Sunday, April 29, 2012

What is philosophy?

Today I was posed the following question, following my contribution yesterday on the issue 'What is philosophy?'

"Lawrence is quite right about philosophy being characterized by specific questions (paying attention to logic etc. is definitely part of it, but as you say, this is not specific to philosophy). My question to you both then is, what is really specific about philosophical questions? (traditional or otherwise)"

This is my response:
"I agree that this is a very interesting - and also difficult question. I have to confess that I'm struggling to provide a good answer.

A few months ago I read an article about philosophy and theoretical physics discussing the 'philosophy is dead' argument that Simon mentions. This time the antagonist was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Stephen Hawking. I have to confess that ever since I tried to read Hawking's unintelligible 'Brief History of Time' I have taken everything he says with a pinch of salt, but it does raise some interesting questions relevant to the current debate.

The topic of the article is 'What happened before the big bang?' Hawking argues that philosophy / philosophers can no longer contribute to these enquiries. He writers:
"How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Traditionally these were questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead," Hawking wrote. "Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics."

In support of Hawking's point of view I briefly discussed the interaction between philosophy and physics with Oxford's Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics Frank Close when he was in Edinburgh recently attending the Edinburgh International Science Festival. I asked Professor Close if he, as a theoretical physicist, worked alongside philosophers and believes that philosophy can contribute to his discipline. Professor Close explained that there is a joint undergraduate school of physics and philosophy at Oxford, but also agreed that to "do" theoretical physics, students have to be comfortable with high-level mathematics.

This got me thinking about the difference between theoretical physics, mathematics and philosophy. The key difference between all three is the type of questions they address, but I'm still struggling to define this difference other than by listing the questions for each discipline.

We can't simply say that philosophy is unique in addressing the 'big' questions, because theoretical physics addresses some of the biggest questions of all. Unless, of course, we say that by addressing these questions physicists are doing philosophy....which seems to be a bit circular.

Is it true that philosophers no longer tend to try and construct all-consuming theories about the way that mankind understands the world, along the lines of Descartes, Hume, Kant and Wittgenstein? If it is true then do we have to accept that philosophy is, if not dead, at least very different from how it was in previous centuries?

I'm looking forward to reading some more recent philosophy as we proceed through the course to try and provide an answer to this."

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    Thanks so much for your site and your measured and articulate approach to studying philosophy. I'm a third year philosophy undergraduate.

    I think your comment about the difference between theoretical physics and philosophy is an interesting one, it's something I've thought about, also in relation to Hawking's rather brash and ill thought out comments regarding Philosophy.

    I say this because I think the relationship between philosophy and theoretical physics is closer than that of theoretical physics and classical physics. That's in part because of what you said in the second last paragraph, about philosophers 'trying to construct all consuming theories.' This is essentially what theoretical physics is attempting to do. And it's doing it in a way that many philosophers since Pythagoras have said it should be done. If you think of Plato's forms and his insistence that true knowledge is obtainable only through pure mathematics, not applied mathematics or empiricism, which only give us 'shadows' of truth. Most theoretical physicist are Platonists. They believe truth is determined wholly rationally, through human reason, and the art of mathematics.

    Indeed the way they construct their theories is similar to the way rationalist philosophers have done so. They establish foundational first principles and spin the web from it, attempting to construct closed and internally consistent models for understanding reality.

    And this is traditionally what many 'rationalist' philosophers have done, with logic underpinning language, rather than mathematics. The most prominent that comes to mind is Descartes, who established that he existed as a first principle as laying an epistemic groundwork from which he could deduce and infer his broader model.

    What's astounding about Hawking's comment that 'philosophy is dead' is that it's a philosophical argument in itself.

    Thanks again for your great site, I'm working through it from the start to sure up some of my own studies and get a glimpse at some of your own insights.