Philosophy Versus Science: A Fight Where We All Lose
Forget the challenge of rendering a conciliation between science and religion, more pressing is the growing schism between science and philosophy.
It’s potentially a fight where, if one side wins, we all lose.
It might seem odd to think of two disciplines defined by a commitment to the rigorous application of reason and evidence, both sternly opposed to irrationality and dogma, at odds with each other. Yet, according to some, they are.
One pugilist who has put himself in the ring is Professor Lawrence Krauss, who recently knuckled in for an attack on philosophy in the wake of his rather philosophically-titled book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.
Following an unfavourable riposte in the New York Times by a philosopher of science – who objected to Krauss’s rather philosophically sloppy definition of “nothing” – Krauss launched his one-two punch against philosophy in a subsequent interview in The Atlantic.
In it, Krauss suggests (somewhat provocatively) that philosophers lash out defensively at scientists because they feel their imminent redundancy. This is all because philosophers are secretly jealous that “science progresses and philosophy doesn’t”.
Krauss also suggests that when real practising philosophers have actually contributed something of substance, they weren’t actually doing philosophy, but some other discipline – typically either science or maths. “Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they’re really doing is mathematics,” he points out.
He finishes with that tried-and-true sucker punch that philosophy of science is utterly irrelevant to actual scientists. Or, as more adroitly put by Richard Feynman: “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”
The thing is, Krauss, wonderful cosmologist and science populariser though he is, has in this case got things almost perfectly backwards.
He does point out that many of the disciplines we know and love started off as philosophy. Or “natural philosophy,” to be more precise. However, he then suggests that, like the Greek gods conquering their titanic forebears, the offspring disciplines consumed their parent. Or at least ate its heart out:
“Physics has encroached on philosophy,” says Krauss. “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers.”
However, it’s actually the other way around. Where Krauss says physics encroaches on philosophy, in actual fact, physics feeds philosophy. Where he says formal logic is really mathematics, in actual fact mathematics is a branch of logic.
Scientists and mathematicians are really doing philosophy. It’s just that they’ve specialised in a particular branch, and they’re employing the carefully honed tools of their specific shard just for that particular job. So specialised, and so established is that toolkit, that they don’t consider them philosophers any more.
And neither do philosophers, who have let these specialists get on with what they’re so good at and moved on to other problems, or stepped back to take a meta ‘bird’s eye’ view of these other disciplines.
As a consequence, the success of ‘natural philosophers’ means that the topics of concern to modern day philosophers has shrunk. It’s a philosophy-of-the-gaps, if you will. Where there exist empirical questions that are best answered using the scientific method (developed by philosophers, I might add), philosophers let them answer them. But there are many areas where the evidence is desperately lacking. Or may never be forthcoming.
How is it that the firing of neurons in the brain gives rise to that particular piquant pungency of a spoonful of pickle? How can even an exhaustively complete descriptive picture of how things are determine for us how things should be? Why is there something instead of nothing1?
These are philosophical questions. There exists no empirical evidence on hand (or yet imaginable) that might be able to answer them. Yet, even if they come to be answered by science, that too would be a victory for philosophy. For philosophy built the tools that uncovered the truth.
Really, the main difference between philosophy and the sciences as practiced today is how many times they are willing to ask of something: why is it so? Science has its limits. So too does mathematics. The former is bound by the strictures of hypothesis testing in light of available and replicable empirical evidence. The latter is bound by a commitment to axioms of unknown veracity.
Either discipline will only ask “why” up until the point where they run headlong into their methodological boundaries.
Not so philosophy. Philosophy’s method is bounded only by the finite capacities of human thought. To the extent that something can be reckoned, philosophy can get there. As such, philosophy will never stop asking “why”.
So, why the stoush between philosophy and science?
Well, philosophers are partly to blame. Many philosophers spend their lives hammering away at Gordian knots of dubious practical merit. They tangle and wrangle with arguments of breathtaking sophistication tackling non-problems of their own concoction. It’s not quite angels dancing on the head of a pin, but it’s not far from.
Think of it as the cost of doing business of allowing people the freedom to follow their thinking wherever it might lead them. In order to let it occasionally lead them to a revelation of genuine merit, it needs to allow them to meander down conceptual dead ends.
Philosophers cop a lot of flak for this. That’s why they’re reluctant to articulate what they do to strangers at parties. Much of the world thinks little of folk being paid from the public purse to contemplate whether chairs exist2.
Philosophers can seem remote from the real world. Aloof, sitting in their ivory tower, swirling a snifter of port and fondling wax. And aloof many of them are.
To the extent that philosophers care about their relevance in the world, and to the extent that they wish to deflect or obviate criticisms from physicists like Krauss, they really ought to engage more directly with philosophical questions posed by real world issues and argue their relevance through action not through an appeal to history and long dead authorities.
But science is also to blame for the conflagration.
Scientists, like nature, abhor a vacuum (although quantum physicists and cosmologists like Krauss might suggest that misrepresents the quantum foam). When there’s a vacuum of folk tackling the big existential questions – good and evil, the origin of the universe, the meaning of life, etc – and when the philosophers are too busy debating the A Theory and the B Theory of time to bother speaking to the public, the scientists are prone to speak up.
However, in doing so, the scientists often step out of the bounds of their discipline and venture into philosophical territory. If anyone should be appalled by this, it should be philosophers. Because scientists have a rather poor track record when it comes to doing philosophy.
Sam Harris’s attempt to provide a scientific basis for morality springs to mind, where he poo poos metaethics only to tread squarely in a metaethical dilemma. Or Richard Dawkins and his dismissal of religion as a false belief system, meanwhile dismissing the rather significant psychological and cultural functional roles it has played throughout human history, and may still play today.
Or Krauss, who without a hint of irony, suggests that good philosophers are really just bad scientists, when in fact he’s a good scientist doing philosophy badly. His definition of “nothing” comes not from within science, but is a grope in the dark for a definition that conforms with his particular theoretical predilections. That’s not how one defines things in polite (philosophical) circles, as David Albert pointed out.
Can there yet be a conciliation?
The thing is, there already is. There is no conflict between philosophy and science, only between some philosophers and some scientists.
Both have the same goals and overlapping domains. They just employ different tools. The advances of one engorge the other.
Scientists like Krauss would do themselves a service by taking philosophy, and philosophers, more seriously. By engaging with them and letting them help him. Conversely, philosophers would do themselves a service by poking their head outside of the ivory tower from time to time and bringing their considerable conceptual toolkit to bear on the real world, and the scientists who study it.
With their powers combined, there isn’t a fight they cannot win.
- Krauss attempts to answer precisely this question in his book, although he carefully defines nothing to be a kind of something, namely a product of fundamental laws. Hey, that might be what nothing is, but that’s a philosophical question isn’t it? And not an uncontroversial one. ↩
- Of course chairs exist. But in the question of whether chairs exist, the interesting bit isn’t the “chairs” but the oft-overlooked “exist”. After all, there is no single defining factor that all chairs have in common and all non-chairs lack. There appear to be no necessary and sufficient conditions to be a chair. Fine. But what makes this philosophically bloody fascinating is that we can still effortlessly identify and use chairs. There is something chair-ish that is malleable but useful. Getting a handle on what that means can’t be a bad thing. ↩
About Tim Dean
Editor-in-chief of Wonder. Tim is a philosopher and science writer. He has been the editor of Cosmos magazine and Australian Life Scientist, and has written for many popular science publications. He is currently completing a PhD in philosophy on the evolution of our moral psychology and moral diversity.