Is philosophy dead? Far from it.

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By Charles Weijer
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Stephen Hawking says philosophy is dead.
 
 
 
In his latest book, The Grand Design, the world’s most famous living physicist says the really big questions (How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? What is the nature of reality?) used to lie within the purview of philosophy. But, according to Hawking, “philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

Part of Hawking’s claim, at least, seems undeniable. Daily, we are confronted with the extraordinary successes of science in unraveling the mysteries of the world around us.

With the help of the Hubble Telescope, scientists are probing the very origins of the universe. Meanwhile, scientists at CERN are using the Large Hadron Collider to explore the building blocks of matter. Of course, important advances in science are not confined to physics. Biologists using rapid DNA sequencing techniques are rewriting our understanding of the taxonomic relationships of species to one another. Physicians now have a better understanding of disease and its treatment than ever before thanks to advances in molecular biology and the rigorous testing of treatments in clinical trials.

So then, is Hawking right? Far from it.

Advances in science and technology can raise almost as many questions as they answer.

Multiple sclerosis patients around the world are demanding access to a controversial new treatment called “liberation therapy.” Should they be allowed to have the surgery if they consent to it, or should it be further studied in clinical trials that may take years to conclude?

Agricultural crops and livestock can be genetically modified to protect from disease and enhance yields. But should we embrace these foods and, if so, what standards ought to be in place to ensure safety?

The pressing questions raised by science and technology are not merely ethical ones. The distinction between science and pseudoscience, what counts as a scientific theory, and the right standards of evidence all have important implications both for science and society. All of these questions, I believe, require for their optimal resolution the contribution of philosophers.

What do philosophers have to contribute to scientific practice?

I believe that philosophers bring a valuable set of skills to the table when scientists are facing hard problems. Philosophers possess well-honed analytic tools to help ensure that concepts are clearly demarcated and that terms are precisely defined. Philosophers ask questions that challenge widely shared assumptions. Philosophers routinely ponder important questions in the philosophy of science, ethics, and political philosophy that run the gamut from the nature of causation to the demands of justice.

Faculty and graduate students at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy work on diverse areas of contemporary science, including cosmology, continuous matter physics, applied mathematics, foundations of statistics, computer simulations, evolutionary biology, ecology and clinical trials. Although we are a young institute, we already have a number of ongoing relationships with scientists. We are working on a proposal with physicists at the world-renowned Perimeter Institute to bring together physicists and philosophers to discuss “Emergence and Effective Field Theories” in 2011. Another project with scientists at Western’s new Centre for Human Immunology asks, “What is human immunology and what are its boundaries?” Finally, a collaboration with experts in clinical trials from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom will develop international guidelines for clinical trials involving groups rather than individual patients, called cluster randomized trials.
 
By Charles Weijer
Professor and Director, Rotman Institute of Philosophy
 

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