Monday, January 23, 2006

Has Science made Philosophy Obsolete?



Images will be blocked and "errors" will be inserted in this essay by New Jersey's hackers. I will do my best to make corrections on a regular basis.

David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality (New York: Penguin, 1997), $14.95.

"Scientific knowledge, like all human knowledge, consists primarily of explanations. [Theoretical understanding that yields knowledge. ] Mere facts can be looked up, and predictions are important only for conducting crucial experimental tests to discriminate between competing scientific theories that have already passed the test of being good explanations. As new theories supersede old ones, our knowledge is becoming both broader (as new subjects are created) and deeper (as our fundamental theories explain more, and become more general). Depth is winning. ..."

Is philosophy obsolete?

Free Inquiry magazine recently posed the question of whether science has made philosophy obsolete. This is the sort of topic that tends to annoy phenomenologists, like me, because we think that science and philosophy are the academic equivalents of Neil Simon's "odd couple." Sure they live together, but they have different interests and tasks to perform and very different personalities. True, they are often at one another's throats; but then, they also can not live apart for very long. Like Republicans and Democrats.

I think that to pose the issue in terms of one method or discourse making the other obsolete reveals a common misunderstanding of both science and philosophy, and a failure to appreciate the constraints proper to each of these modes of human inquiry. It is a significant and revealing error, however, because it exposes widespread misconceptions about, and exaggerations of, what both philosophy and science can achieve.

I make two claims here: 1) Science and philosophy involve two different kinds of understanding. They take as their subject matter two distinct aspects of human experience. Far from competing, there will always be a need for both as part of any comprehensive effort to understand either ourselves or the world. 2) Overstating the knowledge claims or possibilities of science is not a coincidental occurrence, but is indicative of an ideology called "scientism," which is anything but scientific, and which limits rather than increases human knowledge and progress, having now become nearly pervasive in academia, and maybe in Western societies.

"Philosophy," according to Stefan Kanfer, "is concerned with crucial questions that cannot be resolved definitively." On the other hand, "science is concerned with observing facts, [or events?] so as to generate laws that explain the workings of nature, [so as to] then [formulate] theories that explain ... future workings of nature. In other words, what will happen, based on what has happened, and why it must be so."

Science is concerned to examine questions which, at least potentially, yield "determinate" answers; that is, scientific questions are, at least in principle, potentially answerable in definite ways because there is such a thing as natural reality or just nature. As Carl Sagan would say, there is the "cosmos."

This fairly standard definition may now have been rendered somewhat obsolete, with regard to the sub-atomic level, anyway, by recent developments in quantum mechanics, but it will do for present purposes. (See David Deutsch's book cited above.)

True, there have been philosophical questions answered by the progress of science, yet such questions, once answered, immediately cease being philosophical. It is also true that what is philosophically (and not necessarily scientifically) curious, will always grow to include new questions as a result of scientific progress. Thus, philosophy must now be concerned, for example, with the ethics of genetic engineering and with the epistemological mysteries revealed by quantum mechanics.

Enhancement in the subject matter of each discipline is a process to which the other contributes. It is a proverbial "two way street." Science creates work for philosophers; and philosophers then pose questions that are answered, eventually, by scientists. Everybody gets tenure. This is what biologists call "symbiosis." Lawyers and politicians say, "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." On the subject of lobbyists and politicians, my lips are sealed.

By "scientific method," I mean: "The rules and methods for the pursuit of knowledge, involving the finding and stating of a problem, the collection of facts through observation and experiment, and the making and testing of ideas that need to be proved right or wrong."

In contrast, "scientism" is a term "for the belief that the method of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry. The classic statement of scientism is the physicist E. Rutherford's saying 'there is physics and there is stamp collecting.' " Anthony Flew adds that scientism implies that the "human sciences require [and can require] no method other than that of the natural sciences."

It is this latter doctrine that few of us can accept. What is more, it appears that scientists themselves no longer hold such a view, if they ever did:

"[Contemporary physics] remind us of the great value of something most physicists assume they can live without: philosophy. Behind the seemingly concrete principles, practices and instruments of any laboratory, there are certain philosophical assumptions, often unexamined."

