Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Can Science Swallow Philosophy?

Why do people ask this question? More specifically, why is the prospect of replacing philosophy with science so exciting?

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The most obvious answer is that science "works", and that it is difficult to say the same for philosophy. Not because philosophy is useless but because the contributions of philosophy are necessarily oblique. Philosophy provides a theoretical substrate on which useful stuff can be built. A sad consequence of this is that philosophy is rarely the knight in shining armour which raises living standards and/or puts man on the moon. By comparison, modern science has only been around for a couple of hundred years and since then has significantly boosted humanity's understanding and power over the world.  From this, rather naive, point of view it is understandable then that some might relish the thought of empirical annexation at the expense of philosophers.

You will be unsurprised to hear that I loathe this kind of the question. Primarily because it concieves of science and philosophy in a very wrongheaded way. The whole notion of a scientific takeover of  philosophical terroritory is nonsense.* Philosophy cannot be annexed by science, both because its territory is so qualitively distinct from that of science and because of how vital that rationalist terrotory is to science's progress. Try imagining, for example, the scientific method without Hume or Locke. In fact generally philosophers and scientists work quite well in applying their skills in eachothers fields.

Science cannot swallow philosophy, anymore than philosophy can swallow science. Neither evidence nor rationality can explain away one another. We are condemned to philosophise. But if philosophy and science cannot be sensibly put in competition - since they are co-dependent processes - then precisely what are the annexers proposing? I will be honest here: I do not know. Most of the proposed attempts at a scientific purge of philosophical issues, that I have seen are incredibly vague. Especially with regards to how science would actually deal with important philosophical issues. More often than not the proposed solution implies steamrollong over philosophical debates as though they were non-existent. Case in point, "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris.

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In this book, which purports to provide scientific solutions to moral problems, Harris' shows us, among other things, that we can scientifically measure pain - provided we make the reasonable assumption that qualia can be mapped onto biology. This is quite an unimportant observation as far as ethics is concerned - although fans of Harris seem to think it has earth-shattering implications.

Why am I not similarly impressed? Because the actual philosophical questions of import: Should pain be the deciding moral metric? Why should we be moral? etc - are left totally unresolved by Harris' framework. In order to accept the argument that hurting animals is wrong I need to accept that pain is of moral import regardless of who/what feels it. The fact that we can measure and track the brain states of a pig, and compare them with that of a human, is quite irrelevent to the actual moral debate. "The Moral Landscape" is a book that discusses evidence for certain empirical questions of possible interest to philosophers. It is, however, not a vindication of noveua logical positivism. The philosophical questions, the ones which an ethical response is suppose to answer, are left relatiely untouched. In response to Harris I would refer him to his horseman peer Daniel Dennet and his remark that:

"... there is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination."

Philosophy is necessary; worse, it is inevitable. But that does not mean that "Academic Philosophy", one current reification of rational inquiry, is beyond methodological reproach. There are no doubt many academic philosophers who do not have enough of a grasp of science to be as useful as they could be. I am also as convinced that there are plenty of scientists not as au fait with the philosophy as they need to be in order to reason properly about the implication of their own research. In this respect I am all in favor of promoting science within philosophy as a way of resolving empirical questions that have an impact on philosophical issues, and promoting the role that philosophy plays in directing and understanding empirical research. What I do object to is the notion that philosophy and science should be understood as two parties in a turf war. Considering their intellectual codepedency, I see no benefit in waging civil war.

*Of course, there are cases of early philosophers attempting to answer scientific questions - Aristotle, for example - only to later have their questions answered by actual science. But this is more  a case of actual science swallowing early pseudo-science rather than a case of philosophy qua philosophy being pushed to the margins.

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