Philosophy is dead.
At least, it is according to renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, who believes the discipline hasn’t kept up with modern developments in science to the extent that it has nothing relevant to say about the meaning of life any more. But has science really replaced philosophy as the means that people use of interpreting their experiences and answering the “big questions”? Is philosophy really defunct?
Of course, it’s interpretation that’s key here. Philosophy as a concept in and of itself – the very act of pondering the meaning of existence – is unlikely to die anytime soon. Humans are, by nature, a curious bunch and the desire to find answers to questions of life, the universe and everything is a big driving force behind much of modern global culture. By this measure of course, science is itself a kind of philosophy – just one focussed on certain particulars. But it’s more likely Hawking was talking about the academic discipline, which some have argued has bounded itself more rigidly than perhaps its potential scope allows for because of the historical tradition in which it is rooted. This has happened to all social theory to a certain extent and postmodern theory in particular – because while it seeks to address such problems, it has often had the effect of digging itself into a nihilistic and off-putting dead end. However, this background is never rendered irrelevant – the history of thought is vital to understanding how and why we have come to the field of knowledge and understanding in which we are currently situated; what’s ultimately important then is to drive new ideas into philosophical thinking – from as many varied disciplines as possible. That, after all, is what philosophy is meant to be about. In this light, science does not have to be opposed to philosophy – rather science can (and does) inform philosophical thinking on many levels, and the future direction of both disciplines will be largely dependent on the ways in which they interact. Science is certainly not free of the impact of trends in social thinking (although most scientists would attempt to argue otherwise) and subjects such as philosophy and anthropology can offer a vital critique.
But the other key point is public engagement. Neither science nor philosophy can claim to be of any relevance unless they make an effort to establish a dialogue with the very people whose experiences and world they claim to exploring – and this is certainly an area where philosophy lags behind science in contemporary culture. But there are developments – some of you might have noticed my recent Facebook activity has involved rather a lot of shameful plugging of a festival I’ve been working for over the past few weeks – HowTheLightGetsIn – which is the country’s biggest (and, currently, only) philosophy festival. It’s an intriguing concept, building on the proliferation over the last few years of a large number of boutique “alternative” festivals which have sprung up in as a counterpoint to the “mainstream” music festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading/Leeds. However, rather than focussing (like most) on the musical elements or on pure spectacle, HowTheLightGetsIn has an unashamedly high brow programme that brings together speakers from all sorts of fields – both more traditional philosophical theorists and scientists, politicians, technologists and artists to talk, debate, argue, agree and disagree on all manner of important (or trivial, depending on who you are and how you look at them) subjects. However they have sought and continue to seek to construct themselves academically, it is only with this kind of popular engagement and interaction that science or philosophy, or indeed any other academic discipline that attempts to provide some explanation for the world, will be able to develop without stagnating and maintain relevance in the modern world – and I very much hope we start to see more of it.
HowTheLightGetsIn 2011 runs from 26th May – 5th June in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. You can read more about the festival and the programme here – www.howthelightgetsin.org