Lately, I have left science on one side and have been reading some philosophy because this is the field which has always fascinated me. I admire philosophers because they are deep thinking and ultra-smart people. The way you can disprove or make someone think about what they are saying using principles of philosophy is truly fascinating. And when it comes to atheism side of things, I have always found it fascinating that there are people who believe that they can – well, disprove claims of theism without even invoking 'evidence', by using philosophy, by thinking and reasoning deeply about their claims.
Some scientists have been saying that philosophy is dead and that it cannot teach us anything about the actual world. Of course, they feel that they need to say things like these to remind people that the scientific method is what has taught us a lot about the world in the last centuries so that people who do not know science turn to it for answers and not be satisfied with philosophical level answers.
What do they mean?
Well, take for example Anselm's Ontological Argument for God which I touched briefly in the last post. Whether it would be enough to actually convince anyone of the existence of God is debatable, but the point is that some people DO accept arguments like these because they seem convincing and as a consequence of this acceptance they do not even bother to take a look at what science tells us about the beginning of the Universe, for example. In short, people think that philosophy is all that is ever needed for someone to know the actual world and to answer the difficult questions.
For example, the French Philosopher Descartes has argued (?)1 that animals are like machines and do not have any consciousness. These are exactly the types of things which are not really possible to determine using only philosophy. So, once you use philosophy to ask the question whether animals are conscious, you need to get out into the world and observe. You cannot decide these things only from an armchair.
This is why some scientists do not really like philosophy and tell people that it is dead. Philosophy is often not concerned about the real world. It starts from conclusions and then tries to prove them. This is the reason why some scientists are eager to dismiss it completely. Or if they are not eager to dismiss it, they are trying really hard to show that it's only good for asking questions and cannot provide any answers. But, are they correct to do this?
Let's take a look at what philosophy IS, anyway.
"The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence."
- Oxford dictionary
Or from Wikipedia:
Philosophy (from Greek φιλοσοφία, Philosophia, literally "love of wisdom") is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.
- Wikipedia, quoting Jenny Teichmann and Katherine C. Evans, Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide (Blackwell Publishing, 1999) and A.C. Grayling, Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Philosophy is concerned with the nature of knowledge itself. Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is the endeavour or building knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.2
You could say that philosophy is concerned with studying the nature of the 'thing' science tries to accumulate, so philosophy can theoretically ask whether something is in the domain of science and how should science go about it. Philosophy can take a look at what would make something objectively true – for example if we want to know that we are not in a computer simulation and is there a way that science can detect this, we would use philosophy to determine this.
Another example might be what is consciousness. Philosophy has been struggling with this one since forever and while it is highly likely that this will be ultimately discovered by science, science works by asking questions, doing research and then coming up with a hypothesis. After that, it's time for experiments. So, the place of philosophy here is to ask questions. When a scientist tries to answer a question WHAT is meant by consciousness or what is meant by the claim that we are living in a simulation, they are doing philosophy.
Science and philosophy would be combined to make these efforts. Clearly, philosophy is not useless even today in this deeply scientific world.
But it is not simply about philosophy being there to ask questions. It does not seem that every question can be answered by science. Clearly, there are questions of ethics, for example, which are kind of outside scientific methods. Instead, in these questions flow kind of goes in a different direction – science informs philosophy that the animals have a frontal cortex or similar features as humans and that this indicates that they most certainly really feel pain, as we do – and then philosophy armed with this information can try to determine how we should handle issues of animal suffering for example.
You might object to the previous paragraph on the ground that there is no good reason to think that we even have free will, so science should be able to ultimately solve even these types of questions will be for neuroscientists to discover. For example, some might say that everything is simply explained by how brains operate – at the levels of interactions between subatomic particles.
That does not really get us to the answer of whether rape is absolutely wrong – only tell us why some individuals might 'decide' to rape. But we are getting off track here and into the territory of free will, which is extremely complex, so let us not go there because we will lose sight of what this article is about. For now, it is enough to say that science has not disproved free will and that currently, we all DO act as if we really have free will. Whether this is so, currently it is a matter of philosophical discussions.
Philosophy teaches you also how to think properly – how to analyze ideas, offer alternative explanations, try to detect whether an alternative exists at all – philosophy teaches us how to think critically and by thinking about things for ourselves, we are practising these skills. By doing philosophy we can do introspection to analyse whether we are acting from a position we would like to be true, as opposed to a position of thinking about what is true. Philosophy can help us there.
My current conclusion is that rationalizing about things is not unnecessary and that in many, many cases scientists can save a lot of time and resources by doing good philosophy – by thinking properly and without fallacies, by trying to reason about whether a hypothesis makes logical sense before even testing it in experiments, and by asking proper questions. In the same way, philosophers cannot ignore science, because science discovers things about the actual world and any philosopher should want that his work stands on solid ground. The fact that was discovered by science certainly provides that groud.
So, my wish is that science and philosophy make peace. In many places, I have seen these disciplines opposed and in combat with each other when they should actually be supplementing each other.
1 - René Descartes
2 - Science