Philosophy is not dead

This article is written by “Katelyn Hallman”

Stephen Hawking made the famous declaration that “philosophy is dead,” and other scientists have been known to dismiss philosophy as impractical, useless, or as having less worth than science.

Paradoxically, to say whether philosophy is dead or whether science has more worth than philosophy, one must engage in meta philosophy and philosophy of science; one must know what philosophy is, one must know what science is, the respective values, goals, and methods of the two, and so on. Contemporary scientists frequently use philosophy to asses and reflect upon what they’re doing as scientists and in many other ways—even if they’re not willing to admit it.

So, is philosophy really dead? In a word: no. Everyone engages in philosophical thinking in their everyday lives—even children do! To understand just how alive and well philosophy really is, we must understand what philosophy is and what philosophy is not.

Philosophy is not “people sitting under trees and talking about stupid stuff” or a luxury major—philosophy is a serious discipline. Philosophers do not lack practical skill; in fact, a number of philosophy majors have become quite successful even outside of the field of philosophy (e.g. Stephen Colbert, Philip Glass, Woody Allen, Jay Leno, etc.).

Philosophy is not unsystematic—it is just the opposite. Philosophy has rules just like science does. For example, the holy grail of philosophy arguments are valid and sound. A valid argument is an argument in which the premises, if true, necessarily lead to the truth of the conclusion. For example:
1. All cats are mammals.
2. All mammals are vertebrates.
3.Therefore, all cats are vertebrates.


If the first two premises are true, then the conclusion (3) must be true. For an argument to be sound, it must be valid and the premises and the conclusion must all be true. Additionally, there are logical “laws” that are supposed to hold true no mater what. The argument I presented just above is known as a hypothetical syllogism, which is just one out of many logical laws. So you can see, philosophy is not just “making stuff up” or “just opinions” as is the common conception.

Philosophy covers a wide variety of topics and is done in many different ways depending on the culture doing it, so it’s difficult to come up a clear-cut definition of what philosophy is. Think of philosophy as a broad genre of music—let’s say rock music. There are so many different types of rock music (alternative, classic, punk, metal, indie, and so on) that all have their distinctive styles and themes; and this makes it difficult to think of ‘rock’ in a general, objective sense without referencing specific sub-genres, bands, or songs. You can say “well rock has electric guitars… drums…” But I’m sure there are counter examples to that. It’s difficult to describe just rock. The same is true of philosophy; it’s hard to define philosophy in one objective way when there are so many different varieties. But I’ll try my best.

Philosophers, broadly speaking, use logical, observational, and even allegorical evidence to answer foundational questions about different aspects of reality. There are multiple different branches of philosophy: aesthetics (philosophy of beauty and taste), epistemology (philosophy of knowledge and truth), ethics (philosophy of morals), logic, metaphysics (philosophy about personal identity, the mind, composition of objects, cause and effects, etc.), and so on. Philosophical questions are very different from scientific questions, and the means used to answer philosophical questions are often different due to the fundamental differences between the kind of questions they each ask.

For example, epistemologists ask: “What does it mean when we say we know something? Is it possible to know something without using our senses? What happens to our knowledge when people disagree with us?” Science can’t answer these questions, because these questions ask about the nature of a concept—knowledge. Questions like these aren’t testable by means of experimentation and the scientific method.

Scientists often rely on philosophical assumptions so they’re able to do their work. Scientists rely on the assumption that we can rely on what our senses tell us, that observation is the way to gain knowledge, that nature follows systematic, universal, and consistent laws that always have and always will be the same as they are today, that there actually is a cause and effect relationship between objects in the universe, and so many more assumptions. Philosophers, on the other hand, question these assumptions to find out whether they actually represent way the universe is.

As philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett wrote in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995),

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

If you’re not convinced, here’s an example. The mind-body problem (a problem in the branch of metaphysics) focuses on how the mind and body are related. Is the mind physical or non-physical? Would knowing all of the physical facts concerning the brain tell us everything there is to know about what goes on in the mind? Neuroscientists, psychologists, and other scientists rely on the assumption that the mind is completely physical and that everything that can be known about the mind can be reduced to physical facts about the brain and body. Philosophers question these assumptions to make sure the wrong assumptions aren’t being made; philosophers come up with different answers to these questions and look to find what the different answers imply.

Furthermore, scientists frequently talk about philosophical topics (beyond the claim that philosophy is dead)—even Stephen Hawking. In 2012, Hawking came out with a TV miniseries called Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design. One of the episodes in this series is called “The Meaning of Life,” and in this episode Hawking tries to figure out a scientific explanation to how there could be meaning in life and what it really means to be human. Hawking declares that these questions are no longer a philosophical question, but questions that can be answered by science. However, in saying all of this, Hawking engages in philosophical existential questioning using the philosophical assumption that science, observation, and experimentation can answer these questions. Also, to say that these are scientific questions is to engage in philosophy—to say that, he must know what science and philosophy are and he must know what scientists and philosophers are and aren’t supposed to do.

But of course, philosophy isn’t dead for many other reasons—we engage in philosophical questioning and use philosophical methods every day. We see ethical questioning all the time on social media when we ask questions like “is the Confederate flag a morally bad symbol?” “is same-sex marriage moral?” and other similar question. Philosophers also deal with other topics that are relevant to our daily lives. For example, the problem of free will and associated questions would have huge ramifications for our logic behind punishing prisoners—if it turns out people aren’t responsible for what they do, how could we justify putting them in jail?

Why is it that our most popular scientists alive today think philosophy is dead or has no practical value? It’s probably because they’re operating under misconceptions about what philosophy is and does. In addition to this, science regards empirical observation and experimentation to be the #1 way to learn anything there is to learn about the universe. Philosophers, on the other hand, do not always use empirical observation and experimentation to come to their conclusions (though there are some who do).

Is philosophy impractical and does it have less value than science? No, philosophy and science are both important, and they both need each other to exist well. Philosophy needs science because science produces consistent results that could help build better philosophical theories, and science needs philosophy to question the assumptions and conclusion that scientists make and take for granted so science doesn’t end up building knowledge off of a shaky foundation.

Is philosophy dead? No. Philosophy, just like science, will not die until every single thinking creature has lost its curiosity.

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