PHILOSOPHY: BACK TO BIG THINKING
A letter to the editor of The Guardian, followed by the editorial the letter was about.
Real philosophy (Back to Big, Editorial, 5 June) is concentration not on fact, which it respects, but on the logic of ordinary intelligence: (1) clarity, usually in the form of analysis, (2) consistency and validity; (3) completeness. Given this, it is inane to suppose it is dead. And given the messes that popular and some other science has made of the subjects of time, the mind, the nature of religious utterance, and consciousness above all, it is ignorant to suppose that science needs no help. It needs condescending but compassionate tutoring.
Ted Honderich, Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, University College London
PHILOSOPHY: BACK TO BIG Editorial in The Guardian , 5 June 2012
There is a new more expansive mood taking shape in British philosophy as born out at Hay-on-Wye
Stephen Hawking may have insisted that "philosophy is dead" in his latest book, but the numbers queuing up for the HowTheLightGetsIn festival currently on at Hay-on-Wye, suggest this isn't a statement based on the observable evidence. Indeed, what is billed as the world's largest philosophy festival is as much frequented by physicists and scientists as by philosophers. And while there are some – like the embryologist Louis Wolpert – who maintain that philosophy is a non-subject from which science has nothing to learn, the very existence and popularity of this conference, now in its fourth year, suggest new enthusiasm for an interdisciplinary conversation.
But Hawking may be right to the extent that science has largely supplanted philosophy as the vehicle for our big questions about life, the universe and everything – especially in the popular imagination. Throughout the 20th century, Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophers focused attention down on an increasingly narrow set of conceptual problems that often had all the imaginative range of a car manual. Those who defended this way of working insisted on modest and careful restraint against the flights of metaphysical fancy that can leave some philosophers looking a bit like theologians – which, in some quarters, remains the ultimate insult. The British philosophical tradition has often understood its task to be preparing the conceptual ground on which other disciplines can be built. Thus Locke described himself as an "under-labourer" to Newton.
The new mood in British philosophy, however, at least in its popular guise, is that the time has come for a more expansive role. Indeed, even the word "metaphysics" is making something of a comeback. And this is partly down to questions that physics and technological advance are throwing up. To what extent does virtual reality challenge what we mean by reality? Do advances in medical science and cybernetics suggest that humanity can overcome the limitations that have hitherto been associated with what it is to be human? Even Hawking himself has stimulated considerable reflection on the idea that science can tackle "the question of why it is that we and the universe exist", going on famously to insist that "if we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God".
The suggestion that science needs nothing from philosophy is both intellectually arrogant and critically naive. But given the evidence of this week's discussions at Hay, the idea that science does not need to interrogate its own conceptual scaffolding, nor the moral and ethical implications of its work, is thankfully a minority position. Indeed, those scientists who speak of God with such alacrity might even learn a thing or two from theologians.