29 September
2010

Is Philosophy Dead?

Doddering old academics in philosophy departments all over the world may very well be preparing to pack the contents of their offices into cardboard boxes now that Professor Stephen Hawking has told us, in his latest book, that ‘philosophy is dead’.

Yet such nonsensical arguments as those offered by Hawking highlight why we are so desperately in need of sound philosophical thought, far better than any apologia for philosophical study could. Take the following example in the Professor’s own words: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist’. The observant reader may have thought the present writer guilty of a typing error when he read the assertion that ‘the Universe will create itself from nothing’, but those are Hawking’s very words. This is, of course, simply a stream of words which signifies nothing. Precisely because there is nothing, as the esteemed Professor points out, there is no ‘it’ to create itself. For something to create itself, whether from nothing or from pre-existing matter, is a meaningless juxtaposition of words, because it holds that something can exist prior to its own existence in order to cause itself to come into existence. Moreover, how could there be such a thing as the law of gravity, when there was nothing?

Among Professor Hawking’s other howlers are his bizarre assertion that ‘the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit’. The ‘multiverse concept’, for the uninitiated, is better known in popular parlance as the idea of ‘parallel universes’. In other words, some opine that there exist, outside of our own Universe, a very large number of other possible universes, with divers characteristics. All possible universes considered, it is argued, it is not surprising that one of them —ours — has the capacity for sustaining life. Why is this bizarre? Hawking claims that ‘[it] is not necessary to invoke God’ to explain the origins of the Universe, yet he seems to see no contradiction in invoking the arguably ludicrous idea of multiple universes. As G. K. Chesterton famously said, ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything’.

It is with some amusement then, that we observe the contradiction of prominent members of the modern scientific establishment sneering at the faith of religious believers as a mindless superstition, while one who has been described by ABC News as ‘the smartest man in the world’ is able to say, apparently without joking, that the concept of multiple hypothetical universes, none of which has ever been demonstrated to exist, and indeed for the existence of which there is not the slightest shred of empirical evidence, simply explains everything we need to know. Who is really the believer in foolish fables, we might legitimately ask?

That Hawking has not been laughed out of Cambridge demonstrates exactly why we need good philosophy, because philosophy has traditionally played the role, amongst others, of a watchman, making sure that the assertions of the other sciences accord with reason. We ought rather to hope that philosophy is not dead, because clear thinking is the only thing that will help us, and Professor Hawking, out of the mess we are in.

Related Posts:

Doddering old academics in philosophy departments all over the world may very well be preparing to pack the contents of their offices into cardboard boxes now that Professor Stephen Hawking has told us, in his latest book, that ‘philosophy is dead’.
Yet such nonsensical arguments as those offered by Hawking highlight why we are so desperately in need of sound philosophical thought, far better than any apologia for philosophical study could. Take the following example in the Professor’s own words: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist’. The observant reader may have thought the present writer guilty of a typing error when he read the assertion that ‘the Universe will create itself from nothing’, but those are Hawking’s very words. This is, of course, simply a stream of words which signifies nothing. Precisely because there is nothing, as the esteemed Professor points out, there is no ‘it’ to create itself. For something to create itself, whether from nothing or from pre-existing matter, is a meaningless juxtaposition of words, because it holds that something can exist prior to its own existence in order to cause itself to come into existence. Moreover, how could there be such a thing as the law of gravity, when there was nothing?
Among Professor Hawking’s other howlers are his bizarre assertion that ‘the multiverse concept can explain the fine tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the Universe for our benefit’. The ‘multiverse concept’, for the uninitiated, is better known in popular parlance as the idea of ‘parallel universes’. In other words, some opine that there exist, outside of our own Universe, a very large number of other possible universes, with divers characteristics. All possible universes considered, it is argued, it is not surprising that one of them —ours — has the capacity for sustaining life. Why is this bizarre? Hawking claims that ‘[it] is not necessary to invoke God’ to explain the origins of the Universe, yet he seems to see no contradiction in invoking the arguably ludicrous idea of multiple universes. As G. K. Chesterton famously said, ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything’.
It is with some amusement then, that we observe the contradiction of prominent members of the modern scientific establishment sneering at the faith of religious believers as a mindless superstition, while one who has been described by ABC News as ’the smartest man in the world’ is able to say, apparently without joking, that the concept of multiple hypothetical universes, none of which has ever been demonstrated to exist, and indeed for the existence of which there is not the slightest shred of empirical evidence, simply explains everything we need to know. Who is really the believer in foolish fables, we might legitimately ask?
That Hawking has not been laughed out of Cambridge demonstrates exactly why we need good philosophy, because philosophy has traditionally played the role, amongst others, of a watchman, making sure that the assertions of the other sciences accord with reason. We ought rather to hope that philosophy is not dead, because clear thinking is the only thing that will help us, and Professor Hawking, out of the mess we are in.

