Sunday, February 20, 2011

Stephen Hawking vs. Philosophy, A Rebuttal

Christopher Norris defends his discipline against Hawking's indictment:
Stephen Hawking recently fluttered the academic dovecotes by writing in his new book The Grand Design – and repeating to an eager company of interviewers and journalists – that philosophy as practised nowadays is a waste of time and philosophers a waste of space. More precisely, he wrote that philosophy is ‘dead’ since it hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in science, especially theoretical physics. In earlier times – Hawking conceded – philosophers not only tried to keep up but sometimes made significant scientific contributions of their own. However they were now, in so far as they had any influence at all, just an obstacle to progress through their endless going-on about the same old issues of truth, knowledge, the problem of induction, and so forth...
No doubt there is a fair amount of ill-informed, obtuse, or ideologically angled philosophy that either refuses or tries but fails to engage with the concerns of present-day science. One can understand Hawking’s impatience – or downright exasperation – with some of the half-baked notions put around by refuseniks and would-be engageniks alike. All the same he would do well to consider the historically attested and nowadays more vital than ever role of philosophy as a critical discipline. It continues to offer the sorts of argument that science requires in order to dispel not only the illusions of na ├»ve sense-certainty or intuitive self-evidence but also the confusions that speculative thought runs into when decoupled from any restraining appeal to regulative principles such as that of inference to the best explanation. To adapt a quotation by Kant in a different though related context: philosophy of science without scientific input is empty, while science without philosophical guidance is blind. At any rate it is rendered perilously apt to mistake the seductions of pure hypothetical invention for the business of formulating rationally warranted, metaphysically coherent, and – if only in the fullness of time – empirically testable conjectures.
A conversation I once read between Mark Vernon and Daniel Dennett puts it more clearly:
On the relationship between science and philosophy, there is model of philosophy that is quite prevalent whereby it is envisaged as, say, the midwife of scientific disciplines - physics and psychology being two examples. Is this how you view your own work on consciousness or would it be better to describe it as a dialogue with modern science, clarifying questions, suggesting further lines of research and so on.

I think the midwife image is just about right. I say, along with many predecessors, that philosophy is what you are doing when you don't yet know what the right questions are. Once you ask the right questions (and know why these are the right questions), your attempt to answer them is not philosophy but . . . whatever it is - science, history, economics, . . . So philosophy is inescapably informal, more like art than science, a matter of imaginatively poking around and trying things out--with plenty of rigorous criticism of those attempts, but still, it's the bold strokes of imagination that do the heavy lifting. At its best (when it is well informed in the discipline whose questions it is trying to refine and improve), it makes significant contributions. But it's chief risk are flights of fantasy that may only divert the fantasists (while diverting the attention of more reality-based researchers from the questions they could more fruitfully pursue).

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