Monday, April 23, 2007

Does Philosophy Need Science?

I reckon not. (Well, perhaps in practice, e.g. as an imaginative aid, but not in principle.) Whenever you're tempted to appeal to empirical data, simply conditionalize it out and you can safely carry on philosophizing in the a priori realm of possibilities.

Of course, we may be most interested in actual-world problems, e.g. interpreting modern physics, addressing salient ethical and political issues, etc. But there doesn't seem any reason why they couldn't in principle be addressed just as well from an empirically neutral position which entertained our actual situation as a merely hypothetical scenario. Indeed, given sufficient imaginative and rational powers, the armchair philosopher (or even the disembodied, floating-in-the-void philosopher) should be capable of achieving a kind of "limited omniscience", knowing everything there is to know about the various possibilities (except for which one happens to be actual -- but never mind that one little fact).

It might be objected that science brings to light new possibilities that would otherwise seem inconceivable -- e.g. space-time relativity. But this is merely to note that experience is a useful imaginative aid; it plays no necessary role in the actual justification of our philosophical beliefs. Einstein's theory is enough; it need not be borne out by the empirical data. His conceptual scheme alone is enough to show how space and time could turn out not to be absolute. (Unless there's really a hidden contradiction in there, in which case ideal rational reflection should suffice to expose the impossibility.)

Am I wrong? (And do you have to conduct an experiment before you can tell?)
P.S. Thanks to Jack for getting me thinking about this topic.


  1. I would argue that science is essential for philosophy. As much as we'd love to buy Descartes' notion of philosophy as the queen of the sciences, fact is, philosophy is a reactive discipline. We only have major philosphical shake-ups once science has forced us to rethink the foundations of our beliefs by giving us new beliefs.

    Kant's epistemology and metaphysic was an attempt to reconsile Euclid and Newton. When Einstein came along and undermined both as matters of fact, the Logical Positivists began work to restructure philosophy in line with the new sceintific landscape. Science gives us the "oh shit" moment and philosophers have to come behind and figure out "what now?"

    When we try to get out in front of the scientists, philosphers embarass ourselves more often than not. When we try to figure out what it all means once science has taken an interesting step, we do our best work.

  2. I'm inclined to take the opposite position to Steve's, since even getting to where there was a coherent practice we could label as 'science' and to which we could react to took an immense amount of philosophical work. But I think the sciences are needed for the opposite reasons: it's pretty clear that the sciences are part of philosophy; the only reason we still don't call them experimental philosophy is convenience of curriculum since the nineteenth century. They're a collection of methods of doing highly specialized philosophy, pragmatically selected because of their usefulness in the field of specialization. And that's precisely why there's a sense in which we can't do without them; to handle the philosophical fields they examine you need the sort of methods developed by scientists for those fields, because other methods would not be well-suited.

    So my view is that it depends on what potential object of philosophical inquiry you have in mind. There are clearly objects to which the sciences are wholly auxiliary -- one thinks of ethics, aesthetics, and, as you say, the realm of a priori possibles. Sciences can be very helpful in handling those topics, but it serves more as a checking mechanism and an inspiration than a foundation. But there are also clearly potential objects of philosophical inquiry to which the sciences are wholly crucial -- actual empirical phenomena and so forth.

  3. I think there always neds to be some sort of bnenchmark. Ie that any concept would be entirely freeform unless we assume things we learned from science like transitivity or geometry etc. there is no reason to think that science(in the case used, maths) has ended its potential to contribute to philosophy.

    And as brandon notes in some areas science is much less powerful.


  4. This is a difficult question to evaluate, because it's difficult to draw the lines marking the boundaries of philosophy. I agree that many interesting questions can be answered from the armchair. But there are also many questions that cannot -- some of which are thought at least by many to be philosophical questions. Can humans make free choices? Are there electrons/numbers/moral facts? What role does the imagination play in explaining our knowledge of the people around us? Is there any reason to get out of bed in the morning?

    I guess if you want to, you can rule these questions out of philosophy by fiat -- but you'll be throwing away a lot of interesting work that does happen in philosophy departments.

