Following Neil deGrasse Tyson’s wholesale dismissal of philosophy, there has been a lot of discussion on the value of philosophy. As I’ve said repeatedly, I think philosophy has a great deal of value, but some of its defenders are tending to overstate what it can do.
I’ve already written a post on what I see as the difference between science and philosophy, but in summary, I think science is about reliable knowledge and pursuit of that knowledge, while philosophy is about exploring logical possibilities (at least philosophy in the broad analytic tradition) including possibilities where reliable knowledge is not or may never be available.
Is it fair that, by definition, I make science equivalent to reliable knowledge and put philosophy outside of it? I think so because reliable knowledge is what distinguishes science from other endeavors. It is what science does.
Science isn’t defined by one “scientific method” decreed by Galileo or Francis Bacon, but by a collection of methods that are used because they’ve been shown to work. If new methods are found, science will adopt them. Indeed, the methods of pursuing reliable knowledge have evolved and grown over the centuries and are constantly being debated.
For example, if taking a certain mind altering drug suddenly proved a consistently reliable way to gain knowledge, scientists would almost certainly adopt it, eventually. (Although they would also certainly try to understand how it worked.) This is because science is interested in gaining reliable knowledge, and will use whatever works. (Admittedly, individual scientists are human and often have their own ideological hang ups, but later generations always seem to get past them.)
In other words, the methods of science are judged and evolve through a process that is itself broadly scientific. Historically, this process accelerated after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Of course, deciding to pursue reliable knowledge using reliable methods is a philosophical decision, but arguably one that philosophers only articulated after it had begun. By the time Francis Bacon had written about the scientific method, it had been developing for a century.
This doesn’t mean that Bacon and later philosophers of science didn’t provide an important service. Often scientists aren’t aware of the philosophy that they’re using, and having philosophers of science articulate it adds it into their later collective consciousness. It’s why many scientists today talk about falsifiability and paradigm shifts. These things existed before Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn described them, but weren’t understood the way they are today.
As is true for much of philosophy, the value is in looking at things in a new way, from a different perspective, perhaps calling attention to structures and relationships that have always been there, but that we weren’t conscious of before, such as paradigms, or perhaps arguing for a normative value, such as falsifiability, one that many scientists already held but now had a label for.
But of course, philosophy also explores ontological issues, that is issues of reality. These are areas that science can’t explore, at least not yet, because no methods have been found to make reliable determinations. Because philosophy is willing to look at issues where only logical possibilities can be explored, it has broader range than science.
But some scientists, observing that reliable information is not possible in these areas, conclude that they shouldn’t be explored. If we can’t have reliable knowledge, if we can’t be scientific, they might argue, why spend time looking at them? Won’t any conclusions we reach just prejudice us to the actual reality if and when it is reliably attestable? And if so, isn’t any exploration of these areas really just mental entertainment?
My first response is to point out that this is largely what is done by some theoretical physicists and many other scientists exploring theoretical possibilities. Every argument against philosophical exploration is also an argument against scientific theoretical exploration. The only difference is that one takes place in the philosophy department, and the other in science departments, with the scientific versions possibly more likely to eventually face a reality check.
My second response is that many of the issues are simply ones that we are going to pursue anyway, so it makes sense to try to do it as rigorously and logically as possible. Questions about free will, mind and matter, the existence of God, identity and the self, and many others remain interesting, even if they’re not always amenable to scientific investigation.
But what makes scientific conclusions reliable and philosophical ones just possibilities? The answer for centuries has been empirical evidence, evidence of the senses, evidence gained either through observation or experiment. Collecting this type of evidence serves as a reality check, literally. Many compelling, elegant, beautiful theories have met their end in this reality check. And looking at the world in this way has uncovered aspects of reality previously undreamed of.
Philosophy generally doesn’t have this reality check. (Incidentally, neither do some speculative physics theories, nor some schools of economics or psychology, making whether or not they fall into the scope of science an ongoing debate.) And without these reality checks, history has shown that conclusions are not reliable. They could be right or they could be wrong. They could be wrong either from bad logic or bad premises.
Anyone who has faith in their ability to reason with flawless logic should try their hand at programming. The best developers have bugs, logic problems, in their code. Running software provides a stark reality check on program logic. Novice programmers often find it immensely frustrating, and experienced developers have a healthy respect for the human limitations of getting the initial logic right. To a large extent, bad logic can be spotted through extensive review processes, but testing and debugging remain an unavoidable part of the process.
Even if philosophical conclusions are based on impeccable logic or mathematics, they can still be wrong. When logic or mathematics are applied to real world entities, we often don’t understand those entities as well as we think we do. Logical conclusions are only as good as their starting premises, and while those premises may often be uncontroversial, they may still be wrong. With no reality check, there’s no way to conclusively prove one philosophical conclusion over another.
This is why philosophical conclusions are largely personal ones. Most philosophy instructors are keenly aware of this and often avoid imposing their own conclusions on students. While deciding whether or not to accept evolution or the big bang is my personal choice, I’m not being scientific if I reject them. But I can accept or reject free will or consequentialism, and my position will still be philosophical, albeit with fierce debates about whether it’s good or bad philosophy.
Of course, like anyone who has thought about philosophical issues, I’ve reached my conclusions, conclusions I personally think are correct. I’ve reached my conclusions for what I deem to be good reasons. But I have no way to reality check them. In the parlance of software development, I have no way to debug them. At least no way other than discussing them with others, which is one of the purposes of this blog.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that our conclusions are the only valid conclusions, that our philosophy is so obviously right that no one could hold another, that anyone who doesn’t agree with us is obviously not thinking clearly. But without the reality check, we can never be sure that we’re not simply blinded by our own biases. And if there’s one thing the reality checks of science have repeatedly confirmed, as humans, even the most brilliant of us can be spectacularly wrong.