Recently I read Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, in which he complained that the scope of philosophy had recently shrunk. Philosophy has not kept pace with the advances of science. As the eminent philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, the chief task of philosophy today is to analyze language.
A large part of philosophy’s recent failure is that, with the exceptions of Alfred Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, who were brilliant mathematicians, many recent philosophers have not been scientists. A large number of the past’s philosophers were.
Pythathagorus and his followers made important discoveries in mathematics. Geometry was a favorite pursuit of Plato. Aristotle was one of the major scientists of antiquity. With funding from his pupil Alexander the Great, he headed what constituted a large scientific laboratory for investigations.
Even since the Renaissance, when science assumed a new vigor, philosophers have been informed by science. Both DesCartes and Spinoza were fascinated by mathematics. DesCartes did experiments in a small lab. Even Schopenhauer, like Goethe, did important work in optics.
The main cause for philosophy’s relative sluggishness has been the astronomical rate at which scientific knowledge has been acquired and often discarded. Often over the last one hundred-fifty years, the new theories in physics or biology of one decade have become obsolete by the next.
But it is not enough to leave things as they are. As a species we need to know, as Hawking has put it, the “Why’s”: the uniting principles behind the myriad laws of nature. We need to know who we are, why we are here and why the universe exists. Religion also seeks ultimate principles, but, like Art, it involves a very different process than those involving Science or Philosophy.
It will be the task of future philosophers to synthesize the vast amount of scientific knowledge that will have been accumulated by their times. Like the great philosophers of the past, these philosophers will most likely come from the ranks of practicing scientists. And they will offer to the future residents of this and other planets not merely knowledge but the wisdom needed for both survival and further evolution.
The challenge before them is formidable. It is also necessary.