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Round Table Debate: Science versus Philosophy?

Given the success of science, do we really need philosophy? Four distinguished scientists and philosophers and about 170 members of the public gathered in a London bookstore to hammer out the issues. This robust and good-humoured Round Table was the second in the series held by Philosophy Now and Philosophy For All to examine how philosophy relates to other ways of seeing the world.

The place was Waterstone’s Bookstore in London’s Piccadilly. The panel consisted of David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College London, Mary Midgley, author and ethicist, Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology at University College London and Raymond Tallis, Professor of Geriatric Medicine at Manchester University. The Chair was Anja Steinbauer, President of Philosophy For All.

AS The relations of different forms of knowledge to each other and what these relations and the relativity that comes with them mean to these disciplines themselves, needs to be explored: Philosophy for-itself must be different from, for instance, philosophy in the face of science. Science is the dominant form of knowledge in the world of today. When we use the words ‘science’ or ‘scientific’, it is usually in a very positive, confidence-inspiring sense. The scientific discourse has become so dominant that other forms of knowledge strive either to be close to, even dependent on, the sciences or else to be ‘scientific’ themselves. If a form of knowledge fails to adapt to the scientific discourse it is discredited as being ‘unscientific’ – the worst criticism possible! Why do so many people think that science is the best form of knowledge? Answers to this question usually involve ideas associated with its reliability, such as ‘precision’, ‘objectivity’, ‘testability’. These however are the standards of the sciences themselves, and it seems to me that we can’t very well appreciate the qualities that characterise other forms of knowledge and make them special if we judge them only by the standards set by science. We probably don’t do the sciences much justice either, if we hold that their insights are based on the same fundamentals as other forms of knowledge. Is philosophy an enterprise completely different from science, significant in its own way? Or has it become obsolete, a superfluous way of musing about the world, which, with the tremendous developments of the sciences in recent times, can be sent into a late retirement? If, on the other hand, philosophy is itself supposed to be ‘scientific’ – whatever this may involve – the question is firstly, whether this is all it should be, and secondly, whether the theory of science should be its central concern. In other words, is Quine right in stating that “philosophy of science is philosophy enough”? What will then become of philosophy? Richard Rorty recently wrote that the analytic tradition of philosophy “is often thought of as a sort of public relations agency for the natural sciences.” David Papineau, do you think that is the case?

DP I wouldn’t like to think that it was, but there is a real difference between analytic philosophy, English-speaking philosophy, and Continental philosophy, possibly in France and Germany. In respect of relation to science, I think, Continental philosophy wants to find something different from and better than science; whereas English-speaking philosophy doesn’t see itself in competition in the same way.

AS What should the relation between philosophy and science ideally be? Are they alike in the kind of knowledge that they seek and find? Is there a justification for having philosophy alongside science?

DP I guess there are sciences and sciences, and more important here, there is philosophy and philosophy. In Cambridge there used to be two master seminars. One was philosophy of fact and the other was philosophy of value. Philosophy of value was moral philosophy, political philosophy, aesthetics. Philosophy of fact was metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind. I don’t think there’s any question that philosophy of value and first-order theorizing in the area of value, morality and political theory is doing something different from science. On the side of philosophy of fact I want to say that the philosophers and the scientists are very much in the same line of business. I can’t think of any good way of making sense of what we are doing in epistemology or metaphysics except to say that we’re trying to bring order to the most confused and difficult parts of our overall theories of the world. I think of scientists as trying to develop some satisfying, simple, unifying, illuminating theory of what lies behind all the empirical evidence our senses give us. And I think of philosophers in the philosophy of fact side of philosophy as doing just the same thing. I think that at the centre of our theories of ourselves; of our knowledge of the world; of relation between mind and brain; and also within quantum mechanics, or various theories of biology there are puzzles which are just very hard puzzles and it’s clear that you aren’t going to get a solution just by doing more experiments. The real problems are that we’re confused by implicit presuppositions that we often don’t know we have. So I think of philosophy as just the business of trying to solve these kind of hard problems that require some unravelling of presuppositions. Some philosophers think that philosophy is a matter of analysing concepts or perhaps of coming up with some kind of account of free-will, mind and brain, foundations of physics or whatever, which best satisfies our intuitions and I think that just makes philosophy a terribly slight business. If I thought that was all there was to philosophy, I’d stop doing philosophy.

