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Stephen Hawking has claimed in his new book that "...philosophy is dead...(it) has not kept up with the developments in science, particularly physics". What do philosophers think of this claim?

Well, I cannot speak for all philosophers. But it seems to me that Hawking has not kept up with the developments in philosophy. Of course, he need not do so ... unless he plans to say something about them, as he apparently did. There is a tremendous amount of very scientifically informed philosophy of science. People in philosophy departments and people in physics departments both work on the conceptual, logical, and metaphysical foundations of physics (and analogous points could be made about evolutionary biology or economics, for instance). Even a cursory glance at the literature would bear this out. I apologize if this sounds somewhat defensive. I guess it is. But physicists do tend to deprecate philosophy of science without having taken the trouble to familiarize themselves with it. See, for instance, Steven Weinberg's book "Dreams of a Final Theory" (1992), to which Wesley Salmon replies in "Dreams of a Famous Physicist", an article reprinted in his book "Causality and Explanation".

I believe modern Western philosophy is more a tool for reasoning than a body of doctrine, i.e., you apply it to whatever subjects crop up. Here comes my irreverent question. What do professional philosophers like yourselves do at barbecues when someone states an opinion? Do you subject it to rigorous philosophical analysis (this might not win you friends) or just chow down and let it go? And if the discussion was about something like the advisability of invading Iraq or otherwise, what could a philosopher offer that anyone else could not? This question is not a put-down - you must encounter a lot of idiocy in everyday life such as creationism - so what do you do in such situations? It must get frustrating at times! I am sure you all have robust senses of humor, however, and can handle this stuff and my genuine inquiry.

Well, I can't speak for other "professional philosophers", only for myself. One thing that philosophers can offer is a capacity to recognize an argument's logical structure and whether arguments of that structure are good-- and, if they are not good, to make clear exactly why they are not good by crafting similar arguments whose problems are fairly obvious. Of course, philosophers are not uniquely able to do this. But philosophical work (as well as teaching philosophy) does tend to make one better able to do it -- more sensitive to ambiguity, equivocation, begging the question, circular reasoning, regresses, distinctions that must be drawn, and so forth. Another thing that philosophers can offer is some historical perspective on a given issue. We may know where similar issues have come up before, what the standard argumentative moves and options are, etc. Again, philosophers are not uniquely so equipped. But philosophical training can help. A third thing that philosophers can offer (though,...

Two questions. It seems that no one has figured out good standards for acceptance or rejection of philosophical arguments. In science, observation is king. If evidence contradicts a theory under careful conditions, the theory is false. In math, we justify things formally; we cannot expect more certainty. So would you agree that philosophy, as a field that aims at knowledge and not something else like evoking emotions, suffers from a lack of standards? And since at the moment I suspect it does, I want to ask also, why do philosophers act so certain? To them their arguments are true or correct (or whatever) without empirical evidence or rigorous proof. They should be the most uncertain people of all, even more so than scientists. And they are pretty darn humble. (A better way to ask this might be, aren't proof and evidence the two best ways to knowledge? If so, shouldn't philosophers be much more uncertain than they appear (to me)? I now realize it's dependent on how I see things, so I only hope you can...

The kinds of reasons that are given for favoring one scientific theory over its rivals are a good deal more subtle than "observation is king." To begin with, a theory need not be justly rejected merely because it conflicts with a given observation; sometimes, the observation is appropriately doubted, and sometimes, a given theory is rationally retained despite its failure to fit our observations because blame for the mismatch is placed on other theories ("auxiliary hypotheses") that were used to bring the theory to bear on those observations. (The Copernican model of the solar system, for instance, was retained despite 300 years of failure to observe the stellar parallax it apparently predicts.) By the same token, a theory that fits our observations very well may nevertheless be justly and emphatically rejected on the grounds that it is ad hoc, fails to fit nicely with our other theories, lacks unity or fruitfulness or explanatory power, etc. Once these familiar features of scientific practice...

If philosophy does not yield empirical predictions like science or certain truths like math or logic, what does it do? I have heard of "clarification of concepts" but science and math do that, too.

Does there need to be a single, particular contribution that philosophical research makes and other disciplines fail ito make? Of course, science and math clarify concepts and contribute to making empirical predictions. Philosophical research does all of that, too, from time to time. I don't think there needs to be an interesting answer to "What does philosophy do?" that distinguishes philosophy from science and math. All are in pursuit of truth. Philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians are trained somewhat differently, often have somewhat different tools in their toolkits, and come out of somewhat (though overlapping) traditions and so will generally be familiar with different argumentative moves. But these may be differences in degree, not in kind.

