaphysics, science and other topics of thought interact is one of their greatest weaknesses.

I. Introduction

            Dr. Stephen Hawking is a world-renowned physicist. He was the appointed prestigious Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, a position once held by none other than Sir Isaac Newton himself. Space.com heralds him as “…one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists in history.”[1] Clearly, this is a man of great distinction, and one whom we should heed, right? If so, when he makes the bold claim that “…philosophy is dead,”[2] should we have a funeral for the field of philosophy? No, do not close down all philosophy and metaphysics courses just yet. Dr. Hawking, rather blindly, has made this conclusion from none other than philosophical arguments. Celebrity scientists like Stephen Hawking, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson all hold low views on the usefulness of philosophy, often insinuating that science is superior in usefulness and ability to answer important questions. Their common and often public conclusions are absorbed into our culture, even though it is a blatant misunderstanding of how we can pursue truth.

            In a “Big Think” video,[3] Bill Nye of the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” fame was asked about the value of philosophy. In a roundabout and discombobulated way, Nye seemed to conclude that philosophy was of little value. He made it apparently clear that he has no training in philosophy, and holds great misconceptions of its usefulness. If this is true, why do people even care what he thinks on the issue? Is Bill Nye a philosopher? Clearly he is not. Is he even a scientist? Well, that is debatable, but I will not touch on that here. Why does the public hold him up as a reliable expert? It gets down to our culture slowly succumbing to scientism and materialism.

II. Scientism

            What is scientism? “Scientism is the idea that all forms of intellectual inquiry must conform to the model(s) of science in order to be rational.”[4] Expanding on this, it can be said that, from a view from within scientism:

No knowledge is deemed valid or justified unless its claims can be tested and verified empirically through experimentation, observation and repetition. This criterion is part of an intellectual infrastructure which controls the way people think, argue, infer, and make sense of things. Truth claims that do not submit to this kind of scrutiny become irrelevant, invalid, or unacceptable as per a pure fantasy.[5]

In other words, empirical study is the only way to find rational truths, and anything that cannot be empirically tested is automatically rejected.

This concept has grown steadily ever since Charles Darwin produced a naturalistic mechanism for the origins of life. Since then, western culture has slowly increased its push against all things they deem to be outside of empirical testability: religion and philosophy are two of the major ones to be hit hardest.

            As Bill Nye mentioned in his “Big Think” video on philosophy, science helps answer things through the senses. Philosophical concepts or religious ideologies are often abstract and intangible, so their value is supposedly less than what could be concluded by empirical testing. This, of course, is closely related to generations of thinkers through whom the modern rise in reductionism stems. This is where everything in human behavior is explainable strictly by the firing of the brain’s neurons, which in turn are reduced to atomic physics. With reductionism being assumed, scientism would inevitably come to dominate thought since empirical methodologies are the most reliable cause and effect testing methods.

III. Materialism

            Stemming from Darwinian mechanical explanations, scientists have often pushed far away from all things they could not explain empirically. The supernatural or spiritual realm was one of the first real casualties in this turn of thought. Science became naturalistic, and this change can be linked to a theological change.

            One of the earlier theological proponents of the application of naturalistic methods in science was René Descartes. René and his adherent Leibniz concluded that God was flawless and perfectly powerful. To remain as such, they claimed that God would have had to start the universe and set the universal laws of nature, but never interact in creation again. They likened God to a supreme watchmaker, one who so perfectly designed a watch that it would never need to be rewound again to stay on time.[6] If the creation was in constant need of re-tuning to continue working, then that imperfection supposedly reflected poorly back on the creator.

The implications of such a view is that God created the universe, but was not directly involved in the processes that lead up to the origins of life and man; therefore, the laws of nature explain the origins of life and can functionally be understood through the application of naturalistic scientific methods.

            Descartes’ concept of a theologically founded naturalism lead into a full-fledged materialism, which is the rejection of all that is divine. Many later thinkers took Descartes and Leibniz’s concept just one step further and claimed that even the origins of the universe could be explained by natural laws without divine intervention. The human body could then be explained all in physical terms, with no supernatural or spiritual component to it. Thomas Henry Huxley, a fervent proponent of Darwinian evolution, openly held such a materialistic view:

I hold with the Materialist that the human body, like all living bodies, is a machine, all the operations of which will sooner or later be explained on physical principles. I believe that we shall sooner or later arrive at a mechanical equivalent of consciousness, just as we have arrived at a mechanical equivalent of heat.[7]

Huxley himself tied his materialism back to Descartes in the same essay as the quote above, thus lending more strength to the connection between changes in theological thought and the rise of materialism in science.