AS Thank you very much. Mary Midgley, do you agree with David’s interpretation of the roles of science and philosophy?

MM I really want to start a bit further back. I think the idea of competition is absurd. Feuding goes on of course between university departments, between different kinds of scholars who don’t understand what each other are doing, but it ought not to go on at a higher level when people start to talk about these things. Anyone who says that, as it were, science is the only intellectual subject that matters is talking bad philosophy – not science. That is not an exaggerated statement. The formula ‘the omnicompetence of science’ was one invented and freely used by philosophers of the Vienna Circle and those, particularly in America, who followed them in the early years of this century and it really does mean that in order to be rational and intellectual, you don’t need anything but the physical sciences. This is plainly false. I wish to draw attention to the matter of history, which is usually left out on these occasions. Factual matters which we need to know are a good deal more often parts of history than they are parts of science. History, the languages, mathematics, law, ethics, logic and a number of other things are not part of science and do not have to be. They are not incomplete because they are not physics. The sciences themselves are rather various – ecology is not the same thing as physics and doesn’t need to be. What we have is a great big map of the things that we have to think about. It’s quite true, as David said, that a lot of them are practical, moral matters – matters of value – questions of what to do and how to do it. Now these, everybody knows, are not part of science. The people who talked of science as omnicompetent tended to say, “this isn’t thought, it’s feeling. All you are doing when you have a moral argument or an argument about politics is just expressing your feelings.” This is false, and therefore should not be relied upon, but apart from that there’s an awful lot of facts, as I’m saying, in history which are not dealt with by the methods famously used by the physical sciences and don’t have to be. I’d probably better stop at this point having made, I hope, my general position clear and more questions will doubtless be asked later.

AS Thank you. Now I’d like to ask Lewis Wolpert to comment on the same problem. Do you agree with David’s interpretation that philosophy can help solve the hard problems that we encounter?

LW The answer is an unequivocal no. One merely has to look at history. It’s a curious situation with the philosophy of science. No scientist that I know of, other than as a sort of dabble, has the slightest interest in the philosophy of science. So let me make a strong statement, if I haven’t been strong enough already. Philosophy of science this century has contributed zero to the understanding of the scientific process. That doesn’t mean to say it hasn’t had odd little influences here or there. The fact that I think in the bath and may do well doesn’t mean to say that baths are very important for science. Can I quote from Steven Weinberg, a very distinguished physicist who wrote The First Three Minutes. He says that he is an unregenerate working scientist who finds no help in professional philosophy, and that he’s not alone in this. He knows of no-one who has participated actively in the advance of physics in the post-war period whose work has been significantly helped by the philosophers. It just is irrelevant.

AS Can I just ask for one point of clarification? You said that actually philosophy has nothing to add to the sciences and that philosophy of science is not a meaningful enterprise. Do you think that we should do away with philosophy altogether? Or is it something that should be reduced to a very minor exercise which can somehow exist on the periphery? Or should we just give up? [laughter]

LW No, I think you can continue in exactly the way some people like to talk about art-history. It’s all terribly interesting if you like that sort of thing but don’t think it’s an important enterprise, for goodness sake. [laughter]

AS Thank you. Finally, could I ask Raymond Tallis to comment, please.

