I have long been fascinated with the apparent dichotomy that exists between the fields of science and philosophy. The argument has arisen many times, most famously with Sir Stephen Hawking’s assessment (and perhaps misunderstanding) of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s positions on philosophy as it relates to language. More recently, Neil deGrass Tyson extrapolated on the “dangers” of philosophy during an interview on the popular Nerdist podcast:

“My concern… is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, ‘what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?’ ….[I]f you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ is a pointless delay in our progress.”

As merely a personal assessment, I find Tyson’s comparison between philosophical questions and “the sound of one hand clapping” a bit absurd (especially since clapping, by definition, requires striking the palms of both hands together to produce sound). More simply expressed, the aim here was not to compare scientific inquiry to any legitimate philosophy, but instead merely a parody of it. If this were Tyson’s true understanding of what he perceives as “philosophy”, I don’t think it would take a philosopher to see that his understanding of the subject is even worse than Sir Hawking’s had been when he wrote A Brief History of Time. (I must also recommend, before continuing, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci’s excellent breakdown of Tyson’s statements, in his blog post on Neil deGrass Tyson and the value of philosophy.)

Let’s be clear, however, that my aim is not to attack either of these men on grounds of intellectual comparisons, whether to each other, or any philosopher, or to myself, for that matter. I merely hope to illustrate that each man — Hawking and Tyson — exhibit more of a negative bias against philosophy, rather than an objective understanding of it that effectively informs their position.

Questions such as, “what came before the big bang” are often touted by the scientist as questions that science does not seek to address. The reason for this is because at the outset of our universe (i.e. prior to a “big bang”), the fundamental laws of physics that govern our inquiry today, namely that of general relativity, appear to break down. Thus, in the absence of a suitable criteria within which scientific study can proceed, science can find no place, nor interest.

One must note, of course, that accepting the limitations of science does not remove the reality of a universe that once existed, and one that was fundamentally different from that which we know and reside in today; whether now, or at the proposed outset of our universe, there must have been some physical quantity, even if the study of this universe in its earliest form were to require a different set of theoretical tools from those which modern scientists would use today.

Expressed in this way, the “reality” of differing universal states that have occurred throughout time is not a hard concept to grasp, at least superficially. However, to delve into the deeper problems facing us in trying to conceptualize all of time and space, crammed into an infinitely dense and minute point at the outset of “time” as we know it does become tricky. On what terms does one even hope to discuss this? An infinitely dense point (or singularity) in… well, what? If all of time and space are contained within, then where does an infinitely dense singularity reside? 

This was among the questions Stephen Hawking faced leading up to the authorship of A Brief History of Time (although he even noted his attempts at trying to dissuade other physicists from the belief that a singularity would have existed at the outset of our universe, for as he wrote, “it can disappear once quantum effects are taken into account.”) The general hope would be to apply the quantum mechanics of our universe in a way that pairs favorably with that of gravity and relativity — a quantum theory of gravity, as it were.

“Up to now,” Hawking wrote, “most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why. On the other hand, the people whose business it is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.”

He continued to say:

“In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: Did the universe have a beginning? However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers (my emphasis), or anyone else except a few specialists. Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!”

Returning to the line above which Hawking quotes from Wittgenstein, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language,” there is actually dispute over whether Wittgenstein ever even said this, as no known publication, nor exchanges or communications authored by Wittgenstein, seem to contain this quote. More likely, I have always taken this to be Hawking’s interpretation of Wittgenstein’s work, paraphrased (which makes it as debatable as Hawking’s assertion that Wittgenstein was “the most famous philosopher of this century,” though he was indeed widely respected and admired for his genius).

It is true that Wittgenstein felt that language was of greatest importance in understanding thought, communication, and concepts underlying language which may not be effectively expressed in their most complete form, whether in writing, or through speech. This, however, does not necessarily mean that language is all that philosophers have left to study, as Hawking seems to propose. Again, this had been Hawking’s view, not Wittgenstein’s quote; a clear distinction should be made. And, rather humorously, it would seem that Hawking’s own curious use (to say the least) of language, as it relates to his discussion of Wittgenstein and his work, only underscores the legitimacy of the latter’s argument.

When making similar statements in 2011 about philosophy at a Google Zeitgeist conference, where Hawking expressed that “philosophy is dead”, many philosophers responded by asking, what would a philosopher have to say about that? An equally justifiable question might be, “is a physicist the most qualified individual to make an assessment about whether philosophy, or any other branch of study, is dead?”

Many more of the countless examples of this ongoing spat could be enumerated here, ad nauseum, but to do so would not be necessary in order to illustrate the fundamental flaws in thinking applied by our modern physicists. Great though their achievements and depth of thought, the divide between their “scientific world”, and that of the philosophers, all too apparently becomes one of culture, and general subjectivity on part of those calling any particular branch of knowledge or inquiry a “dead” one.

However, I would like to close with a superb passage from a recent NPR.org article that appeared on the “Cosmos & Culture” blog, written by Adam Frank. It would be pertinent to note that Frank is the co-founder of the 13.7 blog, in addition to holding a position as astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester; he also describes himself as an “evangelist of science,” which makes the following thoughts he shared at the blog all the more meaningful, I think.

In his February 16, 2016 article, “Was Einstein Wrong?“, he shares the following passage that is well-worthy of a bit of contemplation, perhaps by philosophers and scientists alike:

[T]he branch of philosophy called phenomenology takes the direct apprehension of the world as its main concern. From phenomenology’s perspective, scientific theorizing and investigation must come after the raw fact of our embodied experience. Martin Heidegger, a German phenomenologist, emphasized that the problem of “being” — the problem of understanding the verb “to be” — remained unsolved by science or philosophy. From this perspective, the rush to make science the adjudicator of all questions meant the question of being had been entirely forgotten.

