What would Thales have thought of Sagan and Hawking?

Alan asked:

There appears to have been a change in who is attempting to answer the great questions of reality. The ultimate nature of things, how and why we are as we are seem now to be the burning questions of science. Do you think the true heirs of Thales are cosmologists such as the late Carl Sagan and theoretical physicists such as Stephen Hawking, rather than philosophers, or has philosophy re-connected in some way to physics?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Prof Christopher Norris of Cardiff University has written in Philosophy Now Issue 82 in response to Stephen Hawking’s assertion that philosophy is ‘dead’ — because it hasn’t kept up with the latest developments in theoretical physics (S Hawking and L Mlodinow The Grand Design: new answers to the ultimate questions of life Bantam Press, 2010).

I am not going to spill more ink on a question which has got academic philosophers all in a flurry and inspired mountains of furious blogging. Hawking is a clever fool — which is not to detract in any way from his achievements. Academic philosophers who have taken up arms in the Lewis Carrollian mock battle for Philosophy seem to me equally fools — myopic sheep, following one another around in circles in the fog, is the image that irresistably comes to mind.

What would Thales and co. have made of all of this? Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes discovered the idea of theory. They invented physics and they also invented philosophy. Giants such as these will never be seen on the Earth again.

I fancy I can hear the divine laughter of the gods.

The gods (whoever you imagine ‘the gods’ to be) always have the last laugh because (as Xenophanes famously observed) they know while men, even giants amongst men, can only believe.

I’m assuming that there is something to ‘know’, something out there, which human beings in our various ways are more or less blindly grasping towards, the answer to ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything’, or whatever. Maybe, the ultimate philosophy is scepticism after all. (I don’t know!)

Which reminds me of the motto I wrote for the PhiloSophos.com web site:

     Philosophy is for everyone and not just philosophers.
     Philosophers should know lots of things besides philosophy.

I didn’t mean to say that ‘any fool can be a philosopher’. What I meant whether you are a physicist, or a physician, or a business person, or an artist, or a politician, or a soldier, or a priest… you need philosophy. Only fools think they can do without philosophy.

But academic philosophers for their part have an obligation — which sadly many have failed to fulfil — to be interested in everything, every aspect of human activity, above all to keep their eyes open.

What would Thales have thought of Sagan and Hawking? He would have been absolutely thrilled at the mind-blowing achievements of modern science. He would have been merely puzzled by the current state of academic philosophy. Yet, one has to remember that just a short while after Thales and the Milesians came the Eleatic Parmenides, whose assertion that the ‘phusikoi’ have only succeeded in describing the world of appearance, while the true reality of ‘It is’ can only be attained through pure logic, would have equally puzzled him.

That should give us pause for thought (and Hawking too). Vision, logic, theory are irreducible component parts of a bigger picture. Human beings are complex and their needs, interests and obsessions are correspondingly complex. Taking the universe to bits and seeing how it ‘works’ is entertaining for a while, but that can’t be all there is. Or god help us (and I speak as an atheist).

If I could travel back in time to meet Thales, I would tell him of the paradox that keeps me awake at night: Life, the Universe presents itself as a puzzle which we would dearly like to solve. Yet the solution, if found, would be the end of everything we hold dear. As in the Leiber and Stoller song:

     Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
     If that’s all… there is.

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