    A key assumption in your anti-needing-science argument seems to be, all philosophical questions are answered by possibility and necessity claims. But I don't see that this assumption is motivated. Indeed, it seems false, susceptible to counterexamples like the ones given above.

  5. I suppose you could philosophically address real-world problems by treating them as hypothetical scenarios. But that would essentially mean an infinity of potential philosophical problems -- if we have no way of judging which are pertinent to the real world, then every philosophical problem in every possible reality is equally "important". Science shows us which problems do not exist in the real world (those that involve empirically mistaken theories, for example), and thus gives philosophy some focus.

  6. GNZ - maths seems to be a form of a priori rather than empirical inquiry. I wouldn't class it as a science.

    Jonathan - I meant to expand the scope of the armchair, rather than contract the scope of philosophy. Abstract objects like numbers and moral principles seem non-contingent, for example. And even your other problems can be addressed conditionally. (Imagine a world W with such-and-such scientific results. Does W contain electrons? Do the people there have free will?)

    This brings us to Ponder's point, about the actual world providing some much-needed focus. (Cf. Dennett on chmess.) I agree entirely.

    Steve, what cases of "get[ting] out in front of the scientists" do you have in mind? (Don't we mostly address different questions?)

  7. I agree with Ponder's comment, and would add that if you treat all philosophical questions as hypotheticals about possibilia, you may not be losing anything formally, but you are losing somehow the essence of philosophical questioning, which I think starts as a wondering about the real world. Take some classical questions: Is time real? Are we free? Does God exist? What is the relation between mind and matter? What can we know? Etc. These are the questions that start us all into philosophizing, and they are questions about the actual world. Conditionalize them into things like "In a world w with properties x and y, would people be free?" and you would have taken most of the interest out from them, leaving only an abstract game with little purpose.

    Of course, you may need to ponder these kind of hypotheticals in order to clarify the questions and treat them rigorously, but in the end, you have to come back to the actual world to deliver the answers. What would be the motivation for restricting philosophy to the hypothetical stage, except the insistence in having a separate discipline clearly cut from the empirical sciences? And why would you want to have your disciplne so austerly separated?

  8. And even your other problems can be addressed conditionally. (Imagine a world W with such-and-such scientific results. Does W contain electrons? Do the people there have free will?)

    Some philosophers say they are studying questions about the way the world actually is. Are they (we) just confused? Are they really doing something conditional, instead of something empirical?

  9. Richard--A more radical suggestion: not only does philosophy not need science, it is better off without it. The idea here being that science cannot answer philosophical questions, so a philosophy informed by science is a philosophy at least not better off and probably worse off due to miring. (I don't know about this suggestion, sounds too radical)

    Jonathan--I often find that when philosophers are studying the way the world actually is, as a matter of contingency, they are just doing bad science. Maybe in the value areas this isn't the case, though. What sorts of examples are you thinking about?

  10. Jack, I think that lots of questions are like this. Here are some:

    Do humans have free will?
    Are phenomenal experiences physical events?
    Does most knowledge of other people's mental states derive from invocation of a tacit folk psychological theory?
    Is human cloning a good idea?
    Does the extension of the English word 'knowledge' depend on the conversational context?
    Is there non-conceptual perceptual content?
    Am I pretty reliable at introspecting my sensory experiences?
    Do schizophrenic patients believe the contents of their delusions?
    Why do people enjoy the negative emotions that are caused by tragedies?
    Can a fictionalist about morality be motivated to act morally?

  11. Maybe you are right, Jonathan. And thanks for the list.

    I question whether some of those are truly questions about matter of fact, but the point is well taken.

  12. I was just reading a scientific american article that proposed that fundimental concepts of maths like transitivity don't hold regarding events on a small enough scale (or more generally that we could use different forms of math to undersand the world).
    seemed relevant...

  13. The Question screams Gilbert Ryle's dilemmas -- false dilemmas.

    Philosophy, the love of wisdom, has four basic levels of inquiry:

    The Theoretical
    The Practical
    The Natural
    The Creative

    A fifth level, The Speculative, has a more limited value. I consign most metaphysics, save ontology, to the speculative. If metaphysics concerns human abstractions as abstractions (e.g., time, space, freedom of will, theology, etc.) it has a limited purpose and use. If it posits the Speculative as True Absolutely, I have no use for it. Chasing phantasms is not philosophy, but something else entirely.

