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Philosophy Is Always Relevant

An Open letter To Stephen Hawking.

· Philosophy,Thinking Different,Informing Ignorance,Lógos,Thinking Excellently

Originally published on September 9, 2013 on MEDIUM. Reprinted in my book Heraclitus – Nimis Obscurē and soon to be reprinted in my revision and work in progress I Searched Myself – Heraclitus, Socrates and Thinking Excellently.

Professor Stephen William Hawking CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA, ETC., ETC.

Being of somewhat scattered focus with regards to the popular media, I only just recently read your comments made at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference, 2011, to the effect that “philosophy is dead.” Also that philosophers “have not kept up with modern developments in science” and that scientists “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

My initial reaction upon reading your words was, at the risk of waxing overly emotional, a dull kind of ache; a sense of betrayal even. That a man who I had, with my purely layman’s grasp of the sciences which you so thoroughly command, admired for his intellect and, of course, felt great sympathy for given your physical difficulties could have so thoroughly shat upon everything I hold close seemed incomprehensible to me. As, in my eyes at least, a successor to Einstein, whose humanity is of far greater relevance to me than his accomplishments in the field of E=MC² could ever be, given my lack of schooling in such matters, your callous words struck a dissonant note which I quickly came to feel as being intolerably offensive, given my values and convictions.

I snatched up my laptop and proceeded to do the unthinkable. I rage–posted to Facebook. Of course, no one reads my page (including me), so while doing so technically qualified as publishing my response it didn’t satisfy my deeper need to have these words matter. And so, upon further reflection and having since discovered Medium, here is my more measured second effort at replying to your words, Professor Hawking.

Me and What Army?

First, my disclaimer: These are not the words of an educated mind. In fact, I never graduated high school, much less attended university. This is a matter of public record and likely cause for some to question who the Hell I think I am to be calling Professor Hawking out; I’ll even take it a step further and admit that, until very recently, I’d never even read much philosophy. Specifically, I’d avoided the Greeks with an almost superstitious mingling of fear and awe.

When I finally did crack that egg it was almost entirely by accident, but it resulted in my being exposed to one Heraclitus of Ephesus, who I recognized as sharing certain of my views before I subsequently learned that he was held to be in any way obscure. I’m in the process of organizing my thoughts on that topic for eventual publication, but I offer this preview as representing the full extent (or lack thereof) of the credentials I bring to the discussion at hand:

Wisdom is, in part, Understanding the limitations of Knowledge, which is useful where the sciences are concerned but dangerous when applied to any subject more complicated than triangles (or black holes), such as the human condition, where other tools are required.

That’s Heraclitus (and Socrates) 101; the two share the same vocabulary on this subject, as I hope to demonstrate at a later date. I didn’t decipher Heraclitus; my hyperlexic little mind surfed his words, mis-translated and otherwise. Without hitting the sort of speed-bumps most encounter, I admit, but I’d already reached the same notions myself, through years of doing things the hard way.

One (or more) Philosophers’ Opinions, Then.

Professor Hawking, you claimed that philosophy is dead. I trust that this essay will effectively disprove that assertion, if in no other way than the most obvious and quite indisputable as-of-this-writing evidence that a living mind lurks behind these words. Fair enough?

On to the rest, then. That philosophers “have not kept up with modern developments in science” and that scientists “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

Horse-shit and fuckwittery, I say. Recognizing that, by itself, those words might not prove entirely compelling to a less learned, if infinitely more educated, reader, I shall continue to verbiate on the subject.

Knowledge is a dangerous label. Without, I hope, belabouring the point, to ‘know’ something implies that it can be known. That something is knowable requires that that thing be constant, unchanging, etc., ad infinitum, in order for our minds to lock it down for future reference.

This is a good thing where numbers (and triangles, or black holes) are concerned. It allows our lower-case λόγος (reason), what those Greeks defined as separating man from beast, to paint in the broadest strokes, to use another tool, Learning. Which we share with those same beasts who, for example, don’t need to be burned more than once to develop a healthy respect for fire, to build our most rudimentary intellects.

One plus one is two!

Which is fabulously true, and it would be a sincere pain in the head to have to keep figuring that out every time we encountered… Well, stuff needing counting, or calculating. That’s where Knowledge comes in. We can know this and use it to build upon. Because one plus one is always two. Not much doubt about it by now, I think, though I don’t know it for certain where the more esoteric sciences might have other notions. But it’s worked for me thus far, so I’m willing to accept that it is so.

