“Philosophy is dead,” Stephen Hawking said to packed auditorium of Google’s best and brightest. It was 2011, and the physicist’s quip was as perfunctory as an SMS break up. “Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Especially physics.” sry socrates. its not me, its U.
Hawking is not the only scientific luminary to tearlessly eulogise what once considered one of the highest disciplines of thought. In 2014, then-beloved astrophysicist Neil Digrassi Tyson (who once tweeted in length about the scientific implausibility in the new Star Wars film) described philosophy as “a distraction.” Cosmologist Laurence Krauss, meanwhile, was pitiless. In a Washington Post interview he sneered that philosophy “hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.”
I have a friend – a programmer – who once espoused a similar sentiment.
“Philosophy is a waste of time,” he declared, “I only believe in evidence based science.”
“That’s an interesting philosophy,” I replied, grateful that I dropped out of my philosophy degree to spend years practicing sick burns. That’s something my friend doesn’t have time for, what with his ‘career’ wasting so much of his time.
Vocation, vocation, vocation. In education, culture and society at large, the entire project of the humanities is being more or less dismantled by a neoliberal orthodoxy that considers profit the only measure of worth. But the study of sages is barely even being defended. More and more, philosophy seems to be seen as a rarefied refuge for pedants and poseurs, a teetering ivory tower that ought to be demolished to make room for something useful.
But in an era of profound uncertainty, where unconscious structures and dangerous ideas ride roughshod lives, that demolition is the last thing we need.
The scientists, at least, have a lot to be smug about. A killer cocktail of reason and empiricism, the scientific method ensures that information remains relatively tethered to reality. But the limitations of that practice, how we construct reality, what knowledge really is, the biases inherent in the language we use to communicate and what it means for living human subjects are all philosophical questions. We can access oceans of data at the click of the button, but data in itself doesn’t help us know how to live. Knowledge, however accurate, isn’t a substitute for wisdom.
That said, maybe the humbling of academic establishment philosophy isn’t altogether a bad thing. The traditional picture of the Western canon isn’t exactly a smorgasbord of diversity: start with some Greeks, skip a century or fifteen then mosey on through a blindingly white parade of Christian or ex-Christian men who span the gamut from ‘A’ to ‘B’ – aristocrat to bourgeoisie. If you’re feeling especially inclusive you might mention Mary Wollstonecraft or Simone de Beauvoir, but only as plus-ones for their husbands, corseted in parentheses. Letting in a little fresh air might not be such a bad idea.
But although many disciplines of knowledge have histories that are entwined with power and privilege, in the case of philosophy this is in spite, not because, of its core tenants. Contemplation and enquiry at the foundational level means questioning of everything, from the meaning of life to the status quo. The great zeitgeist shifts in human civilisation often had philosophers scribbling away at the eye of the storm; from Confucius and Christ to Marx and Rand.
Philosophy isn’t just nonsense hobby for cloud dwelling esotericists. It’s the critical examination of the human condition and all of the ideas and constructs that make up our lives. In the 21st century is more crucial than ever.
Take ethics, one of the oldest fields of philosophy. We’ve entered an era where the inherited moral systems our society traditionally relied upon simply have no relevant answer to many of the ethical dilemmas we face. AI, genetic engineering, mass surveillance, space travel, sustainability, doing good in a connected world, the manifold repercussions of the internet – all of these are serious ethical issues that require philosophically serious answers. The clear categories that serviced us for centuries – human and machine, life and death – are breaking down. This should be an amazing opportunity for the conscious construction of new ethical systems. Instead, we charge into the future blindly, not bothering to question our accidental trajectories.
This extends to systemic questions. For the last generation, “Western” society has taken it as an article of faith that our particular form of capitalism is the only economically rational way of organising society, whatever the evidence to the contrary. The narrow spectrum of establishment political opinion ranges from a kind of desiccated conservatism that limply clings to whatever’s left of post-war Keynesianism; to the sociopathic social Darwinism of the neoliberal right. Any suggestions of an alternative economic models are dismissed as silly little heresies.
And thus a world of limited resources is ruled by a system predicated on unlimited growth, and we’re on track for hundreds of millions of preventable deaths by the end of the century. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution are all considered be the great bounds of historical progress. Yet the witch burning barbarism of the medieval church does not begin to approach the level of incidental mass manslaughter advocated by proponents of a carbon-based economy. It’s time to dust off the old Socratic drawing board and get a few things straight.
But the need for philosophy cuts deeper than that, to the meaning of life itself. Since god got bumped from the centre of society, we’ve failed to fill his huge white shoes with anything. There is a vast vacuum at the heart of our lives that we cack-handedly stuff with frenzied consumerism and sheer mind-numbing distraction.
The finality of death and absence of innate meaning are kind of ambient trauma in which all us are submerged. We must swim in these questions if we are to find any kind of breath, and can’t be afraid of going too deep. The real danger is floundering, denying, treading water, never pausing to glimpse at the dark in the fear that something will grab us. But we do, fumbling at false immortalities through narcissistic health-kicks, digital facsimiles of our souls and ludicrous technological fantasies (sorry, you’re never getting uploaded to the cloud.)
Hell, without philosophical framework, we don’t even think twice about seeing a brilliant scientist like Stephen Hawking giving a speech for a millenarian corporate panopticon like Google.
So, at the so-called end of history, we’re told it’s the end of philosophy. Unless we want it to be the end of humanity too, we ought to have a long hard think.