One of the problems with the internet, and with writing blogs (or websites, according to preference), is that there is scant time for reflection in depth. It encourages a kind of superficiality of thought and reflection, the kind of thing that is bound to happen with the need to make instantaneous responses to views expressed elsewhere in the blogosphere, largely because if you do not respond immediately, the scene has already shifted so profoundly that what you write is no longer relevant to the new and quickly changing context. The temptation to superficiality is perhaps the most serious shortcoming, however, for superficiality is the enemy of thought itself. I believe that that enemy is now stalking the internet, and it is having a divisive and dispiriting effect on the search for rational solutions to serious problems.
One of the most serious, in my view, is the misunderstanding of the epistemological question about the nature of knowledge and how we come to know. If truth is important, then the epistemological question is perhaps the most important, because it alone provides the opportunity to examine the concept of truth itself, and the refusal to examine this concept, and merely to assert that we know what is true — because it works, we might be told, without understanding how or why this confirms something’s truth — simply misses the point. This struck me with particular force when reading some of the comments in response to Jerry Coyne’s brisk dismissal of Austin Hughes’ essay “The Folly of Scientism.”
Well, there are several of them, so let’s just stick with Ben Goren’s comment:
I’m not even convinced that the questions that philosophers ask are all that useful, or that they’re ones that skilled researchers in the field wouldn’t have asked themselves.
If you look at all the truly novel and useful ideas of the past few centuries, they’ve all been the result not of philosophical questions, but of rational analysis of empirical data.
Einstein, Schrödinger, Hubble, Darwin, Pasteur, Watson and Crick…all were busy with the data, which led to their discoveries. What philosopher since the days of Democritus has come up with an idea as inventive as Dalton’s atomic theory, or Rutherford’s discovery of the density distributions of atoms, or Bohr’s planetary atomic model, or Heisenberg’s refinement of the understanding of the shapes of the orbital electron shells?
The assumptions underlying this comment are obvious, and mistaken. It’s a bit like telling us that textual critics haven’t made any contribution to micro-biology. Certainly, science works, as Hawking said. There is no question that science has discovered hitherto unknown facts about the natural world, and that scientific knowledge seems, at least, to be growing exponentially, or very nearly so. There are two things wrong with this. First of all, it does not tell us how we know that science provides the ”truth” about “reality.” And, second, the suggestion that philosophy (or some other non-scientific domain of inquiry) has not come up with novel scientific ideas is really a particularly unhelpful observation. Of course, they have not. They were not even trying!
However, this does not mean that the only “truly novel and useful ideas” of the past few centuries have been ideas concerning the natural world being studied by science. This is not to suggest that science is not important, but simply that it is not the only important thing. Although natural science was, at one time, was yoked to philosophy (and therefore came to be called, at the beginning of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, natural philosophy), it does not follow, as some people seem to think, that the only interesting ideas are scientific, philosophy having then been left behind as peculiarly unhelpful and unproductive. And though Jerry Coyne (this is one of the small number of areas where he and I differ significantly in our approach to things) may dismiss ideas concerning value as matters of opinion, it is very doubtful that girls in Afghanistan, who have acid thrown in their faces or see their schools being destroyed, share that view. It is not just a matter of opinion that their right to learn should be recognized and honoured; how we establish what can justly be considered objective moral understanding is something worthwhile considering. As Tom Clarke, over at the Center for Naturalism, says pointedly, in response to Michael Lerner and others (“The Specter of Scientism“):
Science is widely acknowledged as the best way to understand physical reality, but virtually no one argues that because they aren’t measurable or quantifiable, such value-laden domains as ethics, politics, law, the arts, and religion are somehow insubstantial, unreal, or only matters of private opinion.
I wonder about the inclusion of religion in those domains that are not somehow insubstantial, unreal, or only matters of private opinion, but let that pass. But for Ben Goren’s point to hold, ethics, politics, law, the arts, etc., must have had no truly new or valuable ideas, since, while ethics, politics, the law, and so on, certainly do engage in rational analysis of data, there is only a Pickwickian sense in which that data can be thought to be empirical.
Nor is it obvious that the philosophical contribution to science itself is either pointless or a matter of opinion. One moment that I found frightfully cringe-making, from someone I admire greatly, and whose picture has adorned by study wall since 2006, occurred when Richard Dawkins introduced Daniel Dennett at the 2009 Atheist Alliance International Convention in Burbank, California, remarking that he sometimes wondered, “What’s the point of philosophers,” and then he remembers Daniel Dennett, and all is made clear.
That was troublingly narrow-minded, it seemed to me then, and still does, but, more seriously, it indicated a deep misunderstanding of philosophy which is widely shared. The laughter is telling as well. Sometimes, no doubt, the view is justified, for some philosophers, not unlike some scientists, follow up research projects that are not only slight but irrelevant. However, the underlying suggestion seems to be that philosophy has nothing to contribute to science (or to anything else, for that matter), and therefore is without point or purpose. But what Dawkins and many others seem not to realise is that much philosophy has no intention of making a contribution to science, and, moreover, much of the conceptual work that Dawkins and other scientists do, or attempt to do, is really philosophy. We all philosophise from time to time, and like the character in one of Moliere’s plays, who was surprised to find out that he spoke in prose, it might surprise Dawkins and others that they are, all unbeknownst, doing philosophy, and sometimes doing it poorly.