    The love of wisdom must include the known, the practical, the creatively expressive, the natural, the theoretical (e.g., the Mind remains largely theoretical, but in the Edelman sense, not the Freudian sense, which is idle speculation of the nonsensical kind.)

    The love of wisdom begins always with the KNOWN, ergo the NATURAL, and of all our knowledge and experience, the scientific is the most reliably known, because it alone is always verifiable, repeatable, and falsifiable. Then follows: The practical (the most directly observable), the creative (being the most expressive of our imaginations), and the "dilemmas" posed by linguistic torture, the final straw. The speculative, born of linguistic confusion, which challenges whether my freedom is an illusion, whether my language is socially constructed, whether my mind is accessible to introspection, or whether gods dance on the heads of pins, is always the last draw for dialectic without reference, except to personal experience.

    If personal experience itself were the subject matter of philosophy, then my views on the matter are right, and who dares to question my mental veracity? But philosophy looks beyond the limits of my imagination, my experience, and asks questions I would never dare ask my self-certainty. But if we cannot incorporate scientific knowledge, however provisional, into our dialectic, then we are all reduced to our Will to Power. Wisdom knows that Might does not make Right, it always ask questions? Without a Knowledge Base based on intersubjective and common knowledge, we're then reduced to the Will to Power. However provisional, at least some of our knowledge is falsifiable on the basis of being verifiable. If we cannot find consensus in that knowledge base, we have no questions to ask that mean anything of importance. I'm right, you're wrong, is simply the Will to Power, before Nietzsche understood he had none. At least he doubted, and that is the starting point of all inquiry. Otherwise, posit your Ideology!

  14. Steve, while that might be true of the logical positivists were those positivists really that different from the positiivsts who came before? Say that of Ernst Mach - who was particularly influential on the logical positivists. And let's not forget Comte. So to say it was Einstein driving the positivists seems odd. (And oddly Mach famously rejected Einstein's theory)

    Now were you talking about process thought ala Whitehead I think you'd be on to something. But I'm not sure Whitehead ended up that influential. (Of course I'm biased since outside of his logical and mathemetical writings I have a hard time making head or tails of him)

    The place where science was massively significant was of course Darwin. He played a particularly significant role in the rise of pragmatism. But of course also a lot of other philosophy and arguably helped break down the place religion had in philosophy. (Although one could argue that destruction was already well underway by the time of Voltaire)

    I'd say QM overthrough the notion of a clockwork universe which still dominated a lot of philosophy despite Darwin. So I think science really affects how people think about stuff even if it doesn't do so in a necessary way. (Afterall David Bohm was still able to characterize QM in a deterministic way)

  15. In my opinion, i find it hard to relate absolute science and relative philosophy. Science is for the doers. Philosophy for thinkers. Thinkers don't care to do much. Same the other way round
    We think of men like Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc and feel like we have made something new. Then we read about Socrates, Plato.... Nietzsche, Freud, Kant, Bacon etc. and start debating whether Science and philosophy are related; or which ones more important to us.
    I find it hard understand how can we do this. Life has existed on Earth for millions of years now. How long have we been here? 10 thousand years.. may be 20. Even if we leave aside the fact we are not even a drop in the ocean of universe, that we aren't the only ones thinking, just sitting and wondering about two fields of study created by us aka two ways of living.. hardly logical.
    One might argue that 'NO mister this is just a logical way of thinking'. Illogically speaking.. why do we read about so many philosophers and scientists when we ourselves don't care much about their thinking in life; when the string theory is disproved millions are dead with AIDS; when Nietzsche gave his strange thoughts USA and CSA were having a war over legalised slavery of men!!?? Men are constantly thinking, doing all by themselves..

  16. According to me philosophy does need science to an extent as anything we think or ponder over has its origin somewhere in science.. there is always something dat does not strike out intuition and dats why we think on it... giving our philosophical thoughts. Though not ruling out the fact dat philosophical thoughts can also lead to many new scientific inventions...


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