stephen_hawkingIn his recent book, Stephen Hawking, pronounced philosophy to be dead. Here is a quote from his book, Grand Design:

We each exist for but a short time, and in that time explore but a small part of the whole universe. But humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers. Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: 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? Did the universe need a creator? Most of us do not spend most of our time worrying about these questions, but almost all of us worry about them some of the time. Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.”

Without a doubt, I find this bold pronouncement to be disconcerting, especially when I recently heard it echoed and even cited in the affirmative when speaking recently with a respected college professor.

It’s not disconcerting because I find it challenging, or because I think it has any rightful place in the intellectual dialogue about the ultimate questions about the universe and about the human person. What worries me is that people believe it, and if not outright, indirectly through an ashamed acknowledgment that they have no solid reply to such a pronouncement.

People are accepting it, not because they have stopped asking these essential questions, but because they think themselves incapable of responding to these natural inquiries since they are not “scientists”, or not as brilliant physicists such as Stephen Hawking.

Romano Guardini outlines part of the challenges associated to a culture that is no longer philosophical.

“No man truly aware of his own human nature will admit that he can discover himself in the theories of modern anthropology – be they biological, psychological, sociological or any other. Only the accidents of man – his attributes, his relations, his forms – make up these theories; they never take man simply as he is. They speak about man, but they never really see man. They approach him, but they never truly find him. They handle him, but they never grip him as he actually is. They take hold of him by statistics; they integrate him into organizations; they put him into use. Forever they play out the same grotesque and fearful comedy, but its incidents strike always upon a phantom. Even when man is subjected to forces which misuse him or mutilate or destroy him, he is not the creature at all which those forces aim to subject.”(Romano Guardini, From the End of the Modern World).

Physics, biology, chemistry, anthropology, sociology, statistics, economics, and so many other sciences cannot simply take “man as he is”. Their subject matter simply won’t permit it. Indeed, “they speak about man, but they never really see him”. This does not mean that these secondary sciences are illegitimate, unnecessary, and unimportant in service of humanity, but rather, that they are “underqualified” when they step outside the boundaries of their discipline. Otherwise, as Guardini writes, though armed with endless empirical data, they are simply chasing a “phantom”.

I came across another interesting article in the New York Times: Are We Hard-Wired to Doubt Science? By Felicity Barringer (http://goo.gl/uayl2g). In it, the author proposes that human beings are in fact programmed to fear new, external data, and so often consequently doubt even true science.

This may indeed be true, and again, I think it is important not to fall into an anti-science position. But, the underlying theme is again a similar one; one that resonates with Hawking’s daring scientism. The underlying assumption is: Most people cannot understand the truth of things, and in fact fear it, so scientists are best suited to tell us what to believe and to what extent accept reality in its entirety.

That seems to be, IN PART, the story with climate change. So, what’s my point? Science has its limits, and can help us understand those “aspects” of the universe and of man which only philosophy is suited to answer so fully as to explain “man as he is”. Taken in its rightful place, science will truly be a great servant to humanity, and the universe as a result.

© 2012 – Adam Ureneck para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC

Adam Ureneck

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