Tuesday, 9 January 2018

 Is Science a Branch of Philosophy?
"There is no such thing as philosophy-free science."  - Daniel Dennett
Every now and then, philosophers in our time have to circle the wagons against critics who announce the triumph of science and the death of philosophy.  You may be aware of the  obituaries announced by such science celebrities as Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy who famously declaims, "science rules."1  After all, they think, philosophy is vague, abstract, jargon-laden, fascinated with linguistic minutiae, too much in thrall to its own fusty history, and - worst of all - plagued with disagreements that are never resolved.  That's why philosophy makes no progress, whereas science progresses ever more rapidly in its accumulation of knowledge and provable theories about the world that have made possible the astonishing advances in technology that have improved the lives of all of us.  There is some truth in all this but also a lot of nonsense.
That scientists would pontificate foolishly about philosophy is bad enough, but it's especially annoying when a philosopher chimes in with a 'me too.'   One such is Professor David Livingstone Smith of the University of New England, who recently posted a piece on the Philosophy Talk blog titled "Truth and Progress in Philosophy," in which he professed helplessness when confronted with his students' frustration about not getting answers to philosophical questions.  "These students," he writes, "aren't frustrated because philosophy doesn't give them any answers.  They're frustrated because it gives them too many answers." [with no way of deciding which is correct. - brackets mine] Take, for example, the freedom/determinism issue.  There are three major positions that have been debated for decades, maybe centuries:  hard determinism, indeterminism, and compatibilism.2  Smith says he can't tell his students which one is true and explains in his blogpost why he thinks that question and all other philosophical issues must remain forever unresolved. 
Unlike Hawking and Tyson, however, Smith does not conclude that philosophy is useless.  He grants that philosophy cannot determine the truth about its own questions but professes to be unconcerned about that, because philosophy performs a different role which he apparently considers to be of redeeming value. Philosophy, he claims, "is in the options business, not the truth business."  Truth is the business of science.  Philosophy's job is merely to search out the many alternative ways of answering deep questions and to "spell out their implications."  
The first disaster to notice in this line of thinking is that it is logically incoherent.  The professor has committed what is known in the trade as a performative contradiction, a fallacy that occurs when a statement is contradicted by the act of speaking or thinking it.  "I am not aware of anything right now" is an obvious example.  
Smith's dictum has two parts: (a) philosophy is in the options business, and (b) philosophy is not in the truth business.  Now, owing to the fact that he develops a supporting argument for it, we can be pretty certain that Smith thinks (b) is true, not merely his opinion.  Trouble is, you can't assert as true a proposition that says it can't be asserted as a truth.  Descartes implicitly understood this when he hit upon his famous Cogito, ergo sum:  its denial - "I am not thinking; I do not exist," is refuted by the act of expressing or thinking it.  Philosophy is "not in the truth business" is self-refuting in the same way.  If it is true that philosophy is not in the truth business, then you cannot consistently engage in that very business. 
Once we understand this, we see also that in part (a), Smith commits the same fallacy (despite the fact that (a) is true!).  It should be clear what a disaster this is.  If he persists in this way of thinking, then none of his students or colleagues can ever take seriously what he says, and his continuing to teach philosophy constitutes a fraud.  Unfortunately, many thinkers agree with Smith, including some philosophers, with sad consequences for our culture at large. 
This could be the end of my critique, but, setting aside the contradictions, we can still learn some interesting things from the rest of what Prof. Smith has to say.  Here are the main points of his argument concluding that science wins, philosophy loses:
1. Science has evidence and reliable methods.  That's why it has made spectacular progress.
2. Philosophy lacks both evidence and reliable methods.  That's why it has made little progress.
3. The problem is that most philosophers have not understood their mission:
"The question of whether philosophy has progressed can only be answered by answering a deeper question. What’s the goal of philosophy? What are we after—or rather, what should we be after—when we’re doing philosophy? Whatever the answer to this question is, it’s not the pursuit of truth. …. Its job is to show that there are many ways of addressing a problem, and to spell out the implications of these alternatives.  …. Finding lots of answers, without having the resources, all on its own, to decide which of them are the right answers is what philosophy is all about."
