Science versus Philosophy – It’s Not a Competition!


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Can philosophy help to keep science honest? Image by Anita Peppers

Philosophy is not a single subject.

Philosophers address an infinite number of issues and try to make sense and order of them. For example: ethics, morals, human choices, human belief systems, world politics including justice and law, the complexities of language and meaning and the nature of beauty.

All of this enables us to decide how we should live, what is important to us and why we behave as we do.

According to some scientists, that is not enough.

“What happens when philosophers talk about philosophy?” asks Anja Steinbauer in her editorial for Philosophy Now.

“It sounds as though they might be running round in circles like headless chickens. Though it can’t be denied this occasionally happens, on the whole a lot more is at stake here. So much hinges on this discussion because of the unique nature of philosophy as an intellectual discipline and attitude.”

An intellectual discipline that is currently under attack from scientists, convinced that their own discipline is the only real source of all knowledge, and that truth must be based on hard, empirical evidence before being absorbed into the mainstream.

Is this fair? More importantly, is it helpful?

Stephen Hawking says Philosophy is Dead

According to physicist Stephen Hawking, when addressing Google’s 2011 Zeitgeist Conference in Hertfordshire, philosophy fails to keep up with science.

In his article, “Philosophy is Dead,” in The Telegraph, Matt Warman explains Hawking’s concern,

“[F]undamental questions about the nature of the universe could not be resolved without hard data such as that currently being derived from the Large Hadron Collider and space research.” 

Professor Hawking acknowledges that his comments apply particularly to physics.

However, physics was once the domain of philosophers whose objective was to answer humanity’s most important questions. Such questions as:

“Why are we here?”

“What is the meaning of life?”

“Does life continue after death?”

Warman quotes Hawking: “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

This is a fine metaphor to describe an admirable search for what is true. Can science do it alone?  Does philosophy have an important part to play as the exciting quest continues, leading us to the truth about the universe and the apparently brief and insignificant part we play in its development?

If philosophy is finding it tough keeping up with physics and cosmology, what about its other vital areas of expertise, for example, ethics, morals, justice and law?

What is Right and What is Wrong?

Is the discussion of morality and ethics the exclusive property of philosophy, or can science provide the answers to what is right and what is wrong?

Michael Shermer argues his point in his article “A Moral Starting Point: How Science can Inform Ethics,” in Scientific American. Shermer’s theory is based on the idea that the flourishing of human life has always depended upon natural selection.

Throughout history, abuse, torture, war, slavery and theft have diminished human life, but natural selection actually targets the individual. It is the individual who feels the pain or the pleasure, and so the aim of ethics is to facilitate this human flourishing. This includes survival and reproduction of individual beings.

The American philosopher, John Rawls, (1921-2002) is one of the most influential thinkers since WWII. He argued for the rights of individuals taking precedence over the common good. In the chapter “John Rawls” in 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood says:

“Rawls rescued philosophy from its preoccupation with dry-as-dust questions of logic, linguistics and the philosophy of science, focusing it again firmly on the fundamentals of ethics, social justice and the limits of freedom and responsibility.”

The statement about dry-as-dust areas of philosophy might seem a little harsh, but the importance of ethical issues and the protection of the individual contradicts utilitarian values. Utilitarianism is a theory that upholds the idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

boy and girl

Rawls and Shermer both uphold the rights of the individual over those of the group. Image by Milza.

We may ask whether science can deliver on issues concerning the rights of the individual?

Deriving Ethics from Facts is Dangerous

In her article, “Science and Philosophy: A Beautiful Friendship,” in Philosophy Now, Amy Cools takes issue with Michael Shermer and the scientists.

For support, she uses the important philosophical theory of David Hume on the impossibility of inferring an “ought” from an “is.”

“How can we go about deciding that one fact – one “is” – is more important than another fact when determining what ought to be done?” she asks. She cites a poignant example, that of eugenics. Enthusiasts were keen to apply the eugenics theory to everything:

Nature selects for and also against individual organisms, so these thinkers decided that it was possible to apply this theory to human beings as well. According to Cools,

“Thus, from the late Nineteenth Century to the middle of the Twentieth, many scientists thought that the human species should be “perfected” through the judicious selection of traits to pass on to future generations…they thought they should select against those individuals possessed of supposedly “undesirable” quality – “selection” in this case meaning sterilizing or killing.”

This is an example that is in direct opposition to the theory of the supremacy of the individual, because it works against the individual. It is a classic case of a deeply destructive ideology gaining supremacy. There are many instances where a far better and more compassionate outcome for humanity could be achieved by science and philosophy working together.

A fact observed, scientific or otherwise, is not sufficient to determine what would be the best thing to do, and we ignore the contribution of philosophy at our peril. There are, always, many facts and many variables to consider, and often they dictate opposite courses of action. By what criteria can we, as thinking and compassionate human beings, decide that another person’s life is not worth living?

We could discriminate, based on scientific theory, but if we are philosophers, we don’t have to do that. We can choose how we will respond according to our humanity.

As human beings, we have evolved to sympathise and empathise with others, and to help them when we can. Our co-operation as individuals enables us to protect those weaker than ourselves and to try to alleviate suffering whenever possible.

Amy Cools summarises as follows: “It’s also a fact that this set of cooperative instincts that compels us to help the “unfit” survive, drives us to help each other live happier, healthier, wealthier and therefore in the long run “fitter” lives, as individuals and as members of society.” 

A Two-Way Dependence Between the Individual and the Group

Cools does not dismiss the importance of the group, since we need society for promoting education, disseminating food, clothing, equipment and medicine. We would not get far in life by ourselves.

“Therefore people flourish when individuals’ efforts are promoted and when they’re not allowed to infringe too much on the interests of the group… The incredible diversity of individuals should be encouraged and protected because they make our species among the most adaptable and therefore the most resilient on the earth.”

In Amy Cools’ view, self-interested individuals cannot be allowed to pursue their goals to the detriment of the group or of society. We need balance, and to consider all the common characteristics within a group that help both that group and its individual members to flourish. She quotes from Britain’s former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who said:

Generally great harm comes from the attempt to separate “individuals” and “society” into competing camps, or from acting on the belief that society doesn’t exist.”

Can you see the analogy here? Fields of interest cannot be separated without harm coming to one or the other. That is why science still needs philosophy and vice versa.

Science and Philosophy – A Partnership, not a Competition

Science owes a great deal to philosophy from its very beginning, and continues to do so to this day. As Cools continues:

“At every step of the way, from the application of the rules of logic, to the justification of why we should value or emphasize one set of facts over another in any specific application, the formulation of scientific theories relies heavily on philosophy. In fact, science was originally a branch of philosophy – natural philosophy – until that branch of inquiry became so large it specialized and branched off, then branched again into physics, biology, chemistry and so forth: we could say that science was grafted out of philosophy.”

Philosophy is the love of wisdom, the love of knowledge, and seeks answers to challenging questions. While science is engaged in gathering essential data and facts, philosophers are anxious to figure out how we can use them to their best advantage. Philosophers want to figure out whether there are any elements of the theory that may not work to humanity’s advantage, as happened in the distressing aftermath of the discovery of eugenics.

In the end, most committed thinkers want a better world where humans and other species can flourish.

In her article, All or Nothing, Anja Steinbauer quotes Wittgenstein:

“A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards, as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it.”

Go on, says Steinbauer, “Pull!”

I would add one word to that – “Together.”

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