Stephen Hawking says that we should prioritise space travel and that ‘philosophy is dead’; cleverness and wisdom are very different

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Posted Apr 19 2016 by Dave Darby of

There’s clever and there’s clever. There’s clever like a computer or a calculator, and then there’s clever as in wise. The first kind of cleverness is the technical type, that can work out how to build nuclear weapons, or to genetically modify food crops, or to cut through the branch that we’re sitting on; and the second kind of cleverness is the philosophical kind that asks why we would want to do those things in the first place.

Obviously, professor Hawking possesses the first kind of cleverness in abundance, but I’m going to put my neck on the line and say that I think he’s demonstrated that he doesn’t possess more of the second kind than most of the rest of us. I have a copy of Hawking’s The Grand Design in front of me, and on the first page, he says ‘philosophy is dead’ – i.e. it’s no longer necessary, because science can tell us everything we need to know. In other words, we don’t need wisdom – just technical know-how, rather than know-why.

I love science…

First let me say that I love science, because of the incredible things it can tell us about existence. I think that John Gribbin’s Stardust – about how all the elements on earth and in us were forged in the centre of stars – is still the book that has most transfixed me. Yes of course we should turn towards science and not philosophy if we’re asking the sorts of questions he mentions – how does the universe behave; what is the nature of reality; where did all this come from? That’s where science comes in really handy – providing the theories and the technology to understand our universe better.

But I don’t think that scientists should be making decisions about direction any more than car mechanics should tell us where to drive – their technical expertise is only marginally useful when it comes to deciding what direction to take. That’s the point at which we need to turn to philosophy. Scientists, I think, should remember that their science is human science, and humans may not be the most intelligent life-form in the universe. To a more intelligent species, our current theories may be, and probably are, well off the mark. I’m not trying to undervalue science, just to put it in its place – i.e. its place is increasing our understanding of the universe (in fact I think it’s the only tool we have for that particular job; before science we thought the world was flat, the centre of the universe and that the sun went round it), not deciding how we should live in it.

Perhaps Hawking is smarting from reading more relativist, postmodern views from the philosophy of science – maybe views that consider science ‘a religion’, or no more likely to reflect the nature of reality than the creation myths of hunter-gatherer cultures, or that reality is something the mind constructs, rather than perceives. In that case, I could understand his outburst – but things have moved on. The ‘trendy nonsense’ that makes up most of postmodernist thinking, is no longer trendy. There were always those who saw that the Emperor had no clothes even when it was trendy. Any school of thought that deems everything relative and nothing objectively true, has to understand that that must apply to itself too. Postmodernism is a philosophy that negates itself.

However, I think that the cleverness / wisdom split was also illustrated by his comments about a new project to send a spacecraft the size of a computer chip to other solar systems. I don’t have a problem with that particular project – it could help us understand the universe better, and I find that fascinating. But he’s not satisfied with this. His talk is all about transcending limits and making leaps into the cosmos.

…but should a species that destroys the ecology of its home planet travel to other planets?

So let me also say that I’m in favour of space travel – but we’re not ready yet, any more than we were ready for nuclear weapons, or really, any more than we were ready for the industrial revolution. Too much knowledge, not enough wisdom. A species that is destroying the ecology of its home planet, and that is unable to ultimately solve conflicts without violence has not reached the level of wisdom required for travel to other planets. If any species does this whilst destroying their home base and each other, surely the likelihood is that they will destroy whatever else they come into contact with.

This isn’t an airy-fairy, unscientific or anti-scientific position. I’m surprised that Hawking and other cosmologists make so few references to the work of peer-reviewed ecologists, who are telling us that if we don’t stop destroying ecology, we will reach a ‘cascade point’ at which nature will start to fall away from us, and we’ll be looking at a desert planet and extinction. Science generally is not seeing that we should make solving this problem our priority, and yet Hawking is telling us that philosophy is dead?

I propose that until we can learn to live in harmony with the ecology of our home planet, under no circumstances should we attempt to leave it. Once we’ve learnt how to respect nature and developed an economic system that doesn’t damage it – yes, sure, let’s do it. But let’s make that a priority, and cancel any space programmes until we’ve managed it. Here’s why:

  1. it’s too risky; at the rate we are destroying its biodiversity, nature won’t support us on this planet for much longer. If we venture into space now, there would only be a very degraded home planet to return to if our quest proves too dangerous, fruitless or difficult; destroying our home base isn’t wise.
  2. it wouldn’t really be fair on the rest of the universe. If we destroy the ecology of our home planet, what are we likely to do if we find any other planets with life? Nurture and protect them? It’s not what experience suggests, is it? We’ll become the Klingons, or some other space baddies that feature in sci-fi films. Or if we come into contact with aliens that are not as technologically advanced as us, then we will almost definitely do to them what the Europeans did to the native Americans, Australians and Africans. Let’s not.
  3. the attempt to get into space will require lots of resources and create lots of pollution. That’s the opposite of what we need to do to harmonise with nature. Let’s explore space once we’re living in harmony with nature and have spacecraft that don’t require enormous amounts of fossil fuels.
  4. under our current economic system, interplanetary and interstellar travel will be controlled by the corporate sector. So imagine the Starship Enterprise – but not as a vehicle for the benefit of humanity, but for the profit of Exxon-Mobil. Again, let’s not do that until we’ve made our terrestrial economic system democratic. In my experience, people with a scientific background are amongst the least likely to understand this point – the corporate, undemocratic nature of human society.
  5. if our weak signals and tiny spacecraft draw the attention of another space-travelling species, who come to visit us, the chances that they have only just discovered how to get into space, like we have, are vanishingly small. They obviously couldn’t be any less developed than us, and so the likelihood is that they will much more advanced. Even if they were a thousand years more advanced, they could conquer us easily. If they were a million, we wouldn’t have a clue what they were doing. Our relationship to them would be like rabbits’ relationship to us. We would just have to hope that they were a much nicer species than humans, because they could do what they like with us.

It seems to me that we need to focus on developing wisdom (or introducing a system that allows wise people to attain leadership positions) before we exploit our technical know-how to the fullest extent – to avoid the potential problems above. What do you think? Precautionary principle or to hell with it?