Besides being a performative contradiction, this view of philosophy plays right into the hands of critics like Hawking, Tyson, and others who think philosophy is dead or useless.  What's the point of "finding lots of answers" and endlessly debating the alternatives when none of them can be proved a winner?  Waste of time.  Money spent on philosophy departments could be used instead to fund worthy scientific projects.
The negation of philosophy constitutes an act of rational suicide, a disaster at a time when we are led to believe we live in a "post-truth" world of "fake news" and "alternative facts."  As we will see, if there are no philosophical truths, there are no scientific truths either and therefore no truth at all; only opinions and no one's opinion is preferable to any other.  Fortunately, there is no good reason to buy into this postmodern delusion.  Let's examine the argument one point at a time:
1. Science has evidence and reliable methods.
True.  The scientific method, with its rejection of religious and other types of dogmatic authority, its insistence on careful observation, experimentation, and peer review, is undeniably the most powerful instrument for understanding the natural world ever developed by humans.  Let's not exaggerate its reliability, however.  The triumphs of science are too often allowed to obscure the many blind alleys and failures working scientists have always had to suffer through before making a breakthrough.  In fact, failures outnumber the successes, and progress is achieved in fits and starts, not in one smooth arc of accumulation.  Still, science's record of achievement and progress speaks for itself.
2. Philosophy lacks both evidence and reliable methods.  That's why it has made little progress.
One at a time.  "Philosophy lacks evidence?"  The assumption here obviously is that philosophy, as commonly understood today, doesn't have the kind of evidence that science has, namely hard observational and experimental evidence.  Well, no it doesn't, because philosophy does different kinds of work that require different kinds of evidence.  Mathematics doesn't have scientific evidence either, but no one thinks mathematical reasoning doesn't produce truth.  By contrast, lots of people think philosophy produces no truth, but that's because they don't know the nature or scope of the work philosophers actually perform, and therefore do not know what counts as evidence in philosophical reasoning.  Clearing up these misunderstandings requires turning to my next question.
"Philosophy has no reliable methods?"  This news would come as a surprise to the authors of such books as The Philosophers' Toolkit, by Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, which describe a multitude of strategies and heuristics available to philosophers, many of which have been built up over thousands of years.  Philosophical methods exist in abundance; they just happen to be different from the methods employed by scientists.  They are strategies for careful thinking.  For example, logic, which was invented by philosophers, provides us with a wealth of knowledge about how to distinguish good from bad reasoning.  
In addition to those formal techniques, philosophers have devised numerous heuristics such as thought-experiments, analogies, reductio ad absurdum disproofs, counter-examples, fallacy identification, and many others which have proven their effectiveness for analyzing and evaluating the ideas of any discipline or type of discourse, including mathematics and science.  Science itself relies on many of the principles and strategies of logic.   
Ironically, scientific method was worked out by philosophers or by thinkers who were both philosophers and scientists (Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes), not by specialists in physics or biology.  Think about what this means:  scientific method itself is a reliable philosophical method!  Which leads me to my next criticism of the debunkers of philosophy.
Never the twain shall meet or joined at the hip?
All the critics who think philosophy must leave the pursuit of truth to science assume a sharp distinction between the two.  Science discovers truth; philosophy does not.  On what grounds is this strong distinction made?  Certainly not the testimony of history. For at least 2000 years, no such distinction was made by thinkers who indulged their curiosity about the world and human life.  Philosophy was traditionally considered the rational search for truth and wisdom in the broadest sense of those terms.  Philosophers inquired about everything.  The study of nature - science to us - was merely one branch of philosophy; specialists like Isaac Newton were called 'natural philosophers.'  Other major branches - logic, ethics, etc. - were known to be different in some ways from one another, but all were understood to be parts of the largest project in human thinking, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
Only in the modern era from the 19th century onward, owing partly to the very scientific revolution that philosophical geniuses made possible, were the two domains professionalized and eventually departmentalized in universities.  That led in our time to a decree of divorce: "science rules," independent and triumphant; philosophy muddles along doing who knows what.  Let us not be deceived by this decree absolute.  It is spurious.
The historical connection has never been entirely severed, as evidenced by the enormous attention given to philosophy of science in the last 100+ years. 
