Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"Hey philosophers! I got your Large Hadron right here!" -Hawking

Geez, it's been tough times for philosophers lately.

It wasn't so long ago that failed presidential candidate Marco Rubio once ridiculed the academic discipline as unworthy for the noble hoi polloi, favoring the occupation of welding instead. Then astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson jumped in on the act, saying something to the effect that philosophy is useless when science has it all figured out and besides we don't need philosophy when we're trying to blow up the asteroids that threaten us. As the son of one PhD philosopher and the brother of another, that kind of talk had me concerned for more than a few reasons.

Now Stephen Hawking has weighed in on the matter. At the Google Zeitgeist Conference, he declared that "philosophy is dead." "Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics," he said. He posited that data derived from efforts such as the Large Hadron Collider could answer questions such as "why are we here?" and "where did we come from?" Let's break that down for a bit.

There are indeed amazing things going on at the LHC, things that promise to utterly revolutionize our understanding of physics. The LHC began its second phase of operations with an energy almost double of the first run. This TED Talk suggests that findings from LHC operations could locate signs of new particles or micro black holes and maybe even ultimately answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" If you really want to get speculative, might we even find evidence of other dimensions?

This means a great deal for physics and our understanding of the universe. Yet I think that the new findings could use a bit of philosophy. Tyson and Hawking are obviously bright people in their own right, but I believe that their understanding of the discipline is woefully narrow. Yes, "why are we here?" is something of a philosophical question that could and probably will be eventually answered by LHC-type discoveries. Maybe. At the same time, that answer does nothing for the other layer of the "why" question and that has to do with purpose. Do we have a purpose? What is it? Is it up to the individual? Or do we take a neutral, scientific stance and say "you simply are."

More to the point, philosophy is crucial in terms of what to do with new discoveries. Much more than the questions mentioned by Hawking and Tyson, philosophy is concerned with the nature of right and wrong. What is and is not ethical. Those are questions that are not so easily answered and science divorced from this kind of thinking could lead to terrible things. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should. Anyone who doesn't get that needs to reread Frankenstein.

I am reminded of Robert Oppenheimer speaking about the development of the atomic bomb. "When you see something that is technically sweet," he said. "You go ahead and do it and argue about what to do with it only after you've had your success. That's the way it was with the atomic bomb." This coming from a man who as he witnessed the test of his creation quoted Hindu scripture: "I have become death. The destroyer of worlds." One can argue the finer historical and political points of the bomb's development, but the fact remains: Oppenheimer was haunted by what he'd done and the world has lived in terror of it ever since.

Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.

That's why we have philosophers. Those are the types of big questions that our world so desperately needs answered. If they can be answered, but the attempt must at least be made. If we had more education in philosophy, maybe we wouldn't have as many of the problems that we have today.

I wonder if Hawking, Tyson, Rubio, et. al. know that?

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