The Bourgeois Gentleman
Act Two, Scene Four
… Before you go, I must confide to you a secret. I am in love with a lady
of great rank and quality, and wish to ask your help in writing her a note
which I intend to drop most casually at her feet.
Oh, yes. That ought to be a lovely treat.
That is the gallant thing now, is it not?
Oh, certainly. A verse you’d like to jot?
No, no, no verse for me.
So you want prose?
Well, I think we must suppose
It’s one or its the other.
That those are all the options to express.
There’s only prose and verse?
To make the point most terse.
What isn’t verse is prose, and what’s not prose is verse.
And this, the way I speak. What name would be applied to the –
The way you speak?
Oh, really? So when I say: “Nicole bring me my slippers and fetch my
nightcap,” is that prose?
Well, what do you know about that! These forty years now, I’ve been speaking
in prose without knowing it!
Philosophy, as a prose stylist takes prose and perfects it as a medium to communicate ideas or feelings, takes concepts and refines our understanding of them. It is a matter of doing rigorously what all of us do, from time to time, fairly carelessly. And this applies, quite generally, to fairly large areas of discourse. To take but one example, it is widely thought, without any reference to moral philosophy, that morality is just a matter of opinion, or that it is entirely relative. Given disagreements in morality this is surprising, for genuine disagreement is only possible where we think we are saying something substantive, and subject to standards of truth. We do moral philosophy unthinkingly, just as scientists often do philosophy of science unthinkingly, in much the same manner as Monsieur Jourdain spoke in prose without knowing it.
I was forcefully reminded of this when I began to read Hawking’s and Mlodinow’s book The Grand Design, where on the first page they proclaim the death of philosophy and then indulge in a bit of philosophy themselves a few pages later when they speak disarmingly about “model-dependent realism,” which is a philosophical and not a scientific claim. And it is strange, in any event, that Dawkins should adopt a sceptical position with respect to philosophy, and yet write a whole book, The God Delusion, which is, arguably, much of it, at any rate, philosophy. Some would say that it is not very good philosophy, but I think this opinion is misplaced. It is a popular form of philosophy, and none the worse for being so, though it is open to further philosophical reflection and, where it deserves it, refinement or refutation. Much of it, at any rate, is not science, and cannot be scientifically verified, and yet, I think, Dawkins would like to claim that much of it is nonetheless true.
And this is perhaps a good point of entry into the question whether or not philosophy has anything to contribute to our knowledge — not scientific, or empirical knowledge, but to quite properly philosophical knowledge. Take, for example, the following claim by Susan Haack, in a Sceptical Inquirer essay, “Science, Scientism and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism“:
Science-envy [in philosophy] is manifested by those who — hoping to enhance their prestige by close association with the sciences — contort themselves in attempts to show that this or that philosophical problem can be quickly settled by some scientific result, or to displace philosophical problems in favor of scientific ones. The result is at best a covert change of subject, at worst a self-undermining absurdity. No scientific investigation can tell us whether science is epistemologically special, and if so, how, or whether a theory’s yielding true predictions is an indication of its truth, and if so, why, and so on …
(Though I would have exchanged ‘reliable’ for ‘true’ in that last clause.) So it turns out that Peter Atkins famous paper, “Science as Truth,” is, in fact, though Atkins seems not to have noticed, philosophy and not science, and, if true, an example of non-scientific truth. Moreover, it is self-defeating, for, if he is claiming that science alone can provide truth, he is making a claim to truth which is not scientific. And the frequent remark that science will win because it works, is, from the standpoint of truth, neither fish nor fowl, for a great deal in need of explanation is hidden in that simple phrase ‘it works,’ and how that relates to the concept of truth.
I would go so far as to suggest that the failure to make some essential distinctions, such as those between science and philosophy, where philosophy is, in Susan Haack’s words, tasked with “articulating the nature and goals of inquiry,” leads inevitably, as Haack also says, to a loosening of “our grip on the concept of inquiry.” This is a serious problem, and should not be ignored, for it is precisely this inadequate conception of what rational inquiry might consist in that leads inevitably to the thoughtlessness of so many different forms of fundamentalism, of which, sadly, scientism appears to be one. It is pointless for either scientists or philosophers or ethicists or anyone else to stake out territory in this way. It is a self-defeating exercise, and will lead to an inability to discern what forms of inquiry lead to the truth. This is not about the idea of “ways of knowing,” which is almost a parody of eighteenth century philosophy. This is about what constitutes inquiry, and how we recognise what we can say about truth and its dimensions. It is something that needs to be taken with much more conceptual seriousness, which seems not to be in evidence in so many of the exchanges between those who wear “scientism” as a badge, and those who dismiss it as an aberration. Austin Hughes’ essay, “The Folly of Scientism,” and even Philip Kitcher’s more helpful paper, “The Trouble with Scientism,” really do not even crack the surface of the problem, for the problem has to do with the nature of inquiry and truth. Showing that certain types of knowledge or truth claim stand outside of science won’t do the trick, for the person given to scientism will simply say that they understand ‘science’ more broadly than that. But saying that ‘science’ can be understood thus broadly is either empty or a prelude to a further exploration of the nature of inquiry and truth, which is then so seldom enterprised. This is all a bit like trench warfare, and could go on indefinitely, supposing you have words enough and time. The only way through this by doing some serious philosophical investigation.