Philosophy, Science and the Philosophy of Science.
In a recent television lecture Professor Brian Cox approvingly quoted Richard Feyneman as saying, “the philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.” Of course, without ornithology many bird species would be extinct but the claim deserves examination. Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking have also made disparaging remarks about philosophy and it seems to me rather short sighted of scientists to make such statements. It not only contributes to the image of science as arrogant and philistine but also, I would argue, is simply untenable.
Why does science need philosophy? Of course, in a day-to-day way, philosophy is not particularly useful to conducting scientific research, but occasionally scientists step out of the lab and want to talk about broader issues. Later in the same lecture Cox described a run-in he had had with astrologers after rubbishing their claims on the BBC. (A row which was given a second act in January.) Science, he argued, shows astrology to be wrong. An astrological claim can be scientifically tested according to the scientific method and be shown to fail that test. Therefore, scientists conclude, astrology is false. The astrologers reply by saying that that conclusion is only valid within scientific discourse. All the scientists can show is that astrology is false by the standards of science. The situation could be reversed and astrologers might test science. Perhaps they could draw up a birthchart, possibly using the date of publication of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus and conclude that because Mercury was entering the house of Gemini (I’m making this up) science must be invalid. Within astrological discourse science is false. Thus we reach an impasse as we have two incompatible discourses making contradictory claims. To overcome this what we need is a meta-discourse, a system by which we can evaluate claims made by any other discourse and, self-referentially, by itself. This meta-discourse is what we call philosophy.
Scientists have argued that the scientific method precludes the need for philosophy. It is a reliable truth-finding system, they say. The problem here is clear. We cannot test the scientific method using the scientific method. To do so would only tell us that, according to science, science works, but we still don’t know if science works. ‘Look around you,’ the scientist says, ‘it’s obvious that science works – look at our technology, our life expectancy, infant-mortality rates, etc. All these things have improved since the scientific revolution.’ This is eminently reasonable and convincing but it is not a rigorous scientific argument. All scientists know that correlation does not prove causation. A scientific response would be to perform an experiment to verify this. The experiment would require rerunning the last few centuries of human history but removing all the scientists. As long as this is impossible we are left to rely on the reasonableness of ascribing certain effects to the impact of science. The argument becomes a philosophical one. I hope I am making it apparent that a scientist cannot make claims about science without stepping outside science and therefore into philosophy. When Hawking says “philosophy is dead” he is making a philosophical statement based on certain philosophical premises.
An understanding of the reasons for science’s dependence on philosophy can be seen by taking an historical view, a view which leads us to see that science is philosophy. The ancient Greek philosophers were promiscuous in their interests. In their quest for wisdom they embraced every area of inquiry. Aristotle is considered the father of physics, biology, psychology, logic, metaphysics and more. He would not have seen these fields as sharply divided but rather all as grist to the philosophical mill. As time passed these subjects became disciplines unto themselves as, one by one, they left philosophy to set up on their own. (You might picture a river delta dividing as it nears the sea.) Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton were all philosophers and it was not until 1833 that the term ‘scientist’ was coined. To answer the great philosophical questions we need facts. (Knowledge is a prerequisite for wisdom.) Imagine if you will that philosophy has sent the sciences (and other disciplines) out to discover truths about the world. As these truths are discovered philosophy is in a better position to consider the bigger questions. Thus science is part of a much larger philosophical project which includes all human intellectual endeavour.
So far I have been writing rather disingenuously as though I were unaware of the reasons that scientists distrust philosophy. As a result of the branching process described above philosophy has been left with less and less subject matter and so has turned to examining itself. Self-absorption is rarely healthy and seems in this case to have led to crippling self-doubt. What may be broadly and advisedly termed ‘postmodern’ philosophy has treated all truth-claims with extreme scepticism and gleefully set about undermining many of our assumptions. Attacks on science have been common and have certainly contributed to a general mistrust of science in the culture. Postmodernists have been encouraged by certain parallels between 20th century science and their own techniques. The uncertainty principle (the fact that observing a phenomenon changes the nature of the thing observed) seem not unlike Barthes’ ideas in ‘The Death of the Author’ and relativity sounds suspiciously like relativism. Interestingly these scientific discoveries pre-date postmodernism and might suggest that philosophy was rather late in discovering things that scientists already knew. Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem of 1931, by which he used maths to prove that you can’t prove maths using maths (this is simplistic but gives a sense of the self-reflexiveness of the theorem) seems to anticipate Derrida’s worries about language by several decades. Science is already grappling with problems which the postmodernists arrogantly assume belong only to them.
The attacks on science by postmodern thinkers have largely been ridiculed by scientists themselves and occasionally spoofed. It is, of course, well within the rights of scientists to argue back. Philosophy is a conversation in which every voice has a right to be heard. Socrates, the head of our philosophical tradition, spent his time showing up the pretensions of the professional philosophers (the Sophists) and gleaning wisdom from ordinary Athenians. Rather than dismissing philosophers, scientists must argue with them. That is after all what they are there for.
Ideally philosophy and science will work together. Daniel Dennett is a good example of a philosopher who works closely with science and in doing so has contributed to our understanding of both. The question of free will, for instance, is hugely important philosophically (and in its very practical implications for society) but can only be addressed with reference to cognitive neuroscience as Dennett does. Conversely Douglas Hofstadter approaches philosophy of mind from a background in science with provocative and intriguing results. But the scientist who neglects philosophy is like someone building a tower on sand because she is too excited about the view from the roof to worry about the foundations while the philosopher who rejects science is like one who, having once been fooled by an optical illusion concludes that sight is useless and, like Oedipus, puts out her own eyes.