K. Davidson, "You Are More Important Than a Quark," in The New York Times, Book Review, Sunday, June 19, 2005, at p. 19.

Science cannot tell us everything that we wish to know. Scientific method does not, in fact, exhaust the possibilities of human rationality. Science and scientific techniques may be the opposite of rational when applied to some human contexts or to questions of human interactions that have no single correct answer. For this reason, F.A. Hayek contends that scientific method, as used by social scientists and psychologists, "has contributed [very little] to our understanding of social phenomena."

The most terrible blunder is scientific reductivism, assuming that because there is a possible scientific explanation for a complex social phenomenon, there may not be other explanations that are better suited to other contexts or purposes, cultural or linguistic explanations, for example.

If science really begins when we ask the question "Why?" -- and this was Einstein's belief -- then it may be said to lead us from the observed event to the laws which govern it, and onwards to higher and more general laws. But then, where does the process end? If each new answer only prompts another question, then scientific explanations are either incomplete or endless (which is another way of being incomplete). We cannot know "why" the series of causes exists. The ultimate "why" questions are, thus, inevitably philosophical or religious and not scientific:

"It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher."

Albert Einstein went on to explain why physicists and all scientists must be philosophically curious:

"The whole of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking. It is for this reason that the critical thinking of the physicist cannot possibly be restricted to the examination of the concepts of his own specialized field. He cannot proceed without considering critically a much more difficult problem, the problem of analyzing the nature of everyday thinking."

"Physics and Reality," in Out of My Later Years (New York: Castle Books, 2005), p. 59 (1st pub. 1956).

I am suggesting that when we reach the point at which we ask about a "theory of everything," or ultimate "why" questions, we are engaged in philosophical or theological efforts as much as we are doing science. The work of Roger Penrose may be cited at this point, along with the writings of David Bohm, to underscore the drive toward unity and ever-greater generality in human inquiry, especially scientific inquiry. When you are told by a professor to be more specific, ask whether it may not be better to be more general.

At the most fundamental level -- because nature is singular -- so must our forms of inquiry become one. All of our disciplines unite in the essentially philosophical attempt at an all-encompassing understanding of ourselves and the world, an understanding which aims at utter simplicity. The formula for a "theory of everything" may some day be reduced to a single sentence. For others, even today, only one word will do: "God."

Notice that to suggest that there is a single and potentially knowable reality "out there" (and also "in here") is hardly to deny that there are many aspects of that reality, some of which are best studied scientifically; others linguistically; still others historically; and so on. Reality is unitary, yet it is also highly protean and complex. No single human perspective is likely to provide an all-inclusive view of the full panorama of what exists. This is an argument against relativism. It is a truth claim.

Michael Oakeshott has inherited a set of distinctions dating at least from the Kantian attempt to account for freedom in a mechanically-determined Newtonian universe, and he has reformulated them for a post-Einsteinean world in terms of a crucial dichotomy between "processes" and "practices."

For Okakeshott, the term "processes" (events) refers to "those events that occur in nature, such as the orbiting of planets or the melting of snow ... processes have nothing to do with human intelligence, are governed by immutable laws, and are, so to speak, determined by the structure of nature." The problem is that our descriptions and accounts of such processes are not themselves best thought of as processes, in Oakeshott's sense, even though they are natural. By "practices," however, Oakeshott means the creations of people, "actions": "Those events that result from human decisions and actions, such as writing or reading books, or forming a new government, or conversing at dinner, or falling in love."

Practices are a function of human intelligence in a dialectical relationship with its environment. Whatever regularity there may be in them, they are not determined by natural laws. Perhaps an analogy here may be to Husserl's identification of the "life-world."As Neil Postman remarks: "There is a difference between a blink and a wink." A blink may be studied scientifically as a natural biological phenomenon; but a wink is a communicative cultural practice, resulting from and having any number of meanings, even objective meanings (depending on the context), which are best studied linguistically, conceptually and culturally because they require interpretation. This is true even if blinking and winking happen to be the same "natural" physical act. Think of the difference between "behaving" and "acting."

