Sunday, May 21, 2006

philosophy as science's handmaiden

Dr. Vallicella of Maverick Philosopher has long been an advocate of the primacy of philosophy-- a discipline, pursuit, and way of living that should, in his opinion, take a back seat to nothing else. Dr. V's recent post, "First Philosophy or Scientism?", provides him an opportunity to advocate the primacy of philosophy with regard to certain intractable questions. In particular, Dr. V stands against statements like the following one by Robert Cummins.

Dr. V writes:

Robert Cummins (Meaning and Mental Representation, MIT Press, 1989, p. 12) regards it as a mistake "for philosophers to address the question of mental representation in abstraction from any particular scientific theory or theoretical framework."

I don't know Cummins, but I like him already. One thing I've advocated on various posts in this blog is that philosophy-- like religion-- should avoid making claims that are (or are likely to be) verifiable through science. This would include claims about the nature of mind/consciousness, as well as the fundamental nature of the universe. To the extent that religion or philosophy can provide answers to these questions, I think such answers should be treated as metaphorical-- more about informing our ethical sensibilities than about saying something literally true of mind and cosmos.

Science is, after all, where progress on these questions actually occurs. Philosophy hasn't provided any solid answers to these questions at all. The fact that the original questions that plagued ancient philosophers remain with us today is an indication of how little help philosophy truly is when it comes to what's important.

Pick a question:

What is real?
What is mind?
What is the "I"?
What is experience?
Does it come down to the One, the Two, or the Many?
What does it mean to be a person?
What does it mean to be human?
What does it mean to be good?
What is freedom, and are we free?
What is the nature of reality?
What exactly are cause and effect?

Philosophers of different persuasions, hailing from different cultures and time periods, have pitted themselves against these ultimate questions, and no universally satisfactory answers have been produced. In the meantime, science produces computers with ever-increasing cognitive skills, explores the universe beyond our planet, probes the very fabric of reality itself, and comes back with actual answers to some of our thronging questions.

I don't want to suggest that philosophy is useless, period. Having something of a philosophical bent myself (then again, blogs like MP and WWW make me feel like a chimpanzee in a roomful of Mensa members, so I'm probably not much of a philosopher), I think the pursuit of philosophy can be defended. The most obvious benefit is that it promotes thoughtfulness, a human quality often lacking in the general populace-- not only among the stupid, but also among the so-called smart. There is great benefit to just sitting and thinking sometimes.

And while I believe that philosophy has made little to no progress at all on the questions it originally posed, I happily concede that philosophy at least provides serious people with models and paradigms through which to think about a new problem, whether that problem be related to politics or bioethics or religious experience.

All the same, I have to hold philosophy's feet to the fire and burn away its orgueil, so my warning to all philosophers is this: you ignore and denigrate science at your peril. Science might need your guiding hand, but science is also more capable than you might think when it comes to answering those ultimate questions. "Does science have the answers now?" I hear a philosopher sneer. No; but it's actually making progress toward some of the answers. What, in the meantime, has philosophy been doing except rehashing ancient debates?

"Footnotes to Plato" indeed!



Anonymous said...

Kevin, I completely agree with you about the relationship of science and philosophy. In my opinion, I'd go a step further, and say that theology, too, ought to take note of science. For example, the Bible describes God not only as "Love," but also as possessing a variety of emotions. Nowadays, we know those emotions are produced physically within the brain. Where does "God is love" go with this information?

Anyway, I also agree about philosophy being unable to answer its own questions satisfactorily. In your opinion, is there any hope for philosophy to teach us anything other than questions and how to frame them? I guess that in itself wouldn't be a small thing.

Kevin Kim said...


You have a point. For me, I think the question is whether a given philosophical exercise boils down to something practically useful. If certain ancient questions remain undecided to this day, and if we know from the beginning (or think we know) that certain questions can never be settled, there seems to be little point in wrestling with a problem for which no universally acceptable solution is available.

[Then again, one could respond that the same applies to my field, interreligious dialogue, in which case I should give the field up as a lost cause!]

I tend to think that questions like "What is the nature of mind?" and "What is subjectivity?" will eventually be answerable by science. The so-called "gulf" between first-person and third-person ontology is, I think, bridgeable through technology. We haven't found the bridge yet, but I think we will one day.

Dennett is, at least, somewhat in contact with trends in neuroscience, whereas I get the feeling that a lot of substance dualists and other nonphysicalists really couldn't care less what neuroscience has to say about mind. That's sad, because it's a stereotypical case of being so involved in theory that one fails to grasp reality. This is why I appreciate science's hard-nosed empiricism.

That is, in fact, my major frustration with the non-materialist crowd in discussions about the nature of mind. For most of them, it's a foregone conclusion that we can never penetrate the barrier posed by interiority. That attitude strikes me as an unwarranted dogmatism, closed-mindedness about the closed-ness of mind.

All that aside, your larger point stands: philosophy is far better at dealing with meta-issues... though "dealing with" can't mean "dealing conclusively with."

Actually, this discussion reminds me a bit of Stephen Jay Gould and his notion of NOMA, "non-overlapping magisteria." I disagree with Gould that NOMA is possible or even desirable: I see science as a field of ever-increasing hegemony; the magisteria must eventually overlap with the expansion of scientific progress, which is why religion has found itself in constant retreat over the centuries as science has debunked religion's various claims about physical reality.

Philosophy in modern times has more awareness of what science can and can't do, but that awareness isn't perfect. Philosophy, like religion, stills wants to make certain claims that it believes science cannot satisfactorily answer. Philosophy also cannot provide the pragmatic benefit of predictability because it won't allow itself to make (and run with) the same assumptions about causality that drive scientific progress. While philosophy dithers over the nature of causality, science plunges ahead with a small cluster of assumptions about what causality is-- and remains open to reassessing those notions.

This is a rich topic for discussion; I'm grateful to receive such insightful comments from you and Nathan.