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To whet your appetite for our forthcoming Round Table debate on science and philosophy, Rick Lewis put a few questions to Professor David Papineau.
David Papineau is a prominent philosopher of science who is about to publish a cartoon book called Introducing Consciousness (Icon Books)
Professor Papineau, as ways of understanding the world, are philosophy and science incompatible?
They scarcely could be, could they? I take it that both philosophy and science are after truth. And truths can’t be inconsistent with each other. Of course, not all claims made by philosophers, or by scientists, are in fact true. But that is just to say that there is bad philosophy and bad science. The good bits, being true, must be compatible.
What about the idea that philosophy is at least independent of science – philosophy has one subject matter, science another?
Even this doesn’t seem right. Many of the most central problems of philosophy, like free will, knowledge, or the mindbrain relation, are inextricably bound up with scientific theories about our place in nature. And it’s not just that the problems are generated by scientific knowledge. The solutions, if we ever get them, will also be continuous with scientific knowledge. The philosophical aim here, as I see it, is to bring order and coherence to our overall theories of nature. So metaphysicians and epistemologists are in the same business as scientists, although at a more abstract level. We all want to figure out which theories best fit the overall empirical evidence. Alternative conceptions of philosophy strike me as embarrassing, and indeed as intellectually reactionary. If I thought that philosophy was just a matter of analysing concepts, or of showing how best to save “our intuitions”, I would do something else.
Does science need philosophy?
Yes. I think of philosophy as the science of very hard problems – problems which can’t be solved simply by gathering more empirical evidence, as with ordinary scientific problems, but which require the unravelling of implicit assumptions. We get problems like this right within science, as well as in traditional philosophical areas like knowledge and free will. Examples are the interpretation of quantum mechanics, or the asymmetry of time, or the logic of natural selection. These are live issues within science, but they require philosophical techniques, and philosophers can contribute as much to their solution as scientists.
How did you become interested in the philosophy of science?
My first degree was in mathematics and science, and I found myself thinking increasingly about the bits that the lecturers preferred to brush under the carpet, especially puzzles about probability. I still prefer working on philosophical topics that are provoked by ideas from outside philosophy. My current interests include materialist theories of consciousness, and the bearing of Darwinian ideas on human psychology. Of course, once you start into philosophy, you are inevitably driven towards problems nonphilosophers never think of, and these can be good problems too. But I think that philosophy needs to guard against scholasticism, and keep sight of which problems are really important.
Can human beings be understood in purely physical terms?
Certainly not. Even if physicalism is true, as I believe, and humans are nothing over and above physical beings, it doesn’t follow that physics is a good way to understand people. Notions like intention and action characterize people in ways that float free of our physical nature. A more substantial question is whether science as a whole, and not just physics, leaves out important parts of human life. I think that when it comes to questions of value – of moral, political, and aesthetic worth – we need to go beyond science, and turn to the exploration of appropriate human responses. So I would except these areas from my claim that philosophy is continuous with science. Here our views need some other ultimate grounding than the overall empirical evidence.