Processes are the proper subject of scientific inquiry; but practices lend themselves much better to philosophical analysis. None of this, it bears repeating, has anything to do with the objectivity or reality of either processes or practices, nor am I seeking to set up a boundary between them built of philosophical concrete and meant to last forever.

There may be a correct answer to the question: "What causes the eye to blink?" In fact, I am sure that there is. There may be no single correct answer to the question of why people wink at one another in a particular society. In Spain, for example, it can mean any number of things, some of them quite pleasant.

There may be several equally plausible or potentially valid and objective answers to this second question, which will require an effort at interpretation -- and not experimentation -- in order to answer it correctly. A wink is a "move" in a "language game" whose meaning will depend on the changing rules of that game in a particular society.

Whether science has made philosophy obsolete is not a scientific question. No experiment will answer it. It may not have a single correct answer, which is not to suggest that it is unobjective, much less that our answers to it have to be unobjective. It is, necessarily, a philosophical question. What is more, even to pose the question may be to refute its premise -- the premise that science could ever make philosophy obsolete.

Philosophers must be cured of "science envy."

We have benefitted from the results of science in everything from antibiotics to enhanced food production. For one thing, science sure has facilitated communication between people. After all, I am writing these words with a computer made possible by twentieth century science and technology, even if it is under attack at the moment from computer viruses, which are also made possible by technology.

One of the features of our technological world is the anonymity that is afforded to persons seeking to inflict harm on envied others. People adept at using technology to alter these writings -- before plagiarizing them -- (or hurting me) will probably pretend to be contrite when forced to look me in the eye. The Internet legitimates cowardice and rewards duplicity, like America's currently gridlocked political scene, creating a new era of scoundrels in high places.

Thanks to science we are also coping with such things as nuclear weapons and industrial pollutants. This is because the question of what use to make of scientific discoveries is not a scientific question, but a moral question. It is a question calling for humanistic reflection, wisdom, philosophy, politics and diplomacy, but not experimentation.

Science cannot help us to figure out how to deal with the morality of science. Science cannot tell us who we are nor how we should lead our lives; it cannot tell us why we love someone more than ourselves, why we love without asking for anything in return. This is something that seems to baffle evolutionary theorists, for example, or the various kinds of behaviorists. Such scientists go into contortions to try to account for the phenomenon. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism, they suggest, defensively.

Humanists envy scientists' claims to objectivity (claims which now seem much more doubtful than they once did) and absoluteness in knowledge. The absoluteness of scientific conceptions of objectivity have recently been challenged, however, by the greatest philosopher-scientists of recent years. Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend are two of the most prominent skeptics concerning the confident assertions of scientists to transcultural and absolute knowledge of how things are. Among the critics of truth, who are not philosophically adept, there is a great confusion concerning the concepts of truth, objectivity, absoluteness, perfection and many other concepts.

Hilary Putnam and Richard J. Bernstein, as well as many other philosophers, are concerned with these questions in the philosophy of science. These thinkers remind us of the constraints within which scientists operate, which are (in some ways) no different from those faced by other scholars, so that they must be accounted for in assessing claims to objectivity of the scientific knowledge of "facts" as opposed to "truth."

None of this is to suggest that we can throw our hands in the air and say something like: "it's all relative." It only amounts to the observation that scientists, like humanists, have a tough time when it comes to establishing the grounds for their claims to objectivity and may not be entitled to an a priori superior status or credibility, as scientists, merely because they are wearing lab coats. Hence, it may be wise to be just as skeptical (more so!) of scientific knowledge-claims as we are of philosophical or political knowledge or truth-claims -- especially when scientists express opinions on matters that are not best examined, in my judgment, by scientific methods.

Some scientists are very good philosophers, but (Einstein is right) there are also scientists who are not very good philosophers. These disciplines, science and philosophy, require different intellectual capacities and skills. A revealing instance of a failure to communicate across disciplinary boundaries is found in the recent exchange between Freeman J. Dyson and Daniel Dennett in The New York Review of Books.