            This then marks the cut-off of science and theology. Materialism has become the status quo for modern thinkers, and empirical methods of learning have come to the forefront of the pursuit of truth. Because of this emphasis on the empirical, philosophy has lost its proper place in the hunt for knowledge. It is because of this that Bill Nye dismisses the value of philosophy and Dr. Hawking claims that philosophy is dead.

IV. Cultural Influence

            Provocative biologist and author Lewis Wolpert once claimed in a public debate that most of what philosophy told us was “obvious or trivial.” He even called the philosophy of science “pure junk.” He emphasized science’s rapid growth and constant discoveries as showing its value, while philosophy was lacking anything that lead to similar discoveries.[8] This is a representative mindset of where our culture has gone: we want instant gratification, so the rewards and achievements of science seem better than those of philosophy.

            It is not surprising how easily the white lab coat of a scientist and the discoveries such people make all the time impresses the layman. Our growth in science has lead to incredible leaps in technology in very short periods of time. In my generation alone, we have jumped from the invention of the first personal desktop computers to the invention of the Internet, and beyond. Computers started as behemoths that filled entire rooms just to do simple processing functions, but have since been able to fit into a sliver of metal or plastic in a personalized cell phone that contains more computing power and functionality than those computers that sent men to the moon. Clearly science, which leads to technology, has great powers of discovery.  Such obvious displays of progress sweep up the masses in a tidal wave of excitement. You do not have far to look to find a person glued to their phones. It is literally becoming an addiction!

            It is no surprise, then, to see the lack of cultural interest for philosophy in our modern era. While philosophy once was the uniting factor of all the studies one could pursue, it has been demoted due to its less than entertaining charisma. Slowly, philosophy has dwindled in public school education until the most typical students ever get is a basic introductory course in it in college. It is hard to make such a study as appealing to a culture that hungers for instant gratification and entertainment. You could describe thinking as a dwindling art.

            Clearly, science “celebrities” like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been able to capitalize on the wow factor and entertainment value of science and technology. Bill Nye’s show “Bill Nye the Science Guy” was supposedly educating youth in the value of science, but his true colors have bled through and his more modern humanist agendas show up to ridicule those that deny scientism, his applied materialism. Tyson, in his recent reboot of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” television show, used computer graphics and strong scientific “evidences” to impress and humble his audiences, yet underneath all the beautiful imagery was a dogmatic purpose: to skew public opinion against anything that contradicted his materialistic worldview. His show went so far as to portray members of the early clergy as dark, foreboding figures that wanted to stop science in its tracks at all costs. Because public figures like Nye and Tyson so openly reject alternatives to their materialism, much of the public is caught up in their worldview. Through flashy entertainment that parents deemed educational, these famous science icons have gained the trust of a whole generation. This is frightening! As none other than Adolf Hitler said, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.”[9] Through influence of a full generation of students through their educational shows, these men have set themselves up as experts in the mind of these who are now growing into adulthood. They then will likely share those same experiences with their children, ensnaring the next generation in the same trap.

V. Errant Truth

            Because of the growing faith in these celebrity scientists in our modern culture,many now assume (often unconsciously) that these men are making solid, trustworthy, science-based claims. Due to the lack of proper logical or philosophical training in our educational systems today, few people even take note when a scientist makes metaphysical or philosophical claims. What is often surprising is how often they actually do fall back on these non-empirically oriented ways of thinking.

            Many famous scientists constantly make truth claims about aspects of science. Bill Nye said that “Evolution is a theory, and it’s a theory that you can test. We’ve tested evolution in many ways. You can’t present good evidence that says evolution is not a fact.”[10] Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the 2014 show “Cosmos,” also said categorically that “Evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact!”[11] Even famous scientist and author Richard Dawkins tries to hit the same point home:

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact…That didn’t have to be true. It is not self-evidently, tautologically, obviously true, and there was a time when most people, even educated people, thought it wasn’t. It didn’t have to be true, but it is… Evolution is the only game in town, the greatest show on earth.[12]

All these influential scientists seem to be pointing in one direction: that certain conclusions in science can be considered truth. While the word “fact” is often used to mean “data,” in many cases it is actually used to infer a claim of truth. What they nor their followers realize is that they are making the metaphysical claim that science can be a source of truth. But can it?

