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Philosophy & Science

by Grant Bartley

Welcome to the ever-evolving Philosophy Now! This issue we gain two new columns, ‘Philosophical Haiku’ by Terence Green and ‘The Street Philosopher’ by Seán Moran, as well as some extra pages and luxurious colour throughout the magazine. Enjoy responsibly!

This issue’s theme is partly a response to a minor assault on philosophy by some scientists recently. It’s true that there are some structural weaknesses in academic philosophy: endless nit-picking at obscure details when the basics haven’t been established; its seeming lack of interest in applying its conclusions to the outside world; and the old problem that ‘nothing ever gets solved’. However, it’s one thing to say that a job’s not being done as well as it could be, and another to say it isn’t worth doing, and much of the recent criticism has been made as if philosophy were a pointlessly inferior version of science. That cheap shot misses the target. Let’s briefly conceptually (ie, philosophically) analyse the two endeavours, to see when ‘science good, philosophy bad’ is a plausible claim, and when it’s meaningless nonsense, and philosophy is the only game to play.

We can usefully define science as a systematic procedure for deriving principles through observation (especially through experiments) concerning how what’s observed behaves. Philosophy tries to uncover principles too, although it’s not limited to what can be observed. The first thing to note from this distinction, then, is that there can potentially be a clash of interests only if philosophy tries to derive principles concerning how what’s observed behaves. However, natural philosophy – what we now call science – split off from philosophy’s side a couple of centuries ago precisely to handle that brief. What remains as philosophy today does not desire to be science, nor does it want to ask the questions science asks. The second thing to note – and to repeat, if seemingly in vain, to those who want to exalt science beyond itself – is the converse of the first point. By definition, science is about establishing principles through observation. This entails that the forever unobservable aspects of reality are not what science itself is concerned with. This is conspicuously true of ethics and metaphysics (metaphysics considers the ultimate nature of reality beyond physical appearances). We can’t directly observe ethical truths, for instance, so we have to use imagination and reason to speculate and argue about them, in which case we are doing philosophy.

Naturally, this distinction of areas of interest and methods doesn’t mean science shouldn’t closely inform philosophy, nor vice versa. Philosophy too is ultimately interested in reality, so it would be foolish for it not to take seriously what established science has to say about it. Conversely, metaphysics is a natural response to modern physics. Surely ‘What are the implications of quantum mechanics for how we should think about the nature of reality?’ is an interesting question, for example. The definition of science also means that insofar as physicists are speculating about the nature of reality way beyond what they can foreseebly test, then that far, and regardless of what they call it, they’re doing metaphysics – philosophy! (The idea of the multiverse is one such yet-untestable bit of speculative metaphysics that many scientists call ‘science’.) Unfortunately, the way many physicists do their metaphysics shows a painful lack of metaphysical insight. Most of them seem not to have even heard of Immanuel Kant, for instance, or seem to understand that his distinction between appearance and reality is indispensable for thinking intelligently about the nature of the universe – especially for modern physics, I’d say. For example, what are space and time? Don’t presume you have a deep understanding of these arenas until you know what Kant had to say about them.

Metaphysics will become increasingly relevant to physics the less like everyday experience physics models become. However, philosophers should also remember that science is a process, and that its current models of how things work, even if correct as far as they go, are only correct as far as they go. They will in time be replaced by better models. This has philosophical implications because, although scientific models become increasingly accurate and comprehensive in terms of their predictive power, with each new paradigm the way we consequently think about the nature of reality – in other words, the metaphysical implications of our scientific models – flops around like a weathervane in a hurricane. For example, Newtonian space is absolute, whereas Einstein’s space(time) is relative to the motion of the observer; and so on it goes.

This issue displays the sort of intellectual spoils that can be rescued through cross-border raids by philosophers into science. That is, it shows how understanding can benefit by philosophy being applied to science. We consider a philosophical issue raised by science – how does chaos theory encourage us to think about both predictability and interconnectedness? And also a philosophical issue that is also a scientific question – why do mirrors reverse left-to-right but not upside-down? We also have a good example of a self-confessed philosophy-phobic physicist, Richard Feynman using his reason and imagination to think about science, thereby coming up with a philosophy of science. (This is not the same as using observations of science to develop and test a theory about science – that would I guess be the science of metascience, or perhaps we could call it metalogy!) Or, from the other side of the border, we see that Catherine Malabou has been arguing that there’s a limit to how neatly the findings of science can be forced into whatever philosophy you want to scientifically justify. These articles together indicate the sort of fertile cross-pollination that can be achieved by applying philosophy to science. So let philosophy be scientific, and science be philosophical, as long as we let science be science and philosophy be philosophy, and we know which is which.

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