A prose poem to Stephen Hawking on the occasion of the death of philosophy
Philosophy is dead, you say?
Is philosophy really dead Stephen Hawking?
“Yes” he says, with his mid-Atlantic voice
Generated by infinite cleverness
Well then, you are probably right
You are, after all, very clever
But philosophy is not just for clever people
Certainly, clever people know things about which I am not so certain...
I need to question the world and my place in it
Again and again,
With every day that I live
And everything that I do
I suppose it is a kind of rudimentary philosophy that I do
a philosophy of the everyday
But it is difficult
And when people, whom I respect, like you,
Tell me that philosophy is dead
I take note and think. It is quite a statement Mr Hawking
Quite a statement
At the same time it shows your weak side
The bit of your thinking you haven’t tidied up yet
I don’t blame you though; philosophy is not mathematics is it?
Mathematics is a descriptive language
It gives us the tools to describe the world,
And that is a very good way of describing the world
As good as poetry and painting, music and film.
Perhaps I should qualify that
Mathematics is the best way to describe the world mathematically
Poetry is the best way to describe the world poetically
Mathematics can make good poetry
But I would understand if you would protest at the idea
That poetry can make very good mathematics
Our cleverness always resides in special areas and does not extend to the whole, does it?
You have managed to describe the world in a very complicated theory
that I do not understand
"M theory" eleven dimensions, or more, no doubt more.
So you are a theorist of physics... a theoretical physicist
Although that sounds a little strange: theoretical physicist
You are a real one!
But all foolishness upon a stick
(As we say in Holland...
I love saying that)
Theory is already half of philosophy
It is the bold and brave bit,
The bit that stands up as lets itself be counted
Every question gets an answer
And answers to questions... are theories
The other half of philosophy is the question
Questions question theories
If I am not mistaken, that is what you do
You ask questions
About the nature of the world
And you put forward theories
Which you describe
And make consistent, iron out,
So what you are really saying
Is not so much that philosophy is dead
But that you feel lonely in your thought
Philosophy, you see,
Will not die until people like you are dead.
And even then only a particular bit of philosophy will die
Not even the most interesting bit,
When seen by itself, in isolation
That is, without a careful consideration of our place
In this world you describe
And a reconsideration of our wishes
Our ways of doing things
You are a live philosopher
With a lonely philosophy
That only those who can do the mathematics can properly discuss
But I still need to bring up my children
And feed the cat
And worry about the neighbours when making music
You are a philosopher of natural science, a theorist and questioner
You describe the world in formulas
Philosophy is not dead, because you are alive!
It is just becoming a little more difficult
We will catch up though, don't worry
Any language can be learnt, any model can be made graspable
And we will have to make the effort and trust you that it is worth it
Is it worth it, Mr Hawking?
You see I am not sure I can trust you here
The problem you see, is that mathematics cannot tell us how to live well
For this we need the philosophers who speak in different languages to describe the world
The philosophers who speak in sentences and poetry, painting, film, architecture, politics, economics, justice, music..
Perhaps I can turn the tables on you with a little experiment:
Not once, not even twice
Read him well, make him your own
And then tell me
How much of his thinking
Needs to be thrown away wrapped in the rubbish bin of your thinking,
If none at all,
Which I suspect,
Then in fact physics
Has been dead for almost all of its wonderful life
A strange death for something that has given us so much fun.
As an occupation, mathematics,
Like all other occupations
Can furnish us with a wonderful subject to devote our lives to
And thus the means to live a good life
Before we die
I believe you have managed that well, heroically, if I may say
You are a man I hold up to the world and say: like him!
And mathematics is fun, like English, Dutch and Chinese, and physics
How alive my thinking feels now that philosophy is dead.
But philosophy does not die
First they die within the first person singular.
The "I" that is the knot tying their bodies to their environment
Then they die in the second person singular and first person plural
That is the you and the we that fall within the jursidiction of loves and friends and enemies
They talk to the dead beacuse they miss them… and thereby keep the dead alive
sort of like physics was alive while it was philsophically dead all that time that it was most alive philosophically
But when they are dead in the first and second person, they still live on in the third person singular
And if they are famous, like you
They live like that for a very long time.
They become almost immortal
And then, when everything comes to an end
As things do, you know…casually
Even the most famous third person singulars die
And nothing will be left of them
A pity really, but there it is.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
copyright © jacob voorthuis 1994-2010
All written material on this page is copyrighted.
Please cite Jacob Voorthuis as the author and Voorthuis.net as the publisher.