philosophy and science
I have already written essays called Poetry Contra Science and Poetry Versus Philosophy, so it seems kind of natural that I should complete the circle and write one called Philosophy And Science. This is an essay on philosophy AND science, not the philosophy of science, and I think it is necessary to make that plain before I begin. I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher, but this fact shouldn’t disqualify me. After all, it means I have no vested interest in the subject and therefore little prevents me from adopting a more objective perspective on the relationship between philosophy and science, which is really the subject of this essay. However, I don’t wish to tread on anyone’s toes, so I will approach the topic in a reasonably cautious way , while giving my tuppence worth on the subject.
Let be begin by agreeing with Kant that science deals with the world of phenomena, not with what might lie behind that world – if anything at all. To use an analogy taken from astrophysics, I assume an ‘event-horizon’ exists here beyond which the enquiring mind cannot go and return to tell the tale. But isn’t this true of philosophy as well? What Kant called the unknowable thing-in-itself is not the province of either science or philosophy and is the equivalent in both disciplines to a black-hole in physics – from which no light can escape. Science proper is only concerned with empirical phenomena, the world of facts, factual lacunae and the theories which arise out of factual lacunae – and which perhaps produce the “paradigm shifts” spoken of by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It is a strictly circumscribed field of enquiry which limits itself to the facts or potential facts. But philosophy is also a highly circumscribed field of enquiry, although in a very different way. Its subject-matter is primarily language, testing the logical value of concepts in order to make them more intelligible to thought. It doesn’t tell science what its business should be, but it might help scientists clarify certain conceptual issues and cast them in a more general language beyond the specialist scope of science. The job of philosophy – vis-à-vis science – then is to test concepts to see what intelligibility they might have outside the specialised field of science - concepts like Mind and Matter, Free-Will and Determinism, A.I., Existence and Non-Existence, Good or Bad, True and False, et cetera – generalising from the specialised language of science to the less specialised, but equally rigorous language of philosophy. To borrow from Wittgenstein, it translates from one language-game into another - and possibly vice-versa - without violating either en route.
Philosophy might be accused of being irrelevant to science, although I don’t think this has always been the opinion of great scientists. Neils Bohr, for instance, saw close connections between Hegel and Quantum Mechanics, with its ideas like Complementary. Many neuroscientists seem to be very aware of the philosophical implications their work – e.g. in relation to the mind-body question. These are primarily scientific concerns which have a philosophical dimension and therefore it is legitimate to attempt to translate from one ‘language-game’ into another - and back again. I don’t think there is any room for dogma one way or the other. Many scientists are self-declared materialists, but from a philosophical perspective, materialism is no more or less coherent than idealism or dualism, since they are all grounded in certain illegitimate metaphysical assumptions. Likewise, many of the concerns of philosophy are, I believe, false ones. To take one example, the debate over the question of the relationship between mind and matter. Empirically, they are both valid areas of concern but whether they are in any way fundamental – well, who knows? Perhaps we will have to take a trip through that aforementioned ‘event-horizon’ forming a barrier between phenomena and Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself to ascertain for ourselves. Meanwhile, from a purely empirical perspective, mind and matter do appear to be separate phenomena and everything Descartes said about their attributes is probably correct – namely that extension characterises matter and non-extended intellect characterises mind and observable ‘reality’ seems to be divided up between them in a dualistic way. It seems to be a bit like wave-particle duality in physics, which David Bohm believes is only dualistic because there are hidden variables which we haven’t taken account of in our equations regarding them. In a similar way, it could be that mind-body duality is an illusion – at least in the sense of a strict division between the two. I don’t think it is up to science to sort out these basic philosophical problems beyond establishing the data related to them concerning, for instance, how ‘mind’ is processed by ‘matter’. The question of how something external and extended like a collection of neurons is capable of producing something internal and non-extended – namely thoughts, feelings, ideas, emotions and so on are I think questions for philosophers rather than scientists, although of course, the basic data concerning them will be provided by science. These are conceptual questions related to language which go beyond the collection of data which, in itself, can tell us nothing about them. In that sense, it is a matter of translating from one ‘language-game’ into another – to borrow again from Wittgenstein. Moreover, these two 'language-games' may all too often overlap, which can lead to confusion. Sometimes, dogmatic adherents of science and especially of materialism don’t even know they are making metaphysical assumptions because the very taken-for-grantedness of their language hides it from them.
Scientific procedures – which are, of course, necessary to the actual practice of science – often dispose one towards a certain view of the world. It is not the same view of the world in every field of science of course. Perhaps, quantum physics, with its ideas concerning the influence of the observer on the phenomenon observed, might dispose a physicist working in that field towards a form of philosophical idealism. A scientist working in the field of neuroscience might be disposed towards a form of philosophical dualism or monism - a la Spinoza (See Antonio Damasio). A worker in evolutionary biology might be disposed towards a form of philosophical materialism a la Richard Dawkins. Of course, I am only making ‘enlightened’ guesses here. The point is that one’s methods of working and one’s specialised area of professional concern might have an impact on how one thinks outside those particular fields. After all, the way our society works, very few people can afford the luxury of being generalists or thinking outside their specialist boxes. One scientist I knew, who boasted an IQ of 180, knew nothing of the world beyond his own specialist field. An extreme case I know, but one that very probably indicates a trend.
What matters, I believe, is that philosophers and scientists keep a kind of watch over each other’s ‘language-games’, while respecting each other’s input and insights. Without this, certain taken-for-granted methods of working will become taken-for-granted ideas about the way the world in general works. When it comes to philosophy and science, it is important to remember how the second grew out of the first, and therefore how the two 'language-games’ are quite closely related. It is also equally important to remember how science grew out of Christianity and embeds some of its prejudices regarding the relationship between the ‘soul’ and the ‘body’, which are very separate things in Christianity, though Christiantity certainly problemetised the body. Christianity influenced Descartes very strongly and the dualism of Descartes then went on to influence science which took over that dualism and, in accordance with its own methods, suppressed one side (the soul) in order to focus on the other (the body). In Newtonian science, the ‘soul’ was completely banished and now occupies a sort of limbo, where it lends itself easily to various esoteric and ‘spiritual’ practices – which seems to have been a pastime of Newton’s in his own spare time – that is when he wasn’t hunting down and executing people. Meanwhile, philosophers on the continent got hung up on trying to avoid the implications of Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself in order to develop metaphysical paradigms, which, after Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason had become more or less untenable. While all this was going on, in Britain, good old logical positivism took centre stage and not even Wittgenstein could do much about that. Science came to dominate philosophy and philosophical concerns, because Kant’s own transcendental horizons were considered too ambitious for it. In the Anglo-Saxon analytical tradition, philosophy became rather too enamoured of and intimidated by the methods – and prestige - of science to strike out in a really independent direction. In fact, it got so hung up on scientific procedures and methods that it thought philosophy's chief function vis-a-vis science was simply to be a kind of philosophical echo-chamber. This has had very unfortunate consequences. It would surely be much better for philosophy if it saw itself as an independent and equal partner to science, so that it can properly fulfil its role of keeping watch over it. In turn, that could impact on poetry in ways that could really enlarge its horizons.