Long before the birth of Aristotle or Plato, a Greek philosopher called Heraclitus came up with the strange idea that the entire cosmos was made of fire.
Whilst Heraclitus’ claims were actually a series of metaphors drawing up a conception of the world governed by unchanging natural laws, it is tempting to dismiss Heraclitus’ philosophy as the kind of nonsense that flourishes in the absence of scientific enquiry.
It seems that today, the idea that science is the guardian of human knowledge, periodically intervening whenever philosophy gets carried away, is all too common.
Indeed, it is easy to see why most people have much a higher opinion of science than of philosophy. After all, science’s impact on our day to day life is huge, having brought us intercontinental flight, vaccination, electric light and four-bladed razors. By contrast, two of the phenomena most commonly attributed to philosophy are doubt and – if Nietzsche mis-interpreters are to be believed – Nazism.
It is often forgotten that the relation between philosophy and science is reciprocal: just as science has the right to intervene with philosophy every time a philosophical theory radically contradicts empirical evidence, philosophy has an important role in criticising the practices and assumptions upon which scientific enquiry depends.
At the vanguard science’s attack on philosophy is Stephen Hawking, who recently claimed that religion and philosophy are superfluous to human understanding. Hawking’s dismissal of religion as a genuine source of human knowledge – though stupendously banal – is fair enough. Hawking’s dismissal of philosophy, however, seems quite odd.
For a start, it is simply false that, as Hawking claims, philosophers have failed to keep up to date with developments in physics and biology. An excellent example of how scientific enquiry has changed the terms of philosophical discussion is the ongoing debate on the consequences of advances in evolutionary psychology for ethics. Moreover, if philosophers do not always take heed of scientific advances, it is more often due to (quite reasonable) scepticism regarding the relevance of empirical findings rather than ignorance of them.
Hawking’s distain for philosophy is also spectacularly hypocritical given the status of his own discipline: theoretical physics. Much like metaphysics, theoretical physics is characterised by competition between theories that are equally compatible with empirical findings and, much like metaphysics, theoretical physics would be dismissed as meaningless by the philosophical school of Logical Positivism. Though physicists might here mention the fact that that their theories are backed up by maths, metaphysics is equally substantiated by formal logic.
To give an idea of how, like philosophy, theoretical physics attempts to answer questions far beyond the remit of empirical enquiry, one need only to refer to Hawking’s own book ‘The Grand Design’. Here, Hawking attempts to answer three questions: ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’, ‘Why do we exist?’ and, ‘Why does this particular set of laws govern the universe?’ Not only is the subject matter of Hawking’s book no different to that of the philosophy he so criticises, but a few minutes of philosophical consideration reveals the futility of his project. ‘Why is there something instead of nothing’ is, as Parmenedes observed round about the same time as Heraclitus, a logical absurdity. ‘Why do we exist?’ or rather, I suspect, ‘How is it that we exist?’ is answerable by science but not by theoretical physics. And because science, as Hawking himself observes, is dependent on the idea of unchanging natural laws, the question, ‘Why does this particular set of laws govern the universe?’, cannot be answered by it without appealing to some, more fundamental set of natural laws and thus leading into an infinite regress.
In ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, John Locke describes himself as an under labourer, tasked with clearing away the logical and linguistic confusion obstructing the path of the natural sciences. What scientists such as Hawking fail to realise is that the task of the philosophical under labourer an ongoing one. Whereas the matter of whether philosophy itself can provide new knowledge is hotly contested, what is unequivocal is that all fields of human enquiry – and particularly science – are dependent on the philosophical drudgery that keeps the path of human progress clear.
Perhaps though, the sight of Hawking’s unconsidered scientific triumphalism makes the cause for the utility of philosophy better than philosophers themselves ever could.