Taken together, these perspectives point to a possibility that I find really deeply intriguing… In the debate between Bergson and Einstein, there is, perhaps, a different way to approach the question about where science fits into the entire fabric of human experience. In particular, it points to what might be a new way of understanding that fabric. In this discussion, we might begin to see a new relationship between our immense capacities for understanding the world through scientific practice, while never forgetting that it’s always we who do the understanding.

Being human, being at the center of our own worlds, is an immense and beautiful mystery. The explanations of science are one route to plumb that mystery — but not the only route.

If this is true, then what step do we take next?

This is a deeply important question, and it illustrates that, while a divide may indeed exist between science and philosophy, this alone may not indicate that either side is solely correct on all positions regarding the ultimate nature of what we call “reality”. In a dualistic sense, there may be (and likely is) truth to be found in both approaches… equal, though opposing as they are.

Perhaps, then, rather than to ask what single step we take next, we should consider how best to combine our different emerging pictures of reality, and learn to understand that finding ultimate “Truth” may require thinking on many different levels.

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4 Comments

  1. Hi, It is perhaps interesting that none of the people quoted were educated in Scotland. Scotland has a fine academic tradition in both philosophy and science, and as part of their university courses, in Scotland, science students are encouraged to gain an understanding of arts disciplines, and vice versa, especially if studying for the Scottish Broad Based degree. This engenders respect on both sides, and comments from an obvious position of pure ignorance from either a philosopher in respect of science, or a scientist in respect of philosophy is not helpful to debate. The comments in respect of philosophy by the scientists mentioned in the blog piece betrays more than their own prejudices, it also shows that they both have fallen into Wittgenstein’s pit – The issue is not that language is all that is left for philosophy to explore, but that in order to explore meaning, we need to be very careful of the language we use, so that the meaning we want to express is expressed, so that misunderstandings do not occur. This is so true in science, as even scientists fall over the simplest of scientific terms – the number of times I have heard the word theory used completely improperly by supposedly eminent scientists (and Dr De Grasse Tyson is one in point).
    The scientific method is perhaps the greatest intellectual tool humanity has evolved, however, this was developed by philosophers, not “scientists”. Perhaps in their denigration of philosophy, Dr De Grasse Tyson and Professor Hawking wish to ignore all the contributions of philosophy to science – for example Kant’s nebula theory, (on which Dr De Grasse Tyson’s PhD thesis rests) or Newton and Leibnitz’s calculus (on which both depend).
    Philosophy has a lot to contribute to science, if only to teach scientists to both think and express themselves clearly, and to avoid critical statements in areas in which they have no expertise.
    On a personal note, I mainly consider myself a mathematician (another discipline much derided by physicists) but I also studied philosophy and biology at University, so have a foot in both camps. My view is that the scientists ignore philosophy at their peril, and philosophers ignore science at their peril. After all, the argument that everything is just a footnote to Plato can still be made.
    As a digression, you mention that you like the film “The Matrix” in your podcast. Did you realise that the plot is a direct steal from Plato’s republic?

  2. Kate, the movie reflects some of the content of the allegory of the cave but I wouldn’t say it’s derived completely from it or the larger story of the republic. In fact is more appropriate I think to draw comparisons between gnostic teachings and many of the concepts in the movie.

    As for science and philosophy, I think most scientists understand science owes a lot to philosophy as a ‘protoscience. I’m not convinced is dead but it does tend to muddy the waters, sometimes unnecessarily. I’d use solipsism as an example. Interesting as a mental game but useless for anything of substance.

  3. Kate, the movie reflects some of the content of the allegory of the cave but I wouldn’t say it’s derived completely from it or the larger story of the republic. In fact is more appropriate I think to draw comparisons between gnostic teachings and many of the concepts in the movie.

    As for science and philosophy, I think most scientists understand science owes a lot to philosophy as a ‘protoscience. I’m not convinced is dead but it does tend to muddy the waters, sometimes unnecessarily. I’d use solipsism as an example. Interesting as a mental game but useless for anything of substance.

    1. Jason, interesting that you state that solipsism is interesting as a mental game but useless for anything of substance, yet whilst it obviously has historic philosophical importance, it still has importance today in scientific studies of child development and theories of psychology.
      By gnostic, do you mean actual Gnosticism or the various “New Age” elements calling themselves gnostic? If you mean the tenets of original Gnosticism, where the aim was to turn one’s back on the real material world and embrace the world of the mind or spirit, I can’t think of a less gnostic film than the Matrix, where the whole aim is to get out of the world of the mind to get back into the real, material world, and Cipher, the character who wants to leave the material world to go back into the purely mental world is seen as a traitor and “bad guy”. However, if you look at the franchise, rather than just the first film, in the later films I can see a lot of gnostic concepts in them particularly the idea of Neo uniting with “The Source”. But then, as Gnosticism grew out of neo-platonism, parallels are very likely.
      I’m not sure about the idea of “most” scientists viewing philosophy as a “proto-science.” If this is true, then it shows how they do not understand philosophy as an area of academic study. Philosophy is an academic discipline in its own right. Yes it can be claimed that just about every other academic subject, including the sciences, derive from philosophy, but that does not mean that philosophy is a proto-science, any more than chemistry is proto-particle physics. The disciplines necessary in Philosophy still have value to science, such as clear thinking, logic, and the concepts of evidence, and proof. Science still has a lot to learn from philosophy, as philosophy does from the sciences, and after all, even muddy waters have had value in the past – to John Snow in particular.

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