            Logically, truth must be absolute. Truth must be true, since otherwise it would not be true to begin with. Inversely, when one says that truth cannot be true, they themselves are making an absolute truth statement, which is self contradictory. This also draws the conclusion that truth cannot change. For example, if a man was convicted of a crime and sent to prison, but later found innocent and set free, it was not the truth of his guilt that changed, it was our perception of the truth. In the same way, science is in constant flux, changing conclusions with new data seemingly every few months. Evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology David Barash hints that science should not be seen as a collection of knowledge or truths, but an “ongoing reconfiguration” that must be free to change as we focus more and more towards discovering the best conclusions.[13]

            Some people try to redefine truth, even when “truth” is still used in an absolute way:

But in science, truth is, by definition, a malleable and perfectly revisable thing. This is because scientists compile data into models of how natural systems work. As time passes, new data and perspectives are assimilated into the consensus and the models are adjusted accordingly. It’s the best we can do.[14]

This redefinition tries to help scientists avoid the repercussions of constantly evolving truth claims, but it ignores the absolute nature of truth. Truth does not change, only our perceptions of it.

With this in mind, it does not seem accurate for Nye, Tyson, and Dawkins to suggest that specific concepts in science are truths. They are making the metaphysical claims that their preferred models are absolutely true, which is not what science can do. Since science is required to be open to revision and is observably in constant change in many aspects as we learn more, we cannot claim that any part of it is truth. It aims to discover truth, but until we know all there is to know about the universe’s workings, we cannot claim to have the absolute truth.

VI. Necessity of Metaphysics in Science

            Unmistakably, our celebrity scientists have shown a lack of understanding of the necessity of philosophy and metaphysics in scientific thought; that said, what is the actual relationship between these two fields? While they are often different in their methods, empirical science and metaphysics are necessarily connected. Those stuck in scientism must stand by claims that science will one day find all the answers to every major question, but as professor emeritus of philosophy Roger Trigg said

…Naturalism—the modern version of materialism, seeing reality as defined by what is within reach of the sciences—becomes a metaphysical theory when it strays beyond methodology to talk of what can exist. Denying metaphysics and upholding materialism must itself be a move within metaphysics… The assertion that science can explain everything can never come from within science…

Questions of purpose, causation, or even reality are fundamental metaphysical questions. Science has never been capable of answering these things on its own. This is why the highest educational degree one can earn is a PhD, standing for “Doctor of Philosophy.” Historically, we see early graduates, no matter the degree focus, were required to study philosophy, since it is a foundation on which all other studies must rely. Albert Einstein agreed that philosophy was necessary for the proper practicing of science.

I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science… A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering.[15]

It is metaphysics that gives science its purpose. Why do we study nature? How can we accurately understand natural phenomena? Can we legitimately understand reality? Can there be supernatural causes for the natural world? The questions we see science trying to answer are all based on metaphysics. Science without metaphysics is like a football game without any goals: there is no purpose to the process.

VII. Conclusion

            As with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, philosophy has arrived uninvited to its own funeral. The rumors spread by Stephen Hawking of its untimely demise were significantly exaggerated. Hawking, Nye, Tyson, and many others have simply imagined that their science could replace philosophy. From their biases coming from materialism and scientism, they have put on blinders to avoid seeing the philosophical and metaphysical foundation upon which their empirical science firmly stands. If they continue to insist that science can stand alone, they will only be building their homes on sinking sand.

            The empirical sciences and philosophical thought are joined at the hip. To separate them is to unravel their greatest power and leave science as a bird with a broken wing. It cannot soar to grand conclusions about the nature of reality or the universe without first having the help of philosophy to get it off the ground.