In our time, the triumphs of modern science can be honored without divorcing them from their ancient parent.  In fact, no such divorce is possible. All the major sciences today - physics, chemistry, biology, etc. - rest on assumptions that cannot be proven by their methods. That is the meaning of Daniel Dennett's claim that there is no philosophy-free science.   For example, scientists assume that there is a pre-given world of matter and energy that can be studied objectively; that the future will resemble the past; that every event has a cause; that religious faith has no role to play in the study of nature.  None of those can be validated by the methods of science.  Working out the meaning of such assumptions and whether they are valid or not are tasks that belong to philosophy. The scientific method itself - its nature, its claim to validity, and its limitations cannot be studied by means of observation and experiment.  It is not a fact to be observed but rather a set of ideas needing interpretation and validation.  Investigating ideas is the business of philosophy. 
Many other questions about science deserve our attention.   Here are a few examples. What is the difference between a hypothesis and a theory?  What is an explanation?  What is the value of string theory?  Are the laws of nature eternal or are they subject to change?  Is a physical 'theory of everything' possible? Do electrons exist?  Can neuroscience explain the mind?  Is it morally acceptable for psychologists to assist in a torture program? (It happened - at Guantanamo.) Who should own Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells?  If these don't look to you like scientific questions, you would be correct. There is no scientific procedure that could be used to answer them.  Why?  Because the sciences of nature are necessarily tied closely to empirical observation, and the aforementioned questions are about relations of ideas, not about observable things and events.  They are philosophical questions, raised and discussed in the domains of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
It should be clear by now that philosophy and science are joined at the hip.  Science was born of philosophy and is grounded on philosophical assumptions.  However, the relationship is not symmetrical.  Philosophy can make of science an object of investigation and criticism, but the reverse is not true.  There is philosophy of science but no science of philosophy, nor can there be for the reasons I have stated.  Oh, sure, celebrity scientists often dismiss philosophy or object to one or another of its claims. but when they do so, they are speaking about ideas, not about nature, and that means they are speaking as philosophers.  Switching their hats like that is fine, but it would be nice if they knew what they are doing.
Given the close relationship between science and philosophy described above, I make the following bold claim:
Science is the empirical branch of philosophy.

Image result for branches of philosophy image

If this is right, then all the truths that science has discovered are also philosophical truths, and all the progress that science has made is also philosophical progress.  If you think this makes an incomprehensible mush of philosophy and science, you would be wrong. None of the above implies that there is no useful distinction to be made between philosophy and science.  There is, but it is not what I call the Strong Distinction, the one advocated by Smith, and it is certainly not the delusional Extreme Distinction between living science and dead philosophy made by philosophy-free scientists.   The proper distinction, I contend, is a Weak Distinction between conceptual philosophy and empirical philosophy ('science' for short).  The former uses conceptual methods to study ideas.3  The latter uses philosophical ideas and methods to study the natural world.  Even that distinction may not have made much sense to Aristotle, but it does now owing to the need for specialized disciplines in this increasingly complex world.  Science has earned the right to to pursue its important but narrow ends more or less independently, and philosophy, too, has a full-time job dealing with the many confusions created by the same complexity.  Among those, unfortunately, is the cluelessness of those who think "science rules."
Allowing only the Weak Distinction between philosophy and science shows us how science can be free to pursue its truth without denying the integrity of philosophy.  I have argued that the Strong Distinction is unwarranted: there is neither a historical nor a logical basis for making the cut between science/truth on the one hand and philosophy/options (only) on the other.  In both we find the pursuit of truths, albeit truths of a different kind.  To insist on the Strong Distinction is to commit philosophical suicide, leaving science with no concepts for understanding itself, no way to defend itself against its detractors, and no ethical monitor to keep it out of mischief.
I sent an email to Dr. Smith containing a shorter version of the above considerations.  His response two days later:  "Cool objection."
_____________
Notes:
1  Apparently, after timely instruction from a philosophy student, Bill Nye has recently changed his mind.  You can read about his admirable about-face here.
  For my discussion of the topic, see my blogpost of September 17 of this year, "How free do you need to be?"  You can access it here.  You can read Prof. Smith's blogpost here.
3     Does conceptual philosophy discover truths all on its own?  You bet.  I have highlighted a few of them in this essay, e.g. that to deny truth in philosophy is to commit a performative contradiction.  For many others and for an account of how philosophy has made progress over the centuries and still does today, see Richard Carrier, "Is philosophy stupid?" here. 

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