Has science made philosophy obsolete?

Has science made philosophy obsolete?
Friedrich
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Posted Nov 12, 2004 - 10:54 AM:

I. Has science made philosophy obsolete?

A recent issue of "Free Inquiry" magazine was devoted to examining the question of whether science has made philosophy obsolete. This is the sort of topic that tends to piss off phenomenologists, like me, because we think that science and philosophy are the academic equivalents of Neil Simon's "odd couple": Sure they live together, but they have different interests and tasks to perform and very different personalities. True, they are often at one another's throats; but then, they also can not live apart for very long.

I think that to pose the issue in these terms reveals a common misunderstanding of what both science and philosophy are, and a failure to appreciate the constraints proper to each of these modes of human inquiry. It is a significant and revealing error, however, because it exposes widespread misconceptions about, and exagerations of, what both philosophy and science can do.

I make two claims here: 1) Science and philosophy involve two different kinds of knowing. They take as their subject matter two distinct aspects of human experience. Far from competing, there will always be a need for BOTH as part of any comprehensive effort to understand either ourselves or the world that we inhabit. 2) Systematically overstating the knowledge claims or possiblities of science is not a coincidental occurrence, but is indicative of an ideology called "scientism" -- which is anything but scientific, and which limits rather than increases human knowledge and progress, having now become nearly pervasive in academia, and maybe even in American society generally.

Let me now pause to define my terms: "Philosophy," according to Stefan Kanfer, "is concerned with crucial questions that are insoluble." On the other hand, "science is concerned with observing facts, so as to generate laws that explain the workings of nature, and then theories that explain the future workings of nature: what will happen, based on what has happened, and why it must be so." Science is concerned to examine questions which, at least potentially, yield "determinate" answers, that is, scientific questions are, at least in principle, potentially soluble.

This fairly standard definition may have been rendered somehat obsolete by recent developments in quantum mechanics, but it will do for now.

True, there have been philosophical questions resolved by the progress of science, yet such questions immediately cease being philosophical. It is also true that what is philosophically -- and not scientifically -- answerable, will always grow to include new questions, such as the ethics of genetic engineering or even the epistemological mysteries revealed by quantum mechanics.

By "scientific method," I mean: "The rules and methods for the pursuit of knowledge, involving the finding and stating of a problem, the collection of facts through observation and experiment, and the making and testing of ideas that need to be proven right or wrong." (Webster) In contrast, "scientism" is a term "for the belief that the method of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry. The classical statement of scientism is the physicist E. Rutherford's saying: 'there is physics and there is stamp collecting.' " (Dictionary of Philosophy) Anthony Flew adds that scientism implies that "the human sciences require [-- and can require --] no method other than those of the natural sciences."

It is this latter doctrine which few of us can accept.

II. Science can not tell us everything that we wish to know.

Scientific method does not, in fact, exhaust the possibilities for human rationality. Science and scientific techniques may be the opposite of rational when applied to some human contexts or to questions of human interactions that have no single correct answer. For this reason, F.A. Hayek concluded that scientific method, as used by social scientists and psychologists, "has contributed scarcely antyhing to our understanding of social phenomena."

If science really begins when we ask the question "Why?" -- and this was Einstein's belief -- then it may indeed be said to lead us from the observed event to the laws which govern it, and onwards to higher and more general laws. But then, where does the process end? If each new answer only prompts another question, then scientific explanations are either incomplete or endless (which is another way of being incomplete). We cannot know "why" the series of causes exists. The ultimate "why" questions are, thus, inevitably philosophical and not scientific.

Michael Oakeshott has inherited a set of distinctions dating at least from the Kantian attempt to account for freedom in a mechanically-determined Newtonian universe, and he has reformulated them for a post-Einsteinean age in terms of a crucial dichotomy between PROCESSES and PRACTICES.

For Okakeshott, the term "processes" refers to "those events that occur in nature, such as the orbiting of planets or the melting of snow ... processes have nothing to do with human intelligence, are governed by immutable laws, and are, so to speak, determined by the structure of nature." By "practices," however, Oakeshott means the creations of people -- "Those events that result from human decisions and actions, such as writing or reading books, or forming a new government, or conversing at dinner, or falling in love." Practices are a function of human intelligence in a dialectical relationship with its environment. Whatever regularity there may be in them, they are not determined by natural laws. (An analogy here may be to Husserl's discussion of the "life-world.")

As Neil Postman remarks: "There is a difference between a blink and a wink." A blink may be studied scientifically as a natural biological phenomenon; but a wink is a communicative cultural practice, resulting from and having any number of possible meanings, which is therefore best studied linguistically, conceptually and culturally. Processes are the proper subject of scientific inquiry; but practices lend themselves much better to philosophical analysis.

There may be a correct answer to the question: "What causes the eye to blink?" In fact, I am sure that there is. There may be no single correct answer to the question of why people wink at one another. There may be several equally plausible answers to this second question, which will require an effort at interpretation -- and not experimentation -- to answer it.

Whether science has made philosophy obsolete is not itself a scientific question. No experiment will answer it. It may not have a single correct answer, which is not to suggest that it is unobjective. It is, necessarily, a philosophical question. What is more, even to pose the question may be to refute its premise -- the premise that science could EVER make philosophy obsolete.

III. Philosophers must be cured of "science envy."

I recognize the appeal of science today. We would like there to be verifiable answers to every question. We have all benefitted from the results of science in everything from antibiotics to enhanced food production. For one thing, science sure has facilitated communication between people. After all, I am writing these words on a computer made possible by twentieth century science. But thanks to science we are also coping with such things as nuclear weapons and industrial pollutants. This is because the question of what use to make of scientific discoveries is also not a scientific question, but rather a moral one. It is a question calling for humanistic reflection, wisdom, philosophy, but not experimentation.

