Monday 13 September 2010

Is philosophy dead?

(This debate was conducted in French: 'La philosophie, est-elle morte?')

Apparently the renowned physicist Steven Hawking recently made a remark that “philosophy is dead.” He claims that philosophy has failed to explain the creation of the Universe; only the laws of natural science have so far made some successful attempts in finding logical conclusions, mainly by using the disciplines of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology. In a similar vein, another celebrated scientist, Richard Dawkins recently declared that the world was not created by God. Interestingly, the claim that God never existed gains more traction than any apparently very popular conspiracy theory.

It is understandable that as a scientist, Hawking, like his contemporary Dawkins, would automatically reject the theory of God’s creation of the Universe as there is no scientific proof to support this religious hypothesis. However when he crosses the boundary of natural science and ventures into the realm of philosophy, we cannot help wondering if Hawking is fully qualified to proffer a plausible argument. In his rejection of the validity of this independent discipline, Hawking does not seem to distinguish philosophy from religion. In his opinion, philosophy, with its fuzzy logic, is unable to find answers to the mysteries of the world in the same way as religion cannot provide any valid proof of the existence of God. It appears that Hawking had made an equation between philosophy and the existence of God. Shall we quote this as a classic example of fallacy – a valid but unsound deductive argument? (see Critical Thinking 1, 3 September 2010)

In this day and age, some scientists have to resort to the marketing tactics and self-promotion style of pop stars and post-modern artists in order to gain public recognition. No offence intended, Hawking and Dawkins enjoy practically the same degree of fame as their counterparts in arts and entertainment business. Making seemingly provocative anti-establishment statements is an effective and sure way of elevating a scientist’s status to the level of a celebrity. I dare say that the only difference between the two learned gentlemen and Michael Jackson is that the formers deliberately show their contempt of our presumed Divine Creator while the latter considered himself the reincarnation of the son of God. Hawking said: “Philosophy is dead.” Dawkins said: “There is no God.” Michal Jackson said: “I will never stop helping and loving people the way Jesus said to.” Carrying that cross must have been a burden for him during his short life on earth.

In any case, if philosophy has indeed been taken over by natural science, why are we still carrying on debating endlessly questions after questions in our Café-philo drowning ourselves in cups after cups of coffee? Well, our discussion last Saturday has drawn some unanimously agreed conclusions to justify the absolute necessity of Café-philo:

1. Natural science cannot explain ethical questions: when Dr. Oppenheimer invented the Atom Bomb in New Mexico, maybe he was unaware of, or simply ignored the moral consequences of his invention because he was not a “Philosopher”. Owing to his invention, the extinction of mankind has now become possible; if not inevitable. Shall we allow this kind of Frankensteinesque scientific experiment to go on without any philosophical intervention?

2. Natural science cannot find answers to artistic flairs: can we use math, chemistry, or physics to explain the inspirations that a composer, or an artist, or a poet received during the creation of music, art, literature? Obviously not! That’s where the philosophy of art (aesthetics) comes in.

3. Natural science does not teach us how to drink a delicious cup of coffee, or how to appreciate the finer points of life: For philosophy let us watch the world go by, ask questions about ourselves and about others, and try to find answers to these deeper questions, even though there may never be any final answers to all the questions we asked. If all questions can be solved by using fixed mathematical formulae, then philosophy shall indeed be pronounced dead on arrival and we shall all pack up and leave our Café-philo in search of the miraculous.


  1. I am not worried. As Étienne Gilson said in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, "Philosophy always buries its undertakers".

  2. I am told in this week's communication from Christian Michel that this subject was discussed in French. I would have come if I'd known that. It's the French, at least as much as the subject matter, that I come to the Cafe for. With many of today's wider audience not knowing French, will French sessions henceforth be the exception, or cease? As it's the French Institute, this would be odd. It would mean that the Institute is now dead to the "rayonnement de la langue francaise" and that it might as well hire its premises out for talks on beekeeping.

    Incidentally, what is the "VF"?

    Ian Gowans

  3. Dear Ian,

    I am really sorry you missed last week’s French session
    see my reply to your email
    Café philo will continue to alternate every week between French and English
    and my emails will continue to be in the language of the session they announce

    VF stands for Version Française, as shown on dubbed film posters, for instance

    Looking forward to seeing you on 25 September
    Best wishes

  4. Reply to Ian:

    I know this is a bit silly to write a blog in English on a debate in French. As I don’t have enough confidence in writing VF, I was rather hoping our Francophone friends would contribute but so far I haven’t spotted any enthusiasm here.

    I agree with you that the Café should continue in the language of Descartes as it is a French concept and originated in France, so it will make sense if it retains its Gallic flavour. But it might be a bit of struggle for non-native French speakers to get their philosophical ideas across in a foreign language. Also I have a feeling that it irritates the native French speakers to hear the non-natives speaking Franglais avec leur délicieux accent chantant… As you know, French language is fiercely protected by l’Académie française. And Café-philo is not meant to be a language course. Perhaps they have a point.