RT I actually thought I had pole position when I sat down and I thought I was going to be the first person to speak. Alas not: cursed be those who make our remarks before us! I thought I had nothing left to say until I heard Lewis and then I realised there was a discussion to be had. It’s clear to me that there’s a place for both science and philosophy. The question then is: what is the relationship between them? I would like to suggest there’s a weak position and a strong position. The weak position says philosophers do one thing and scientists do the other. For example, philosophers can address the questions of values and epistemological questions. Not ‘what does science know?’ but ‘how is there such a thing as knowing?’ – which I think is a really, really interesting question. Much more interesting than Lewis thinks it is. So there’s a territory for philosophy quite separate from science. There’s a stronger position though on which I side with the philosophers, which is that science needs philosophy. I’m a card-carrying clinical scientist, as you know – so I’m a regular guy! So I have no axe to grind here. But I think science does need philosophy because it’s really getting into a mess in some really important areas, such as in thinking about the nature of matter and the nature of consciousness. I think we’ve got to step back from the current approach to the nature of matter, step back from the approach to the nature of consciousness and actually look at the geography of the concepts scientists use in addressing the fundamental issues. And that is where perhaps I dissent a little bit from David. I think the philosophers have a lot to offer in terms of conceptual clarification. We need philosophy more generally to defamiliarize the world and to help us shake off certain habits of thought and some ingrained assumptions. Science grew out of philosophy. I suspect science has got to grow a bit back into philosophy in order to actually perform its function better.

AS Thank you. Mary, do you agree with Raymond’s interpretation of the place of philosophy with respect to science?

MM Yes. I think attention must be drawn to the part that philosophy has played in the development of science as we now know it. This doesn’t interest Lewis. He just takes a philosophical position about this –

LW Please – no insults, Mary! [laughter]

MM You are taking a philosophical position. That position is one developed in this century by the Vienna Circle and Karl Popper, to whom all people like Lewis owe an enormous debt – and usually they know that they owe it. But what interests me is, for instance, the situation of Galileo. Galileo’s dialogues are largely a philosophical discussion of the concepts which he needed to change. The concepts of the day wouldn’t do the job that he wanted and what those people in the dialogues talk about is that change is needed in those concepts. Newton similarly talked a lot of philosophy in changing concepts, in making gravitation a plausible notion and the like. Darwin needed to change the concept of species and other concepts related to it. None of these people were in least embarrassed to say that this was philosophy. It was also part of science. I entirely agree with Raymond that there’s an awful mess today. About consciousness, for example, there is a quite explicit and obvious mess going on because in the last 20 years the taboo on mentioning consciousness in scientific circles has been lifted. There is an enormous amount of fertile and exciting debate going on about how consciousness can be scientifically considered. Concepts have got to be worked out, and whatever the people doing it may be paid to do, they are philosophising. This sort of engineering of concepts is inevitably a philosophical job. If the name embarrasses you call it something else. But it cannot be done by sitting in a lab and boiling things [laughter] and producing empirical results because it isn’t an empirical question.

LW First of all I never work in a laboratory! I’m a hopeless experimenter. I’m a theoretician and concepts in science are absolutely fundamental. What do you think Newton did? Newton didn’t sit around in a lab. And to call it philosophy every time a scientist has a concept, to make them a philosopher, to sort of gather them into your camp – I think that’s grossly unfair and totally unreasonable. In other words, the fact that you are changing concepts in science has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with philosophy. And to suggest that I owe a debt to Popper is to really upset me! Popper is the most over-rated philosopher of science this millennium. And all philosophers agree with that. I think you have to realise why one’s in a mess with consciousness. It’s very, very difficult. My joke about consciousness is it’s a word that I forbid in my presence without a permit from me – which I give out extremely rarely! It’s an exceptionally difficult concept and it’s premature. One of the important things in science is that you don’t want to tackle a problem too soon. I can give you many examples from the history of biology. Consciousness is just too hard at the moment. We don’t even know how it is I know how to pick up this glass. Consciousness – forget it!

AS David, would you like to comment on what Lewis has just said?