Science cannot help us to figure out how to deal with the morality of science.

Humanists envy scientists' claims to objectivity (which now seem much more doubtful than they once did) and absoluteness in knowledge. This absoluteness and scientific, as distinct from philosophical, conceptions of objectivity have recently been challenged, for instance, by the greatest philosopher-scientists of recent years. Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend are two of the most prominet skeptics concerning the confident assertions of scientists to transcultural and absolute knowledge of how things are. These thinkers remind us of the contraints within which scientists operate, which are no different from those of other scholars and which deserve to be considered in assessing claims to the objectivity of the "scientific knowledge of facts" as opposed to truth.

Bertrand Russell said that philosophy is much more difficult than science or mathematics because, with those disciplines, there is at least the hope of discovering a correct answer to one's questions; whereas with philosophy, there may be no correct answer to be discovered. I do not know whether Russell was right about that or whether he stumbled on to his correct answer in philosophy (that there are none) in making the statement. Yet he would have agreed with this much: Philosophical questions are such that to be human implies, among other things, having to ask and attempting to answer those questions -- even when it is unlikely or impossible that the best philosophical answers available to us will satisfy everyone or even remain plausible over time.

Philosophy will never be obsolete.
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eighth man
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Posted Nov 16, 2004 - 9:51 AM:

In the long run (100, 1000, 10000 years) science will become philosophy because once all the fundamental scientific problems are solved (at least to their technical limits) science will first become mostly technology and applications (IT, genetics, virtual realities etc) and then slowly fade into completely arbitrary art and philosophy.

There is already a hint at this process by looking at the field of electronics. In the last century most research and applications were at the hardware level, then came computers and hence software. Software seems to be dominating more and more and this is more and more a "human" endeavor often arbitrary. When humans start modifying their own neural circuits then it will all become philosophy and probably even more ART.
Friedrich
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Posted Nov 16, 2004 - 2:47 PM:

eighth man:

Very interesting point. I think I see hints of what you are saying already.
Gassendi1
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Posted Nov 16, 2004 - 3:55 PM:

eighth man wrote:
In the long run (100, 1000, 10000 years) science will become philosophy because once all the fundamental scientific problems are solved (at least to their technical limits) science will first become mostly technology and applications (IT, genetics, virtual realities etc) and then slowly fade into completely arbitrary art and philosophy.

There is already a hint at this process by looking at the field of electronics. In the last century most research and applications were at the hardware level, then came computers and hence software. Software seems to be dominating more and more and this is more and more a "human" endeavor often arbitrary. When humans start modifying their own neural circuits then it will all become philosophy and probably even more ART.


Let's think of some philosophical questions about science science is unlikely to answer.

1. What is science?
2. What sort of relation exists between cause and effect?
3. By what method should we decide among rival philosphical theories?
4. How should we deal with the problem of induction?
5. What about the "New Riddle of Induction"?

I have more in mind, but these are enough to be going on with. How, do you think, science would attempt to give answers to the questions above?
Gassendi1
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Posted Nov 16, 2004 - 8:14 PM:

darkcrow wrote:
An example of a scientific question would be: How does light affect the reproduction of bread mold on white bread. Whereas “Has science made philosophy obsolete?” is a philosophical question, so it is that science has not made philosophy obsolete if you are looking for an answer to your question.


And yours, of course, is another example. It might be suspect (however) because it involves a value judgement (obsolescence) so I wanted to avoid it so as to avoid something that is extraneous.
Darcho
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Posted Nov 16, 2004 - 8:57 PM:

Science used to be known as "natural philosophy." So you could rewrite the question with this mind: "Has natural philosophy made philosophy obsolete?"

Which could basically be taken to mean: "Has philosophy made philosophy obsolete?"

No.

If anything, I think, science would become obsolete before philosophy, or the two would merge together into a single system thought....
PhilW
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Posted Nov 16, 2004 - 9:13 PM:

Obsolete in terms of what notion of progress?
Doron Shadmi
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Posted Nov 17, 2004 - 5:21 AM:

Friedrich wrote:

A recent issue of "Free Inquiry" magazine was devoted to examining the question of whether science has made philosophy obsolete.

We cannot deal with this kind of question by totally ignore philosophy; therefore philosophy itself is an active participator of this discussion.

Conclusion: philosophy is not obsolete.
jaminb
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Posted Nov 17, 2004 - 5:27 AM:

I believe it was Isaiah Berlin who said that philosophy is the questions that there are no answers to, and I think this holds true. Even within science, the most accomplished scientists don't claim to have solved everything, ie. whether the big bang had a cause, how deterministic our universe really is, a few missing links in evolution, whether feelings are just chemicals. (I have never met any genuine determinists, but need this conflict with current scientific inquiry?Philosophy is obviously far better equipped than science to talk about ethics, politics and more dubiously metaphysics, aesthetics etc. which some scientists claim to have solved.
Mr Jack
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Posted Nov 17, 2004 - 6:52 AM:

Science has certainly taken over areas which used to be "owned" by philosophy. Whereas as once the behaviour of objects and the movement of the stars were once considered Philosophical topics - now they're firmly science based. Similarly language and questions of how we think used to be purely philosophical now the answers are coming from science's court and, hopefully, in the coming years we'll see science coming to real, solid answers in these areas. But there are other areas in which science has nothing to bring to the table, and likely will never have anything to bring: Kant's work on the limits of knowledge springs instantly to mind as an example.

So, science has narrowed philosophy and will contiue to do so in the future but it will never utterly replace it.
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