Richard asked:

I was wondering if you know how to give a good reaction on arguments like these, when debating over the claim that scientists need philosophy to interpret their data.

1. Philosophy is great at asking questions. Science is great at answering them. (From Lawrence Krauss.)

2. Philosophy is dead. (From Stephen Hawking.)

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Professor Stephen Hawking is on record as stating, ‘Philosophy is dead.’ I’m not sure whether your statement in 1. is a direct quote from Krauss. Maybe, it’s some commentator’s gloss on what he claims. (The quote was not in Google when I searched.)

On the face of it the two claims seem to be in flat-out contradiction. If philosophy is dead then surely it can’t be ‘great’ at anything, or for anything. However, the distance between these is less than first appears. Science is the place you go to answer questions, not philosophy. The notion that philosophy can be a source of knowledge has, in Hawking’s view, been exploded. Whatever questions they may raise, Philosophers don’t discover new knowledge. Ergo, philosophy is useless. In other words, dead.

If you are looking for places where interesting questions are raised, science fiction has always been a great resource. No need for philosophers there. (Although some of the best writers had a strong inclination towards philosophy, e.g. Philip K. Dick.) Anyone can raise a question, can’t they? Why are philosophers even needed, if that’s all they’re good at?

Philosophers of science would say they are not attempting to do science from an armchair. Their questions have a different character. While physicists and cosmologists formulate theories and discover laws, they ask what is a ‘theory’ or a ‘law’. Philosophy makes progress, not by discovering new ‘facts’ but by deepening our understanding, clarifying the concepts that pass as common currency in the pursuit of empirical knowledge.

— Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This is the still popular conception first expressed by John Locke back in the seventeenth century, when he said in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ‘It is ambition enough to be employed as an under-labourer in clearing the ground a little, and removing some of the rubbish which lies in the way to knowledge.’

The problem is that it’s not much fun being a lowly underlabourer. I don’t think Locke really thought that of himself. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding is a classic contribution to the foundations of empiricism, a bold, epoch-making theory about the scope and limits of human knowledge, which has things to say about the foundational building blocks of existence itself: how we are to conceive of the very nature of reality. In other words, a metaphysic.

As a metaphysician, I can appreciate the empiricist Locke. I can also appreciate the contribution of the physical sciences to our knowledge of our world and its innermost workings. But, for me, there are other questions that simply do not fit in this picture. Seemingly unanswerable questions, but no less important (to me, at any rate) for all that.

What is the point of asking unanswerable questions? What does the term ‘unanswerable question’ even mean? I could say, ‘read my books’, or watch my first YouTube video, Why am I here? But maybe you would be more impressed if I told you, simply that this is my life. The unanswerable questions are the only questions that really grip me. Everything else — philosophy of science included — is merely humdrum. Just waiting.