DP Let me come back to consciousness in a minute. I just want to push the idea that Mary pushed, that many sciences have developed out of philosophy and it’s going to be hard to win this argument with Lewis because Lewis is going to say until they developed out of philosophy there wasn’t anything worthwhile there. But one could look at it the other way round. The question is whether the bit that the philosophers were doing beforehand is important and one way of looking at it – I don’t want to be too adversarial about this – is that as long as it remains interesting then people are going to count it as philosophy. When it’s really tricky, when it’s not clear, as with consciousness now, how to think about it, then one has to approach the issues philosophically. It’s only when the subject becomes boring – when there’s nothing left to do except fill in the details – that we hand it over to the scientists. [laughter] And that’s what happened with physics, biology, economics, logic and not yet with the topics we’ve talking about which are still thought of as part of philosophy. I think the thing about consciousness is exactly what Lewis says. Lots of scientists are working on it but it’s a mess because nobody is quite clear how to think about it and it’s too soon to start rushing in and doing experiments and building theories. What we need to do is sit down and think about how we are supposed to structure this whole area. What are the issues we’re addressing? What assumptions are lying deep down in our thinking that shouldn’t be there and are confusing us? And that’s just doing philosophy and Lewis seems to be agreeing in this area. We need to do some philosophy until we’re in a situation where we can start doing the boring science. I think the theory of knowledge – epistemology – is a similar case. Understanding of meaning – something I work on – is very close to linguistics but linguists aren’t very good at talking about meaning. Nobody’s got a very good idea of how to think about the fact that a sentence or a brain-state can stand for something else. I think, I would bet, that in fifty years this won’t be thought of as part of philosophy any more than economics is now thought of as part of philosophy, but right now it certainly is. So philosophy does the hard work and then hands it over to the scientists.

RT I’m very anxious sitting next to Lewis. It feels like sitting next to a grenade with the pin working it’s way out. [laughter] I would really like to defend the philosophers here and pick up on what Mary says, first of all, that what Lewis is doing is bad philosophy. I think it was F.H. Bradley who once said “People who oppose metaphysics are actually brother metaphysicians with a bad and implicit metaphysic of their own.” I think we can see that in Lewis. I think that there is the issue of rethinking big frameworks and I do feel that that is what philosophy, traditionally, has done. It did create the framework of the scientific revolution round about the 16th century. We desperately need another framework because we’re hitting the buffers in relation to the nature of matter, in relation to the nature of mind and so forth. I’m very surprised at what Lewis says about the philosophy of science because certain extremely respected scientists, including those in his own field such as Peter Medawar, have paid tribute to the way in which Popper, for all his faults, did emphasize the importance of hypothesis-driven research. I think I had a final point but I’ve forgotten because I can feel the temperature rising here. My proteins are de-naturing in the heat emitting from Lewis!

AS Mary, would you like to comment on this?

MM Yes – just another footnote to what Ray’s just been saying. The great physicists of Einstein’s generation, like Heisenberg and Bohr, were really deep in Kant. They knew they were doing philosophy and constantly referred to it. If they were mistaken in supposing philosophy was what they were doing then I think Lewis needs to show why.

LW I’m not good enough on the history of physics, but it certainly isn’t true in the history of biology in this century or in previous times. I’m terribly sorry: philosophers have contributed nothing. And if we go back to the suggestion that it was philosophers who brought about the Scientific Revolution and the Renaissance – it’s simply false! Galileo was not a philosopher. He was a scientist. That you want to call it philosophy is a way of nabbing him for your camp. [laughter] When he shows that Aristotle is wrong about the bodies of different weights falling at different speeds – that’s not philosophy! That’s jolly good science.

MM If you contradict a philosopher, aren’t you doing philosophy?