4 Responses to Is Philosophy Dead?

lenoxuss says: 12 October 2010 at 3:11 am

This is, of course, simply a stream of words which signifies nothing. Precisely because there is nothing, as the esteemed Professor points out, there is no ‘it’ to create itself.

This will mark me as a simpleton, but perhaps causality doesn’t work the way you assume it must. Or, much more likely, when he says “nothing”, Hawking means something much more like “quantum foam”.

Hawking claims that ‘[it] is not necessary to invoke God’ to explain the origins of the Universe, yet he seems to see no contradiction in invoking the arguably ludicrous idea of multiple universes.

While the multiple-universes model is far, far from confirmed, it wasn’t postulated out of some need to “do away with” God, but rather as a derived consequence of quantum mechanics. (Among other things, it provides a very elegant solution to the puzzle of Shroedinger’s Cat. That said, Good Old Common Sense tells us that quantum mechanics is total nonsense to begin with. Thanks, philosophy!)

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Thomas More Institute says: 13 October 2010 at 2:22 pm

Lenoxuss, thank you for your comment.

Even if Hawking does mean something like “quantum foam” by the word “nothing”, this doesn’t answer the question of how something can come from nothing in the first place, and the question of why something exists, when there could be nothing at all. Such an hypothesis would simply change the question to ‘How did the quantum foam come to be?’. You suggest that causality may not work in the way we assume it must, but any idea of causality which undermines the basic principle that if X exists, there must be a cause of X, undermines the foundations upon which the sciences are built, and on which they rely to do their work.

You are correct to point out that the multiple-universes model is postulated as a derived consequence of quantum mechanics, and is not necessarily postulated out of a desire to “do away with” God (although Hawking appears to refer to it in this context). Nevertheless, it is arguable that what is being postulated in the multiple-universe hypothesis is not something which is, in actual fact, open to scientific investigation, but simply fanciful speculation masquerading under the banner of the natural sciences. Painting such an hypothesis as “science” is misleading, because it attempts to bypass the kind of rigorous logical questioning characteristic of philosophy by suggesting that there is some kind of empirical evidence for the claim being made.

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Anonymous says: 5 August 2011 at 9:43 am

Live for more than what you sense, for now our senses even sense that they fall short of reality. If you wait for all your answers from science, you will wait forever. What is possible for us to discover is limited. The applications of what we know can go on forever, but the discoveries cannot.

P.S. If spontaneous creation can happen ‘when there is nothing’ then there has ‘always been something’. If you don’t have time, then the fact that the creation ‘happened’ means it ‘always happened’ and was ‘always happening.’ (Words in quotations are used for understanding, I realize they are time bound words and have no meaning in their place past understanding.)

..and only because we have to view our world in a sense of time do we think only in ways of time progression. So this is why it is said that ‘there was never nothing because there is something.’ Most people aren’t able to view it in that way, though, and they stop short of thinking only in terms of causality. My best guess is on your first read through the above (directly after post script) statement that you are still thinking in terms of causality (B happens because A caused it type of logic), so please read it a few more times and think about it before moving on (Mr. Hawking based on what you’ve written I highly doubt you view the subject any differently, but that’s okay, we’re only human!).

The obvious truth is that we’re interpreting infinity finitely because the “us” that “we” are isn’t the matter itself but rather the senses (interpretation of other matter) which are keyed in only to the third dimension. If any slew of quantum theories are correct, then our bodies are existing simultaneously in multi-dimensions, but ‘WE’ are not this matter, ‘WE’ are the sensing and interpretation of these senses. We are not the mass that makes up our bodies, we are but a single frame in the entire reel of film that is our true forms, but despite it being “our bodies” the sense of ownership is destroyed because we understand that we will never even be able to know what we are fully in this world. Which is why so much is left up to belief and best guess. There simply is no other way about many subjects, and that’s okay.

Oh by the way, if there was always something based on what i wrote above, and God is really timeless like what every philosophical/theological book I’ve ever read on the subject claims him to be, then if God exists, it is within every possibility that he created everything which then being created was itself made to be of eternal existence because the fact that it was more than nothing.

I highly recommend reading up on your philosophy and keeping science only in the back of your mind. What we can know has a limit, there’s no way of crossing some barriers and that limit seems to be fast approaching. Application of discovery will go on as long as human’s live, but discovery itself will phase out. Think hard on these ideas. That which always is can be called truth, but we cannot know without a doubt what anything is because of what we are. We cannot even know what we ourselves our.

The purpose of the universe is conscious life. If there is nothing to call it purposeful, it will have no purpose.

-SM

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