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Joined-up Thinking

by Rick Lewis

Other magazines have covers which shout: “Princess Di Was A Buddhist!” or “How To Catch Your Heart-Throb!” In a similar typeface and spirit, ours luridly screams “Science Connections”. Not actually screams, really, as an exclamation mark (a piece of notation known to some mathematicians as a ‘shriek’, incidentally) would have seemed vulgarly sensational. But why science connections? Well, we were originally going to call this issue ‘The Edge of Science’, but we fretted that this might make people think that the theme was the paranormal. This issue, on the contrary, is about an assortment of topics where philosophy might have something useful to say about scientific problems or where science generates philosophical problems. It isn’t mainly about the philosophy of science. We do have a report by Massimo Pigliucci on a recent gathering of philosophers of science, and we have another article which makes use of the ideas of Thomas Kuhn to help understand the historical development of music (or is it the other way around?). But mostly this issue is about the more oblique connections between philosophy and science.

One example of the latter is the question of the moral issues raised by new technological advances. The starkest example of this is probably the question of whether it is ever ethically justifiable – or perhaps even ethically obligatory – to develop new kinds of weapons. This is considered in our first article, by John Forge. Later, Mike Alder calls on philosophers to help untangle the conceptual confusions of contemporary quantum physics. Toni Carey considers whether philosophy, like science, ever makes real progress and settles questions for good.

Borges once wrote a short story about the discovery of an encyclopedia from an imaginary parallel world called Tlön. The encyclopedia says that “The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth or even an approximation to it: they are after a kind of amazement. They consider metaphysics a branch of fantastic literature.” In this spirit we publish ‘Somewhere in Leo,’ John Lanigan’s playful investigation into the shape of the universe. Bear in mind when reading it that you can’t believe everything you see in print, even in Philosophy Now. I’m looking forward to all the outraged letters we’re going to receive from cosmologists who haven’t read this disclaimer.

Most scientists tend to be impatient with philosophers, who jaw, jaw, jaw rather than sit down in the lab and actually find things out. The colourful Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman apparently shared this rather low estimation of philosophy, and didn’t mind saying so at frequent intervals; but the danger of attacking philosophy as a whole is always that someone will respond that in doing so, you must be doing philosophy yourself. Stephen Doty thinks Feynman was a pretty good philosopher despite himself, and explains why here.

The 20th century saw academics become specialists in ever-narrower fields, but these 21st century days, there are again thinkers around who are hard to pigeonhole. In particular, more and more philosophers are finding they need to know their way around this or that area of science. Daniel Dennett has said that it used to be possible for philosophers to just sit in armchairs and philosophize about the mind, but these days you have to know about brain science to be taken seriously in that field.

Occasionally we produce an issue in which we try to cover all the main aspects of a topic – as with our recent Wittgenstein number. This time we haven’t tried to do that, as the connections between philosophy and science are just too many and various. There is nothing in this issue about evolution, for instance, though we have often covered those debates in the past. And although this issue has ‘science’ on the cover, it is really more about the what is happening on the edges of science, where it intersects with other areas of life and thought, than it is about science itself. So this is a Polo Mint issue – there is a science-shaped hole in the middle of it. Nonetheless, we hope you’ll find it tasty and refreshing.

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