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Science and philosophy

August 14, 2015

A common refrain that I’ve heard a fair few times is that philosophy is useless and science in useful. Science gives us knowledge a practical inventions, philosophy just waffles on without answering anything. Obviously I disagree.

Let’s start with a common claim – “science is the only way of knowing things”. Right off the bat, we need to modify this slightly. Science doesn’t necessarily provide us with knowledge, but rather with “the best explanation”. Scientific theories are subject to revision, and although this may be highly unlikely, what we call scientific knowledge is, a lot of the time, actually just the best explanation. It’s an explanation that we should accept as true on the basis of current evidence, but it is still only the best explanation. If you want to use the word knowledge to describe that, then great, feel free. But I will modify the statement above to “science is the only way of acquiring the best explanation”.

A further modification is required. What are the “best explanations” explanations of? This will obviously depend on how we define science, but sticking to an understanding of science as the hard sciences, we basically mean that science is the tool with which we find the best explanation of features of the natural world. Physics, chemistry and biology, applied with the scientific method, attempt to give an objective answer about questions relating to facts about the world as it is. They provide tools for describing the world as it is. So, we come to “science is the only way of acquiring the best explanation of facts about the natural world”.

The consequence of this restatement is that the original statement that science is the only way of knowing things can only be true if every “thing that we can know” can be reduced to a fact about the natural world. One area where science shows it’s weakness in this regard is the claim that science can form the basis of ethics, a claim made by, among others, Sam Harris. It’s wrong.

As far as I can see, the only route into ethics available to science is consequentialist. Roughly, this is the claim that an act is morally good if its net consequences are positive. How we define “positive” in this regard is obviously an important question. My best recollection is that Sam Harris says that this positive is “human well-being”. This is something that can, allegedly, be measured by science, and therefore science can provide us with a “science of morality”, tools for deciding what is right or wrong.

I’ve heard similar claims from others. If we could measure the amount of endorphins, or some “happy chemical” in our brains, we would somehow be able to say whether an action was good or bad depending on whether the presence of this chemical was increased or decreased by our actions. What are we to make of this and similar claims?

Suppose we could somehow measure, for each person, whether our action increases or decreases some objective measure of their well-being. Presumably, because of the real world complexity of actions and consequences, we would need to keep track of a large number of such measures over a large number of people. Possibly, given the far reaching consequences of such actions as charitable giving and international aid, we would need to keep track of the entire human population. So let’s suppose that possible, with the help of some powerful computer that tells us whether an action is good or bad.

We can already see that this is ridiculously complicated and impractical. But it has further implications. Suppose in this situation that some terrible piece of news is broadcast – say the start of World War 3, or some similar global catastrophe. This could cause a massive decrease in “well-being” measures, and a huge increase in “negative well-being”. The way to maximise global well-being in this case would be to kill everyone. That would instantly give a higher well-being than the current state, given the previous events. Surely this is wrong?

OK, replies the consequentalist, we need a machine that can tell us whether the net future impacts of our actions are positive on well-being. Clearly killing everyone isn’t, so it is wrong. But now we are assuming that for our ethics to work we need perfect foresight about wide-ranging consequences. This is surely impossible, certainly on current technology and possibly future.

What are we to conclude from this? Well, it might be that I am right, and science can’t be used to reduce ethics to some algorithmic system. Or I might be wrong – I have used a somewhat simplified characterisation of consequentialism, and it might be possible to refine the account, although I haven’t seen it done. But, there is a more important thing to notice. In the discussion of whether or not this is possible, or how it might be done, we engage in philosophy. We are analysing concepts, which is just what philosophy is.

If you think science can operate independently from conceptual analysis, then good luck to you. But to say that conceptual analysis is unnecessary whatsoever is wrong. We engage in philosophy all the time, possibly without realising it. Just because it’s not being published in an academic philosophy journal doesn’t mean it isn’t philosophy. There may even be an argument that it is necessary to the scientific enterprise. Consider philosophy of mind, and current neuroscience to try to understand the biological basis for conciousness. As Nagel once said, if you are to successfully reduce something to a lower level (e.g. reducing conciousness to the physical), you have to understand the thing that you are trying to reduce. Conceptual analysis is the way that conciousness is currently being discussed at this higher level. The finding of neural correlates does not form the basis of this understanding, but supplies to reduction.

But there is more to philosophy than just its use as a way into scientific understanding. It can contribute its own unique understanding. Staying with the conciousness theme, phenomenologists are currently discussing what it means to be a “self”, and what the first person perspective is. This may seem like an esoteric ivory tower philosophical discussion, but it is now adding to our understanding of psychiatric problems. For example, Sass and Parnas are applying phenomenological approaches to the study of schizophrenia. This is not some case of philosophy hijacking some other discipline – it is a genuine addition to our understanding.

Where does this leave me? Science is the best way of understanding the natural world. That cannot be denied. But it is not the only way of knowing things, and it doesn’t displace philosophy. We engage in philosophy all the time, often without realising it. If you like to think about “the good life”, or ever wonder if you “did the right thing”, you are a philosopher.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 14, 2015 2:52 PM

    Great post! I must say though that in my opinion… Science is not knowledge of much of anything. It does not give one absolute answers, rather it just explains the process or steps taken to get to the end result! This is one of the biggest misconceptions beings make about science.
    Philosophy is the true wisdom reacher, it is our key to actually one day “knowing”.
    Very insightful post!

    -Truth Seeker

  2. August 14, 2015 3:04 PM

    I guess that depends on what knowledge we’re after. If we mean some understanding of ethics, how we create “meaning” in our lives, or whether certain concepts are coherent, then philosophy is the way to go. But if we want knowledge of human origins, how does philosophy help? It is the scientific method that has given us the theory of evolution and its robust evidence base. For me, the issue is trying to say there is only one route to knowledge. There isn’t, because the route we should take depends on what we are trying to know.

  3. August 14, 2015 3:35 PM

    Good point! I have issues though with the topic of human evolution. I do not really believe that we have really evolved… If anything I feel like we are just remaining complacent & unchanging. And as for our creation of humans, that can never truly be known by man in my opinion.

    -Truth Seeker

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