Dear Philosophers, When philosophers write about scientific method, are they proposing a description of the actual practices of scientists or are they attempting to produce a normative theory of what science should be like? If it's the former, then shouldn't this be answered by historical study and not philosophy? If the latter, why do philosophers talking about scientific method bother to look at the history of science at all if one cannot gurantee an 'ought' from an 'is'? BMW

Generally, when philosophers write about scientific reasoning, they are interested in how scientists (or, more broadly, how anyone) ought to reason. For example, they might be interested in specifying what it takes for a piece of evidence to count in favor of a given hypothesis, and why certain pieces of evidence should count for more than others. They are generally not interested in explaining why scientists in fact regarded a given piece of evidence as counting for more (that's for historians to figure out) except insofar as this explanation goes via some account of why that piece of evidence *should* have counted for more. It is sometimes said that philosophers are trying to give a "rational reconstruction" of scientific reasoning. But the history of science is not at all irrelevant to this task. For example, any account of scientific reasoning that regards as unjustified some renowned episode of scientific reasoning has a great (though not impossible) hurdle to climb, just as any...

I once read that, in the case of most scientific discoveries, if they hadn't been made when they were, and by who they were, the same discovery would have been made by someone else. Is this true? I also read that Einstein's general and special theories of relativity were such an original contribution that if he hadn't come up with them we would still be waiting for them. Do you think that's the case? What about philosophy? Are there determinate structures of thought which philosophers are just uncovering, or is theorising a significantly creative act?

I have heard this said as well. In the history of science, there are many examples in which several researchers independently came up with the same new idea. Schrodinger and Heisenberg independently came up with the same theory (quantum mechanics) and presented it in such different forms that someone else (Born) had to figure out that they were equivalent. Darwin and Wallace (both from reading Malthus!) independently came up with the theory of natural selection. Adams and LeVerrier independently predicted the existence of the planet Neptune. Lavoisier and Priestley independently discovered oxygen. The examples are legion. These cases of simultaneous discovery are good evidence that once a problem reaches a certain point, it is widely recognized as a problem and the same solution would soon have been found even if the actual discoverer had not found it. Einstein's theories of special and general relativity are sometimes cited as exceptions to this general rule. One reason for this view is that the ...

It seems that philosophical discussions of any issue lead nowhere, since disputes are bound to arise whatever answer is given to a philosophical question. Discussion of any philosophical question seems to lead only to endless series of arguments and counter-arguments. On the other hand, whatever happens in philosopical discussions and debates seems to make no difference to our ordinary life - science goes on, religion goes on, anti-religious ideologies go on, society goes on. So, wouldn't it be better to devote our time and intellectual resources to things that make difference (i.e. to practical things or theoretical things that make practical difference)?

Many beginning students of philosophy are led to ask questions of this kind. I can sympathize: a philosophy course can seem to consist of arguments and counterarguments, intuitions and counterexamples, with no final resolution offered to any of the questions taken up, and simply an array of failed proposals littering the playing field. How depressing. But any course that leaves students with this impression has failed. Utterly. Arguments and counterarguments, intuitions and counterexamples reveal a lot that was not known before. A good counterexample can reveal features of the phenomenon that would never otherwise have been noticed. So even if the philosophical theory that has been "counterexampled" has thereby been defeated, we come away from the process learning something important that we did not know before. Such is certainly the case with, for instance, Gettier counterexamples to theories of knowledge as justified-true-belief, or counterexamples to various simple counterfactual theories...

Did Einstein ever engage the "scientific method" of empirical investigation in the course of his work on special and general relativity; and if not, wasn't he more a philosopher of science (albeit an exceptionally productive and influential one) than a scientist? If Einstein simply engaged in a priori reasoning and conceptual analysis (using his famous thought-experiments) then I don't see why the physics community has any more claim to him than the philosophical community. After all, it seems that his methodolgy bore a much stronger resemblance to that of contemporary philosophical efforts than it does to anything going on in or commonly associated with physics departments. -Will Leonard

An excellent question! Many of Einstein's most famous papers make shockingly few references to the details of previous empirical work by other scientists. To put the same point in another way, many of Einstein's most famous arguments arise largely from "philosophical" considerations. For instance, Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity paper begins by noting a symmetry in electromagnetism: that the current induced by a magnet moving relative to a loop of conducting wire is the same, according to electromagnetic theory, whether the magnet is moving and the conductor is at rest, or vice versa, as long as their relative motion is the same in both cases. However, Maxwell's electromagnetic theory (as it was then understood) assigns the induced current different causes in the two cases. Einstein suggests that the current should be understood as having the same cause in the two cases, which leads him to suppose that there is no fact about whether a force is really electric or magnetic. Clearly, this...