Does science have all the answers – is philosophy dead?

A physicist and two philosophers reflect on the value of their respective disciplines

November 18, 2021
Source: iStock
Can we theoretically describe every aspect of reality of terms of subatomic particles?

Stephen Hawking famously proclaimed that philosophy is dead, on the grounds that science can now answer all the important questions.

In the Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Debate on 17 November, which formed part of the Being Human festival of the humanities, a distinguished panel was asked “Has Science Killed Philosophy?”

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, currently a distinguished visiting research chair at the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, responded with a resounding “no”.

“Science that chickens away from listening to philosophy becomes sterile,” he argued. Many of the great scientists of the past had been “profoundly influenced by the philosophy of their time”. And particularly when “you had to go back to foundations…the depth and flexibility and critical clarity of philosophical thinking become extremely useful. Today, in theoretical physics, we are exactly in that situation.” Indeed, “a certain recent sterility” in the field was partly “due to an excessively anti-philosophical attitude of a good portion of the research community”.

Eleanor Knox, reader in the philosophy of physics at King’s College London, also disputed the idea that “physics has killed metaphysics”.

“It doesn’t matter where philosophy gets done,” she suggested, “provided it gets done well.” Her own field was “sometimes called the foundations of physics when it gets done in theoretical physics departments, and the philosophy of physics when it gets done in philosophy departments. And many of the great philosophers of physics of the last hundred years have been physicists.” What remained crucial “in any endeavour [was] to avoid reinventing the wheel, and studying philosophy can sometimes help you do that”.

Yet Alex Rosenberg, R. Taylor Cole distinguished professor of philosophy at Duke University, had a more sobering message for his fellow philosophers.

“Biology has made a lot of philosophy obsolete,” he said. “Darwin takes away of lot of questions we used to think were philosophical and turns them into interesting empirical problems.” Philosophers had long asked two fundamental questions: “the metaphysical question, ‘What is the nature of reality?’, and the epistemological question, ‘How do we go about acquiring our knowledge of the nature of reality?’” Now, however, science had provided the answers: reality consists of “fermions and bosons” and “the experimental method is the royal route to knowledge”.

What this meant, Professor Rosenberg went on, was that we might at some point reach “the end of enquiry”, when physics could answer “all our factual questions”, even those about psychological, social and cultural issues – and philosophers would be truly out of business. Paradoxically, however, they might continuing working anyway because there would be “no way to tell when science has finished”.

However distant and theoretical it remained, what did Professor Rovelli think about the idea of a time when science had delivered all the answers?

“That would be a horrendous world,” he replied. “I love open questions – and I am confident that nature is giving us open questions.”

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