And this knowledge can be passed along! We can teach one another math, physics, etc., and so network our minds, building on the accomplishments of those clever reasoners who came before us and eventually come up with internal combustion engines, electric guitars, computers…

And atomic bombs, nerve gas, industrial waste…

Hrm. Not everything science has provided us is necessarily to our benefit, then.

Knowledge, you see, is a dangerous thing. Once acquired it sets, having behind it the accumulated weight of all those who came before us and all those of us who can use it to provide wondrously shiny new toys, even tools like medicine. Which is why we value Education. It allows us to define and formalize what we Need to Know.

Such as, in addition to the aforementioned, other stuff. Less than useful stuff, really.

Black people are [insert fuckwittery here]’. ‘

My [insert dogma here] is right and anything that offends me is Wrong’. 

Because these prejudices are learned; sometimes they’re part of a child’s becoming socialized, other times they are institutionally ingrained. One of the perils of becoming educated, which I did my level best to avoid, resulting in an open mind and a complete absence of any discernible academic accomplishment.

(This may change when I do publish, though I expect that will depend largely on whether anyone reads my, or more importantly Heraclitus’ teachings.)

And so this philosopher, at least, has not kept up with science to any appreciable extent. I can’t claim otherwise. And scientists, who are essentially following that least accomplished of the Greeks, Plato’s, methods are following Pythagoras’ quest for more and bigger triangles.

Science just another tool. It’s the refinement of Reason plus Learning. And I’m not in any way against science, per se, although I bloody well hated being tested on it before I hopped that fence. I’m inept, there, as I may have mentioned.

Medicine is a good thing. I’d likely be dead without it, as a matter of fact. My health is often discernible only by my lack thereof and surgeries or pharmaceuticals have played a significant role in keeping me alive… When they didn’t almost kill me instead.

I also trust that anyone reading this can extrapolate at least one other highly relevant way in which I am an enthusiastic embracer of science’s bounty. (It rhymes with ‘Macintosh.’)

But being educated is not the same as learning, though the two can and do co-exist to an extent. Being educated means accepting what’s been set before you by accepted authority figures and as such it often results in missed opportunities to learn. Heraclitus rears his head here once more.

With Platonic nonsense like the ‘theory of flow’ having taken root in the academic world, it’s no wonder the poor guy’s been misunderstood for millennia. It’s also tragic that it’s obscured Socrates’ full magnificence. I’m working on correcting this, as mentioned.

This is where Knowing, which is a static, closed-circuit tool must give way to Understanding. This is what the old Greek was banging on when he wrote. “You cannot step twice into the same stream.”

No, you can’t. Something will have changed. And it will be different every single time. Understanding this, which is to say growing, Learning with Wisdom, is embracing a truth; that certain subjects are never closed-circuit. People being a singularly important topic that springs to mind and the basis for my, this time I hope gentler, whuppin’ of Professor Hawking’s poor thinking.

As a reasoner, I’ve no doubt he’s tops. But as a thinker, he’s operating with an incomplete toolkit and so open to correction by even such an uneducated mind as my own.

Science is a lever. A force-multiplier. It allows humanity to impact the world around us and one another to a far greater extent than we could without it.

Think about how that can go awry. I won’t belabour the point or pad my word-count unduly, I’ll save that for the book.

You spoke of super-colliding Hadron something-or-others the size of this galaxy as being the future salvation of the human race, or something like that. I didn’t follow it, and I don’t agree.

For one thing, that seems a mighty long way off, while we’re neck deep in it today. This very minute, in fact.

Philosophy is not navel-gazing and it’s not intellectual masturbation. At least it isn’t when Heraclitus and Socrates did it. It wasn’t to Aristotle, either, who although he couldn’t grasp the essence of what his forebears were teaching (and I can’t help but note that his teacher was Plato, which demonstrates the perils of even the shiniest of educations), went another way, and provided his own considerable value to subsequent generations.

It wasn’t when Michelangelo did it either, but that’s an entirely different book, one I’m still researching. I’d never have caught a glimpse, though, had I learned about that singular mind in school and had him pegged as being merely an ‘artist’. And I am an unabashed lover of art, particularly music.

Philosophy is understanding ourselves, and those around us, in ways that matter. And as is the case when that other tool, Understanding, is employed, it’s a never-ending, ever evolving study.

One which remains viable and is in fact vital in these modern days while the scientists among us provide us with ever greater levers with which to elevate or destroy ourselves and our world’s ability to sustain us.

Einstein got this. I suspect he’d agree with me, Professor Hawking, when I say that you’ve shown some poor thinking here.

Without Understanding one another, science is just a child’s toy.

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