If you have great passion for knowledge, then you’ve probably encountered online battles between science-enthusiasts and philosophers; or even between a scientist and a philosopher. We’ve probably heard them say, “Philosophy is useless,” “Philosophy cannot give us the truth,“and “Philosophy gets in the way.” Surely, Philosophy has not always been useful (Derrida), it did not always arrive at the truth (Derrida, Berkeley, Descartes), and it has gotten in the way of genuine progress – Julian Savulescu and Steven Pinker have shown that some bioethicists have gotten in the way of making good moral judgments in medicine [1]. However, much of the same could be said about science: nuclear weapons are not useful; evolutionary psychology does not give us objective truth; and phrenology, which was considered a genuine science during its time, surely did not lead to much progress.

So why do we run into such claims so often? In order to answer this question, one needs to first know the business of philosophy and science. Philosophy isn’t in the business of proving whether evolution is true or not. That is science. When a philosopher tries to argue for creationism against a scientist using scientific evidence, they are philosophers doing bad science. Philosophy deals with logical space, whereas science excavates truth from the physical world. The demarcation between the two is quite obvious in cases like Ethics and Physics. However, the line becomes blurry when Scientists begin to comment on their discipline – what is the scientific method? what is pseudoscience?

These are questions traditionally asked by philosophers like Karl Popper, and they are questions with which philosophers of science have occupied themselves for almost a century. So, when a scientist tries to answer these questions, a philosopher will obviously try to put her two cents in. Unlike a philosopher, a scientist does not read too much philosophy. A scientist can go on his entire life without reading any philosophy, and it would be possible for him to be a good scientist. However, the same cannot be easily said of a philosopher. Philosophy is often in the business of analyzing the implications of other fields on the overall web of knowledge, and science is one of those fields. A philosopher can certainly just read literature and poetry, if she wishes to be an aesthetician. Nevertheless, one cannot be a philosopher of science, a philosopher of mind, or a philosopher of biology without adequate knowledge of their respective scientific field. On the other hand, a scientist does not need to read any books from the philosophy of science to do science. That’s because, as I have mentioned above, the philosophy of science is not interested in adding more to scientific theories. It’s interested in more meta questions like “what is science?”

Knowing this, it is easy to understand the scientist’s rage when a philosopher appears to be more knowledgeable than him on such questions. For the scientist, he cannot believe that a philosopher, whom scientists generally see as those who spew complicated words for the sake of argument due to the scientist’s unfamiliarity with philosophy, claims to know more about his own field than himself. Now, I bid you to imagine a person asking the question, “what is music?”to a rock guitarist and a scholar. At first glance, it seems obvious that the rock guitarist may give a better answer. Now, suppose that the scholar is someone who has studied that very question her entire life, and that she comes from a school that had trained thinkers who have debated over this question with much progress for thousands of years. A rock guitarist only plays one genre – rock; and one instrument –the guitar. And we know that there is much more to music than just rock music. How can you then, with certitude, say the guitarist will give you a better answer than the scholar?  In the same way, a scientist nowadays specializes in a specific aspect of a particular branch in science. He spends most of his time reading works relevant to his expertise. Why should he be better equipped to answer this question than a philosopher of science?

Another reason we frequently encounter such hatred towards philosophy is the recent surge of pop-science. There has been an outpouring of science popularizers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Steven Pinker; and it has created a crowd absolutely enamored by the powers of science. These followers are not necessarily scientists. They are more like science-enthusiasts, and many of them are New Atheists. The New Atheists and even some public scientists like Stephen Hawking and Tyson have openly denounced philosophy, transferring the aforementioned hatred that scientists have towards philosophers to these followers. Some of them discount rigorous arguments made by philosophers with feeble arguments – Sam Harris. Many of them claim that philosophy is useless –Hawking, Dawkins, Tyson, and Krauss. This gives this crowd the justification – argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority fallacy) – to unleash fury upon a perceived enemy. There is no rational justification for this hatred, because as noted by the scientist and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci [2], it’s irrational. We are not enemies. Philosophy created economics, human rights, animal rights, democracy, and science. Its concerns –the nature of knowledge, ethics, beauty, and so on– have yet to be extinguished. Philosophy is useful.

Recently, I’ve encountered a group of science followers claim that science can solve every problem and make us learn anything. I’ve also heard some folks say that philosophy is utterly meaningless and is constantly in the way of science. None of these are obviously true. However, it is troubling to see such a witch-hunt against philosophy, because we benefit much from a cooperation between science and philosophy.


[1] Pinker on Bio-Ethics

Savulescu on research ethics committees

[2] Pigliucci on the value of Philosophy and Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Pigliucci on Krauss and the value of philosophy

Pigliucci on Sam Harris’s façile argument on ethics

Pigliucci on the New Atheist movement

 

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