Works Cited

  1. Nola Taylor Redd, “Stephen Hawking Biography,” Space.com  Nov. 18 2017, https://www.space.com/15923-stephen-hawking.html
  2. Matt Warman “Stephen Hawking tells Google ‘philosophy is dead,’” The Telegraph, May 17, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8520033/Stephen-Hawking-tells-Google-philosophy-is-dead.html
  3. bigthink. “Hey Bill Nye, ‘Does Science Have All the Answers or Should We Do Philosophy Too?’ #TuesdaysWithBill.”YouTube, YouTube, 23 Feb. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROe28Ma_tYM.
  4. Merrill Ring, “Science as the Conceptual Foundation of Human Thought: Two Cases of Scientism,” California State University, Fullerton, http://philosophy.fullerton.edu/faculty/merrill_ring/scientism.aspx
  5. Gordon Carkner, “Cultural Identifiers of Scientism,” Apologetics Canada, January 15, 2014, https://www.apologeticscanada.com/2014/01/15/cultural-identifiers-scientism/
  6. Michael N. Keas and Kerry V. Magruder, CSSR 529 Course Packet
  7. Huxley, Thomas H. “Materialism and Idealism,” Bartleby.com, http://www.bartleby.com/library/prose/2766.html (viewed 11/26/17)
  8. “Hawking vs. Philosophy,” Institute of Art and Ideas, https://iai.tv/video/hawking-vs-philosophy, (viewed 11/29/17)
  9. Adolf Hitler, Reichsparteitag, 1935. http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/imt/nca/nca-01/nca-01-07-means-46.html (accessed 11/27/17)
  10. Sarah Fecht, “Science Guy Bill Nye Explains Why Evolution Belongs in Science Education,” Popular Mechanics, Feb. 4 2011, http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/animals/a6455/evolution-classroom-bill-nye-science-education/
  11. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: “Some of the Things that Molecules Do.” DVD, Ann Druyan, Steven Soter, (2014; Cosmos Studios, Fuzzy Door Productions)
  12. Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Simon and Schuster, Sep 22, 2009)
  13. David P. Barash, “Paradigms Lost,” Aeon, 2015: https://aeon.co/essays/science-needs-the-freedom-to-constantly-change-its-mind
  14. Allison Terbush, “Truth in Science.” Berkeley Science Review, http://berkeleysciencereview.com/truth-in-science/
  15. Albert Einstein, Correspondence to Robert Thorton in 1944. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/

[1] Nola Taylor Redd, “Stephen Hawking Biography,” Space.com, Nov. 18 2017, https://www.space.com/15923-stephen-hawking.html

[2] Matt Warman “Stephen Hawking tells Google ‘philosophy is dead,’” The Telegraph, May 17, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/8520033/Stephen-Hawking-tells-Google-philosophy-is-dead.html

[3] bigthink. “Hey Bill Nye, ‘Does Science Have All the Answers or Should We Do Philosophy Too?’ #TuesdaysWithBill.”YouTube, 23 Feb. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROe28Ma_tYM.

[4] Merrill Ring, “Science as the Conceptual Foundation of Human Thought: Two Cases of Scientism,” California State University, Fullerton, http://philosophy.fullerton.edu/faculty/merrill_ring/scientism.aspx

[5] Gordon Carkner, “Cultural Identifiers of Scientism,” Apologetics Canada, January 15, 2014, https://www.apologeticscanada.com/2014/01/15/cultural-identifiers-scientism/

[6] Michael N. Keas and Kerry V. Magruder, CSSR 529 Course Packet

[7] Huxley, Thomas H. “Materialism and Idealism,” Bartleby.com, http://www.bartleby.com/library/prose/2766.html (viewed 11/26/17)

[8] “Hawking vs. Philosophy,” Institute of Art and Ideas, https://iai.tv/video/hawking-vs-philosophy, (viewed 11/29/17)

[9] Adolf Hitler, Reichsparteitag, 1935. http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/imt/nca/nca-01/nca-01-07-means-46.html (accessed Nov. 27th)

[10] Sarah Fecht, “Science Guy Bill Nye Explains Why Evolution Belongs in Science Education,” Popular Mechanics, Feb. 4 2011, http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/animals/a6455/evolution-classroom-bill-nye-science-education/

[11] Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos: “Some of the Things that Molecules Do.” DVD, Ann Druyan, Steven Soter, (2014; Cosmos Studios, Fuzzy Door Productions)

[12] Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Simon and Schuster, Sep 22, 2009)

[13] David P. Barash, “Paradigms Lost,” Aeon, 2015: https://aeon.co/essays/science-needs-the-freedom-to-constantly-change-its-mind

[14] Allison Terbush, “Truth in Science.” Berkeley Science Review, http://berkeleysciencereview.com/truth-in-science/

[15] Albert Einstein, Correspondence to Robert Thorton in 1944. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/einstein-philscience/

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