Philosophy’s Death Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

BY BRENT SILBY

Recently, a number of prominent scientists have made the bold claim that philosophy has outlived its usefulness. On the very first page of his book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking states that “Philosophy is dead”. Physicist Lawrence Krauss argues that philosophy might be an interesting intellectual endeavor, but it has nothing useful to say to science. Although he doesn’t explicitly state it, he seems to be implying that philosophy is sort of like an intellectual game, which is fun to play for its own sake, but has no real-world application.

I find it interesting to note that when Krauss starts examining the usefulness of philosophy, he can’t avoid the fact that he is actually doing philosophy. Whether or not philosophy has a useful role to play in science is a philosophical question.

In the discussion (below), philosophers Daniel Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci take on Lawrence Krauss. They argue that philosophy still has a role to play in science.

During the discussion, Lawrence Krauss states that philosophy must be informed by science, but it does not go the other way. He doesn’t think philosophy has anything to contribute to science. He does, however, soften his stance through the discussion, admitting that in some areas of science — particularly neuroscience/cognitive science — philosophy has a role to play in helping scientists ask the right questions and understand the meaning of their results. But he does not want to acknowledge any role philosophy might play in physics.

Krauss suggests that the science of consciousness needs philosophy because it is “still forming” and is currently flailing about. To this point Dan Dennett quickly retorts: “So you’re saying that cosmology, COSMOLOGY(??!) is an area of physics where… “, Krauss quickly finishes the sentence “where philosophy has nothing to add? Yes”. Dennett goes on to ask “Does it bother you that many physicists think cosmology is just bad philosophy?”

This is an interesting point. Lawrence Krauss works in the relatively new field known as Cosmology which deals with questions relating to the origin of the universe. Cosmologists have suggested the possibility that the universe we inhabit is one of many universes existing in a larger multiverse.  These other universes are beyond our observable horizon, so their existence cannot be verified. However, observations of gravitational waves that originated at the Big Bang provide support for the theory of chaotic inflation, which in turn provides support for the mulitverse hypothesis. 

Is this good science? When discussing the possibility of other universes (which are disconnected from ours), cosmologists are well and truly moving into the realm of metaphysics — an area of philosophy. Furthermore, multiverse theories are unfalsifiable — a point that many philosophers of science would suggest make such theories non-scientific. However, multiverse theories do not make claims contrary to evidence, and they fit with mathematical models. Can mathematical models give us real knowledge of the universe beyond the observable horizon? If a physicist asks this question, she/he is doing philosophy.

It seems that philosophy’s death has been greatly exaggerated.

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