Sunday 9 September 2012

Philosophy or Science? Yes, please!

In the Guardian today, a conversation between philosopher Julian Baggini and physicist Lawrence Krauss.  The former asks the latter:
So tell me, how far do you think science can and should offer answers to the questions that are still considered the domain of philosophy?
The language of 'territory' and 'mission creep' has it exactly wrong. It's a 'God of the gaps' argument for philosophy that goes like this: Before 'science,' philosophy was the method used to answer the various questions of existence. As science has progressed it has provided convincing explanations of various aspects of existence and as it has done so it has made philosophy superfluous in those areas.

Or, in short: philosophy recedes as science advances -- their's is a zero sum game.

Rubbish. Science and philosophy are, first and foremost, methods. You can investigate anything or ask any question either scientifically or philosophically. They do not and cannot have separate 'territories' -- that isn't the difference between them. The difference is the methods they use, the standards they adhere to and, consequently, the conclusions they arrive at.

Science beats the heck out of philosophy in many, many respects. In terms of instrumental value there is clearly no comparison to be made. However, instrumentalism is not the only criterion for assessing value -- to believe that this is the case is an extremely impoverished world-view.

Moreover, historically, science developed out of philosophy. Philosophy provided the cognitive preconditions for scientific thought -- and, in my opinion, it still does in many respects.

Scientific practice has philosophical presuppositions. To say that we can or should do away with formal philosophical thought doesn't make those presuppositions go away it just means that we lose the capacity to interrogate them and we are thereby condemned to unthinking dogmatism with respect to them.

If science and philosophy are not engaged in a zero sum game, if they are not competing over territory like horny, rutting stags, then we, instead, need to look more broadly at their relative values with respect to specific problems and questions. For instance, morality. It is dead wrong to say that science 'cannot' answer questions of morality. Scientists can and they have!

Since most of us are taught basic science from a young age and since it permeates through all our culture and media and so on, science informs every aspect of our moralities just as it informs every aspect of our worldviews (whether we know or like it or not).

The pertinent question is not whether science can answer moral questions but whether scientific answers to moral questions are ever going to be sufficient. I think that they most certainly will not be. They have a place in the conversation but, nevertheless, moral judgements require more than explanations of why we make moral judgements.

Anyway, it's an interesting piece, although I'd have preferred reading a conversation between a physicist and a philosopher who doesn't suffer from such an acute case of physics envy. Saying 'science doesn't know everything yet' is as pathetic a justification for philosophy as it is for religion.