In the opening paragraphs of their recent book on scientific cosmology, The Grand Design, Steven Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow declare that “philosophy is dead.” As an unqualified general statement about all philosophy, this is a very questionable statement; but even more surprisingly, the authors show by their theorizing in the book that a form of philosophy that surely is not dead; namely philosophy as done by scientists themselves.
Despite the thinking of August Comte and William Young, contemporary secular humanism does not replace God with Humanity. In other words, humanist does not make humanity into an idol to replace deity. Humanism is not religious in that sense at all. But some have argued that there is a sense in which humanism qualifies as a religion.
In March 2011, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and resultant tsunami devastated Japan. Within days, dozens of countries were sending help and supplies. But also within days numerous people were blaming the Japanese and their “rampant atheism” for incurring God’s wrath. . Scientists have natural explanations for earthquakes and tsunamis. Yet, many religious people still cling to medieval beliefs that such disasters are expressions of their deity’s anger for human sin.
Being humans we assign very high value to human existence, which leads some to the belief that only the soul (or something like the soul) can express this high value. (This is analogous to a similar view of theism. People cannot understand how our existence can have any meaning unless we assume that there is a God who gives it meaning.)
Some scientists conclude that the sciences of the human nervous system and psychology have nullified the old, traditional belief that humans can act freely; i.e., that ‘free will’ is a myth that must be discarded by any scientifically informed person. This is a philosophical inference from the work of science, and like many such inferences from the data of sciences it should be subject to critical scrutiny. A good example of the nullification view (of free will) is given by James Miles (a British evolutionary theorist).
To argue, as Michael Shermer does, that the naturalistic fallacy is merely a pious pronouncement of philosophers ignorant of scientific solutions betrays a fundamental ignorance of the issues and problems with which ethical philosophers have long dealt. And to say, as Shermer and Sam Harris do, that our inability to find a scientific solution to a tough moral problem leaves us without any possibility of resolving the issue seems to me a bit of sophistry. It betrays a fundamental ignorance of moral dilemmas and assumes falsely that the only possible solution to a moral problem is a scientific one.
Many people assume that when scientific cosmologists and theoretical physicists investigate the primordial conditions of the universe and advance theories purporting to explain how the universe may have originated, they are dealing with the philosophers’ Deep Question: Why is there something instead of nothing? But they are not. They are not investigating the why of the universe (as if they could find reasons, motives, or purposes behind the primordial conditions leading to the Big Bang).
In an article titled “A conversation: consciousness and the connection to the universe” Deepak Chopra interviewed Dr. Stuart Hameroff of the Center for Consciousness Studies of the University of Arizona.
The interview is interesting on a number of points, e.g., Hammeroff’s attempt to explain perceptual consciousness in terms of quantum physics. This is an ambitious project that cries for scrutiny and critique. But presently I shall focus on another aspect of the interview. The interviews discloses some fundamental misconceptions and fallacies committed by both men. They fall into old traps and confusion.
Sam Harris, one of the “new atheistic” writers, apparently has a new book coming, The Moral Landscape: Thinking about human values in universal terms. Someone sent me a text of a recent interview in which he answers a few questions about the way in which science provides answers to moral questions. I found his his replies are as perplexing as they are problematic. He seems to discount the really hard questions of moral situations. To anyone (like myself) who holds out hope that the work of the sciences is relevant to moral philosophy, Harris’s perspective on these issues does not offer any help at all.
Recently I have had come contact with students of philosophy who embrace strange forms of “pop philosophy” in which subjective relativism and irrationalism are presented as solutions to an alleged narrow, limited perspective of the sciences and rational philosophy. Any casual glance at historical and current trends in philosophies shows us that this rush to the irrational is nothing new.