LW Well Aristotle is a curious example, I have to say. Aristotle was very important; he got everything wrong about science, but that wasn’t his fault. But if you take Archimedes, for example, who I regard as the greatest scientist who ever lived, there is no philosophy in Archimedes whatsoever. When he showed why certain bodies float and others don’t, it wasn’t philosophy, it was science. And that’s the origin of physics and of applied mathematics.

RT There are implicit frameworks within science and certainly there’s no doubt about it – Newton had a massive implicit philosophical framework surrounding his fundamental work in mechanics. And also within your own sphere of biology, certainly some ideas, philosophical ideas, have been very important in creating a necessary framework for research. What we’re talking about is not rewriting the files, we’re talking about formatting the disk and philosophers have contributed to the process of formatting the disk in which correct and incorrect files have then been written. They may have actually formatted the disk all wrong, but the fact remains that it is within the wider context of philosophical ideas – implicit, explicit – that science has taken place. And what we need now is a reformatting of the disks. We need philosophers more than we did a century ago, because we have now worked out a certain seam of thought. Philosophers have contributed less than they should to thinking in basic science this century. This is because they have been too obsequious towards science. The Vienna Circle basically grovelled to science as a result of which it produced third-rate philosophy. What we want is first-rate philosophy which can help science out of some of its current problems.

LW I want to say that the problems we have in science are ones to be solved in the lab and with mathematics. Philosophers have nothing whatsoever to add except philosophers are very clever. When they add something to science they become scientists.

DP I don’t see the crisis in science that Ray seems to see so I don’t think there’s any call for turning everything around. There are areas where we haven’t got it into shape yet to hand it over to the scientists but Lewis puts down a challenge. Can we think of any philosophers who have contributed anything to science? Science should be work in the laboratory plus mathematics. I thought that was a terrible opening. Philosophers have contributed any amount of work to mathematics in this century. Absolutely foundational work. Wouldn’t you call Bertrand Russell a philosopher? Quine? Ramsey? There are huge areas of mathematics which are done by people who are philosophers. Lewis can say they’re not really philosophers because they’ve done something good, but that’s cheating.

LW I do agree mathematics is slightly different.

AS There are several areas – and this is of course one of the reasons why we’re having this debate – in which both the sciences and philosophy feel they have a contribution to make and the question is whether the debates in those respective areas are compatible or not. Lewis, I know that you’ve been doing work on the evolutionary psychology of depression. The emotions of course have traditionally also been a topic of philosophy. Should emotions such as sadness only and purely be treated within the sciences? Or do you think there are other areas of enquiry which legitimately could add something to the debate on the emotions?

LW I think emotion is a very difficult issue and there is an Australian, whose name has gone out of my mind for the moment, who wrote an important book called What Emotions Really Are. Ah yes, Paul Griffiths! It’s horrible for me to have to admit it but here is a philosopher who is trying to analyse what emotions are and, I suppose, the state of our knowledge. I think it’s a fair point which David made and given our present state of understanding of what emotions are, maybe someone with a philosophical background can be a sort of scientist and make some sort of contribution towards it. So I suppose I have to backtrack slightly. It may well have been in the case of cognitive science that philosophers may have contributed something to that revolution. So it’s not that we need philosophers but I did say that philosophers are very clever and if they turn their minds to scientific issues, as I think Griffiths has in the case of emotion, I think he’s got a really important contribution to make. I would accept that.

AS And would you say that this a contribution that can be made fruitful in the sciences as well?

LW Well I’m hoping to organise a meeting on the psycho-biology of emotion and I would certainly ask Paul Griffiths to come to it.

AS Thank you very much. Raymond, would you like to comment?

