Why We Will (Probably) Always Need Philosophy
This is a response to an article that appeared earlier on Medium by Nicola Bosch, who asked the question “Does Philosophy Exist?”, and explains “how philosophy could disappear in the next centuries”. Her argument is a familiar one, that advances in scientific knowledge might eventually make philosophy redundant. In her view this is a trend which has already begun, because she believes that “natural philosophy is a field within philosophy that does not really exist anymore due to all its answers having been answered by science”. It was about the time of Isaac Newton that science “slowly started replacing the philosophical field”.
The best known example of others in agreement is perhaps the late Stephen Hawking, who declared that the big questions have traditionally been for philosophy, “but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”¹. However, as Paul Austin Murphy has pointed out in this Medium article: “Stephen Hawking is actually a bad example of an anti-philosopher… Hawking himself offered the world his own philosophical position on physics; which he called model-dependent realism. Now how perverse is that?” (Presumably Hawking perceived his ideas to be actual scientific truth, not philosophy.)
Our first response to the quote from Hawking should be that his attitude is very arrogant, suggesting that scientists are somehow superior beings who need no outside, independent scrutiny of their work. As Bernardo Kastrup, the excellent commentator on all matters scientific and philosophical, notes: “Because our operational knowledge of nature in many fields is growing exponentially, the specialists who hold much of this knowledge feel that only they are qualified to interpret reality for the rest of us. This subtly frames them as a kind of neo-priesthood”. “Because our culture mistakenly takes technological success for evidence of a deep understanding of the underlying nature of reality, we are all guilty, at least by omission, of allowing the neo-priesthood of science to appoint themselves arbiters of truth”².
More importantly, to make such an anti-philosophical statement, Hawking clearly has to have adopted one particular scientific worldview, the dominant paradigm of materialism that has been with us since the time of Newton. Materialism is of course a philosophy, although Hawking probably never noticed this.
Nicola Bosch defines philosophy as the study of, and the attempt to answer questions about, the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. Is materialist science capable of achieving this, thereby disposing of the need for philosophy? Someone who apparently would support this viewpoint is the philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who said: “What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons [atomic particles], and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or ‘fix’ all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe”³.
One of the most important branches, if not the most important branch, of philosophy has traditionally been metaphysics, which means literally beyond physics. Interestingly, even though philosophy is purportedly the subject of Bosch’s article, the words ‘metaphysics’ and ‘metaphysical’ appear nowhere in it. The philosopher Rosenberg has presumably never devoted any of his time to metaphysics, since in the quote above he denies the existence of anything beyond subatomic particles, i.e. physics. He presumably thinks that we have at our disposal all the “facts” about what fermions and bosons truly are. However, I imagine that he would find it hard to explain how out-of-body and near-death experiences, for example, are ‘fixed’ by fermions and bosons, or rather, since I assume he thinks such experiences are illusions, how the fermions and bosons of our brains create them.
In contrast, here is the physicist Fred Alan Wolf speaking: “We only know that there is something other than space-time, but we don’t know what it is! Because ‘beyond space-time’ is non-physical, unmeasurable… But what is beyond space-time is within everything”⁴.
So here we have a philosopher denying the need for metaphysics (i.e. philosophy), and a physicist suggesting that we will always need metaphysics, i.e. that physics (the study of space-time) will never lead to an understanding of the fundamental nature of the universe. Surely only one of them can be right.
The philosopher best known for saying something similar to Wolf is Immanuel Kant, who believed in a noumenal realm beyond human comprehension. Such ideas set a fundamental limit on knowledge, thus what materialist science is capable of achieving. That such limits exist is fairly obvious, in that the scientific worldview that Bosch has such confidence in has led to apparently unresolvable problems in science, the best known of which is the Hard Problem of Consciousness, the complete inability to understand consciousness in terms of the brain.
She addresses that issue here: “The problem of consciousness and the mind-body problem might be answered in the upcoming years (as) more and more studies are being done on this. What we regard as philosophy, is really proof of our own current ignorance, that we hope to be answered in the future… There is a real possibility that in a 1000 years philosophy won’t exist due to scientific advancements”.
She therefore has an understanding of philosophy as merely those fields of inquiry where materialist science has not yet discovered the answers. She is by implication dismissing metaphysics, and adopting the position known philosophically as promissory materialism.
She agrees that philosophy may remain important because some issues may never be answered by science, but these would be questions of morality and ethics, not metaphysics. She apparently has no doubt that physics will ultimately be able to answer all questions about the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.
It is true that great progress has been made in science, which discovers new facts and builds on them over time. It is also true that the same cannot be said about metaphysics, and perhaps philosophy in general, where the ‘big’ questions are discussed, but where the same arguments have been ongoing for hundreds of years, arguably with little progress being made. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying, however.
We are all aware of the wonderful achievements of science; they do not need to be listed. However, at the same time, as Darshak Rana says in this Medium article: “Science has not been able to solve the riddle of life and the cosmos or the mystery of the conscious being for whom these scientific comforts have been devised… It has failed to explain… what is the meaning and purpose of life”. As is well known, materialist science avoids this issue by denying that meaning and purpose exist, and by denying that life and the cosmos are impenetrable mysteries, merely riddles that science is yet to solve. (Promissory materialism again.)
That is why we will probably always need philosophy, specifically metaphysics. For philosophy to become truly redundant, materialist science would have to start acknowledging and exploring all the aspects of the universe that it currently denies: the hidden levels of reality, the paranormal, the supernatural, consciousness as independent of the brain. In effect, it would have to admit that life as we know it will never be explained by the interactions of fermions and bosons.
Philosophy deniers Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you didn’t already know who they were, from this photo you might think that they are a pair of stand-up comedians!
“Sciences like chemistry and physics deal with objects that are presented to us in space and time: the phenomenal realm. But the goal of metaphysics is to uncover truths about the most basic form of reality: what might exist outside of these fundamental categories. Therefore, it must tally with the noumenal realm, which is strictly inaccessible to humans”. (Farid Alsabeh, in this Medium article.)
The worship of science, to the exclusion of everything else, is known as scientism, and has been demolished by Austin Hughes, Professor of Biological Sciences, not a philosopher. See https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism
- Chapter 1, The Mystery of Being, in The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life
2. Brief Peeks Beyond, iFF books, 2015, p 125, p 126
3. ‘Disenchanted Naturalism’. Kritikos 12, 2015, 1552–5112. http//intertheory.org/rosenberg.htm
4. Fred Alan Wolf, Space-time and Beyond, Bantam Books, 1983, p 56