Hawking is wrong: Philosophy is not dead.

October 11, 2014

Today, my guest poster is one of the deepest thinkers I know. He’s a grad student in biology, heading for law school next and has also published political op eds in daily newspapers.  He’s also my nephew.  I’ll let his post speak for itself.

Hawking is wrong
by Christian A. Cassara

Theoretical physicist Sir Stephen Hawking, who mistakenly has classified philosophy as “dead.”

Philosophy is dead.  ~Stephen Hawking

We are living in a technical age – there is no escaping this fact. Our lives depend on technology for communication, transportation, healthcare, and infrastructure, among many other things. So it should come as no surprise to us that education has become increasingly focused on technical expertise. The humanities are believed to be of little use at a time when our largest problems need solutions from engineers and scientists. Students and professionals in these more technical disciplines brush off the “softer” subjects as if they ultimately boil down to much ado about nothing.

The move away from the humanities is exemplified by Stephen Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist and author, who has declared that “philosophy is dead.” It’s not only Hawking who holds this view. I’ve encountered this mindset time and time again. In fact, I once held it. But I’m not so sure my assessment was correct.  I’ve come to realize that philosophy is the antecedent (and in some cases, the descendant) of most fields of study, not solely the humanities. Philosophy is not dead.  I believe it lies at the heart of everything we do. I’ve reached this conclusion by examining each of the major subfields of philosophy, past and present. These fields are logic, natural philosophy, epistemology, political philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics. Here’s what I came up with:

First up is logic – the study of correct reasoning. Formal logic is taught in most philosophy departments and has inseparable ties with mathematics. Any glance at class notes from a formal logic course will clearly show that mathematical constructions are used regularly. Math is one of mankind’s greatest tools. Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this blog right now!

 Bertrand Russell was a major player in the analytic philosophy movement, making significant contributions to math & logic.

Bertrand Russell was a major player in the analytic philosophy movement, making significant contributions to math & logic.

Next up is natural philosophy. Most people are not used to hearing this as a recognized field in philosophy, and they’re correct. Natural philosophy, the study of nature and physical law, became so powerful that it evolved into its own areas of inquiry. Physics, chemistry, biology, and other natural sciences all owe their existence to natural philosophy. It’s provided us with invaluable knowledge about our universe, our planet, our bodies, and much, much more. From the weekly weather report that we scowl at, to the car (or train or plane) that we travel in, to the aspirin we take after a hangover, natural philosophy has given us quite a bit.

What Hannibal Lecter has in common with epistemology

Now on to some fancy philosophical jargon: epistemology, the study of knowledge. It’s not too difficult for us to see that epistemology paved the way for psychology and other behavioral sciences. And we are naturally fascinated by behavior. Take, for instance, the enthrallment with Thomas Harris’s character of Hannibal Lecter. We are also captivated by how powerful the mind can be, especially in sickness. Mental illness, regrettably, makes the headlines every so often, and we are humbled by the brain’s ability to bring down even the most upbeat spirits. Clinical psychology deals with mental illness in all of its forms and continues to be an important area of study. Hopefully it will one day lead us to solutions to the most difficult problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression.

Aristotle once said that “man is a political animal.” The truth of this statement is easily confirmed by our daily news headlines. In human history, politics has been a tremendous force for both good and evil, but all politics (however unattractive) has its basis in the more elegant field of political philosophy, the study of government and the relationship of the individual to the state. Doctrines such as utilitarianism, libertarianism, and everything in between are the brainchildren of political philosophy. One of the most practical applications of this branch of philosophy is political science. And don’t write poli sci off as just some academic discipline severed from reality. The data analytics employed by the Obama campaign political scientists played a major role in his re-election in 2012. Political philosophy has inseparable ties with law as well. In fact, much of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are rooted in the philosophies of prominent Enlightenment thinkers.

Plato & his student, Aristotle, are two of the most famous philosophers in history. Plato's teacher, Socrates, astutely declared that "the unexamined life is not worth living."

Plato & his student, Aristotle, are two of the most famous philosophers in history. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, astutely declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Metaphysics, cosmology & Camus

After understanding how humans interact in a civilized society, we can move on to human beings themselves. It is here that we come to metaphysics – the study of being. Metaphysics addresses fundamental questions, like whether there is such a thing as mind/body dualism. Today, some of these questions are tackled by cognitive neuroscientists, but the original catalyst for the investigations can be credited to the metaphysicians. Great literature also often deals with metaphysical themes. For example, in the novels of the Nobel Laureate Albert Camus, we see how his characters deal with existential problems (although he did not accept the title of existentialism to describe his work). Lastly, metaphysics will forever be joined to the field of cosmology, which, along with natural philosophy, has allowed Stephen Hawking himself to make a career out of exploring the order (or lack thereof) in our universe.

Finally, we come to ethics – the study of the best way to live. Isn’t this essentially what we are all striving for? With only a limited amount of time here on Earth, it makes perfect sense that one of the most important challenges we face is how to create our best lives. Even if we ignore the countless contributions philosophy has made to human endeavor briefly described above, philosophy will always be relevant at the personal level. And as long as we continue to struggle with the concept of the best way to live, I must maintain that philosophy is very much alive!

One comment on “Hawking is wrong: Philosophy is not dead.
  1. Lana says:

    I agree that philosophy “lies at the heart of everything we do”. Very interesting post – thank you so much for sharing this!

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