RT Yes – we have focussed on whether science needs philosophy. There is the additional question of whether philosophy needs science. I think it’s already been indicated that you can’t philosophise without having some idea of what scientists have discovered about the area in question. The big problem then is how you stitch the empirical, or the quasiempirical, data of science onto the conceptual explorations of the philosopher. There’s a good example in relation to the philosophy of mind. We now have a huge amount of very interesting data about how different bits of the brain light up in relation to different mental functions. The question then is how do we feed that in to a really luminous investigation of what we mean by ‘mind’, how consciousness is possible and so on and that’s where there’s a big problem. The actual philosophical, epistemological problems somehow don’t make contact with the particular empirical data of cognitive scientists. To take the philosophy of mind there is obviously a big framework. Fact: we know the brain is important for the mind – but we knew that the first time somebody dropped a brick on somebody else’s head. We didn’t need functional MRI scanning to make that great discovery. How we feed the discoveries from functional MRI scanning into our own theories of the mind remains to me very obscure.

AS Do you have any thoughts on that?

DP I don’t think that’s a big problem. The problem is how to feed those data into any illuminating theories at all. I mean it doesn’t tell you very much just to know that this bit of the brain lights up when you think of cheese and that bit lights when you think of ice-cream. You want to know a bit more about the mechanisms that are involved in the lighting up. That would be illuminating, but the brainscan data don’t give us that straight away. I wanted to comment on something that came up a moment ago; evolutionary psychology. That was Anja’s original question. There is an area where I think philosophy and science need each other in a way we haven’t touched on yet. In popularising science, in particular theoretical science, it’s very easy for popularisers and the public to grab onto issues, to polarise them, to simplify them too quickly. One certainly finds that happening in discussions of evolutionary psychology. I find myself in a great deal of difficulty because I think that evolutionary thinking is terribly important in understanding the human mind but I find myself stuck in the middle between two extremes. On one side are people who talk about evolution and say therefore there’s a gene for rape and there’s a gene for homosexuality and all kinds of idiotic views, and on the other side are people who say that there’s nothing that biology and genetic thinking can tell us about human beings. I think one valuable thing philosophers can do is to say “look, it’s not that simple.” These debates shouldn’t be conducted in sound-bites.

MM I very much want to second that worry of David’s and I think it’s related to another worry that needs airing, which is about the use of the machine model. There is a tendency for people in cognitive science and related areas to talk as if it were simply a literal fact that the brain is a computer made of meat, you know, as if the software could be shifted to another such one without making any difference. Sorting out metaphors like that, and the criticism of such metaphors, and the finding of the sense in which this is true and the sense in which it isn’t, is philosophic business. I’m sorry if Lewis doesn’t like the word but it is a thing that comes up in all kinds of areas of philosophy so the bugs have been got out of this to some extent (to use a metaphor), and it needs a hell of a lot more attention than it gets. I believe that Ray is often quite busy on that one.

LW Let me just give you an observation as to why philosophy of science is irrelevant to scientists. Scientists are very ambitious. They’re very competitive. If they really thought philosophy would help them, they’d learn it and use it. They don’t. [laughter]

RT I’d like to just pick up what Mary said about the metaphors that scientists use. Metaphors are extremely enabling and productive, for example the concept of DNA as a bearer of information is extremely productive and useful. It mustn’t be taken literally, though, because you then get into real problems. I think one thing philosophers could very usefully do for scientists is to help them to wake up out of the metaphors that have been so effective and enabling in the process of producing normal science.

LW I just have to disagree with Raymond I’m afraid, once again. There’s not the slightest evidence. We have a very good understanding of molecular biology, and DNA does carry the information for proteins. It’s a perfectly sensible metaphor. We don’t need help in that area at all.

DP Just on this business of metaphors and philosophers showing the scientists not to be seduced by them – it would clearly be a good thing but I fear that philosophers aren’t always as active in this as they might be, especially in the philosophy of mind, the computer metaphor. That certainly swept through psychology but it swept through philosophy even more. Philosophers use the metaphor without thinking about the gubbins underneath that might justify it. I think the scientists are perhaps better with the metaphors than the philosophers.

LW How nice to agree with you!

[This is an edited, shortened version of the debate held at Waterstones Bookstore in Piccadilly, London on 22 March 2000]

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