When we are told that "scientists have proven" that the experience of being in love is "bio-chemically no different from eating large amounts of chocolate," we are entitled to smile and shake our heads. This is because love is much more than a biochemical process taking place in the brain. It is also a social-cultural phenomenon that can only take place, like madness, in society. (Michel Foucault) Shakespeare, wisely, sensed a connection between those two psychic states: being in love is one way of being crazy. Maybe. If so, then no one would wish to be sane. I sure don't. And yes, I am well aware of how painful and devastating love can be in a person's life.

"That makes no sense," says the scientific utilitarian. "Yes, it does make sense," answers the Romantic humanist. Most of us are both of those dialectical partners "inside," as we search for that ideal interlocutor "outside" the psyche. Is everyone of us an "odd couple"? The reductivist tendency to assume that naturalistic explanations are exhaustive of phenomena or events which -- while occurring naturally -- are also cultural, spiritual, moral, mental or aesthetic, and not just cerebral, must be resisted. C.J. Ducasse explodes the myth of rigid (don't say it Freudians!) scientific determinism with respect to human intentionality:

[Scientific determinism] assumes that the physical world is the whole of the world; and this leaves out of account mental events in general and volitions in particular, unless it defines them as themselves purely physical events -- e.g., as molecular events in the tissues of the brain. But to so define them is not legitimate, since it amounts to asserting that the term "mental events" does not denote by means of it, but denotes instead quite different events -- such a contention being as paradoxical as would be the parallel one that what we intend to denote -- i.e., to point at -- when using the word "cabbages" is not cabbages, but, say, tigers. Of course, it might conceivably be true that mental events are DEPENDENT on bodily events of some sort. But to be "dependent on" and to be "identically the same as" are two different relations; the first, being at least dyadic, precludes the second, since it is monadic. Hence, the physical world [as we can experience it] is not the whole world.

Maybe not, but it is the whole scientifically knowable world for us. Claims concerning other worlds or meanings in our lives may be objective and true, without referring to empirical reality or the realm of the "knowable," in a scientific sense, since they refer instead to psychic and aesthetic, ethical and spiritual realities that are understandable.

Moral truths, to refer to one clear example, cannot be arrived at by coming to the conclusion that, say, four out five dentists approve of one course of action over another, based on a study performed at John Hopkins University. Moral truth is not determined by conducting a poll, but by asking what we should agree on, morally, and why we should agree on the basis of our natures. Moreover, the achievement of the scientific ability to perform an action, should not lead us to neglect the legal and/or moral question of whether that action should be performed. Torturers should take note.

Bertrand Russell said that philosophy is much more difficult than science or mathematics because, with those disciplines, there is at least the hope of discovering a correct answer to one's questions; whereas, with philosophy, there may be no correct answer to be discovered. On the other hand, there could be a correct answer to our philosophical questions. This is one of those questions on which there is no certain answer. Sometimes it may be best to discover a more correct question rather than any answer.

I do not know whether Russell was right about that issue or whether he stumbled on to his correct answer in philosophy (that there are none) in making the statement. Yet we might have agreed on this much: Philosophical questions are such that, for some people, being human means having to ask and attempting to answer those questions -- even when it is unlikely or impossible that the best philosophical answers available to us at any given time will satisfy everyone, or even remain plausible for very long. Human beings are philosophical and moral animals, because they (we) are endowed with a natural spirituality and intelligence that seeks unity with all that is. The universe? God? Call it whatever you like.

Perhaps in the process of articulating ultimate questions, we commit ourselves to the possibility of an answer. "The use of language," George Steiner writes, "implies a wager on transcendence." To engage in philosophizing may amount to a tacit assumption that philosophical wisdom or truth -- and certainly meaning -- exists and is obtainable. Philosophy may be both choice and commitment. If it is true that philosophy (or is it science? or are these "dual aspects" of one tendency?) is the ultimate Quixotic quest, then it also seems to be the case that there is never a shortage of people, fortunately, who are willing to mount their steeds and charge those windmills of the mind. Philosophy will never be obsolete.

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