Why Science Needs Philosophy

by Chris Berger

The industry of bringing science to the people is thriving. “Edutainment,” as we sometimes call it, plays an important role in the education of children and adults. After all, this is an age in which scientific advancement moves at a pace impossible for an average lay person to keep up with independently. To complicate things, misinformation and pseudoscience are rampant, and now more than ever it seems vital to cultivate a basic knowledge of the state of science and the workings of its method. Where is the perplexed bystander to turn in this chaos?

Personalities like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been formidable in the crusade to promote accurate scientific awareness and reasonable thinking among the public. As a budding young science enthusiast during my elementary school years, I cut my teeth on Nye’s popular science show, and as an equally inquisitive twenty-something I’m an avid watcher of Tyson’s Cosmos and will likely tune in to Nye’s new show premiering in 2017.

However, there is a darker side to this science evangelism. Science popularizers have displayed a breathtaking and unhealthy ignorance of the parent of their own vocation, philosophy, leaving it neglected and increasingly unhinged in its intellectual nursing home. Tyson has publicly denigrated philosophy as something that can “really mess you up,” as concerning only pointless questions about irrelevant things without ever getting answers. It’s never made any progress, he charges. Tellingly, he also offhandedly and mistakenly says that nihilism is “a kind of philosophy.” When asked if he thought philosophy had anything to contribute that science could not, Nye responded with similar (if slightly more urbane) derision.

Tyson, Nye, and their ilk are concerned with science education, nothing more and nothing less. They are not beholden to cover all the bases outside of their field of competence. I get that. But as promoters of science, they are promoters of more than just the scientific method, devoid of feeling or passion or human emotion. They clearly mean to get their audience excited about science, curious about what it has to offer them and how studying it can enrich and inform their lives. It is the scientific spirit they are promoting. And the scientific spirit is the thrill of discovery, of understanding the world around us with nothing but our own capacity for reason. Sound familiar from anywhere else?

That’s because this is, essentially, the philosophic spirit, and it’s been around since Thales fell headfirst into a well as he gazed at the stars. Science just inherited this spirit a few hundred years ago, and it is more recently still that scientists and philosophers have stopped speaking to one another. In fact, before the modern break with antiquity, a serious person would have responded with a crooked eyebrow if someone spoke of science and philosophy separately. Philo-sophia, the love of wisdom, was the activity and way of life that sought to replace opinions about the world with knowledge of it. “Science,” or originally scientia, which means “knowledge,” was the goal of that activity. It was when modernity declared that the ultimate goal of philosophy should be the relief of man’s estate, and that only problems admitting of empirical (i.e. apodictically demonstrable) solutions were worth addressing, that science and philosophy were torn apart from one another. This has had regrettable and perhaps unforeseen consequences.

The modern turn was the project of making the quest for truth nonthreatening, relevant, and useful for society writ large. Prior to this, ancient philosophy saw the quest for truth in permanent conflict with society, which requires at least some consensus on matters of opinion. Opinion is not always true, so philosophy is threatening to society in principle. As a result, pre-modern philosophers kept philosophy removed from the public eye for the preservation of both. But with the rise of modernity, philosophers now sought to take a different tack: instead of sheltering the two from one another, they would attempt to resolve the tension by bringing the endgames of the truth seekers and society into alignment. This led to inquiry being accepted by society insofar as it contributed to the improvement of life in society. But paradoxically, this new openness and freedom for inquiry shrank and restricted the scope of philosophy to matters of immediate application to human usefulness. In order to remain effective at this, it decided to distinguish between facts, which admit of repetitively demonstrable or empirical answers, and values, matters concerning how to live and therefore about which rational deliberation is not thought to be possible. Thus positivism was born.

Positivism has culminated in the present with its most radical form, “scientism,” the doctrine that only questions that fit the scientific method of inquiry are answerable, and that if it doesn’t come directly from the scientific method, if it is “merely” a normative concern of values, it can’t be true or useful. Indeed, this has come to sound like common sense to many of us.

But the problem with scientism is that it is patently unscientific. It begs the question; it is faith-based. The scientific method becomes unquestioned and takes itself for granted, or in other words, the scientific method fails to apply itself reflexively, to hold itself to the same rigours of scrutiny to which it holds the objects of its inquiry.

The scientific enterprise properly understood, which was initially identical to and coeval with the philosophic enterprise, is concerned with the replacement of opinion by truth, ignorance by knowledge, impassioned prejudice by levelheaded clarity. Scientism, however, is what you get when reason itself becomes a prejudice. If only scientism were more scientific, i.e. philosophic, it could have recognized that the forced distinction between facts and values, and the ensuing esteem for facts over values, is itself a value judgment and therefore unscientific.

This is an especially sinister kind of prejudice. Reason is the means by which prejudice is overcome. When reason is hijacked by prejudice, its use as an opposing force to prejudice disappears. Scientism is then the ultimate and ironic victory of prejudice over reason; it is the prejudice that turns prejudice’s only reliable opponent into a perverse ally.

If science as a method of studying nature and obtaining knowledge about nature is to sustain itself, it needs to be able to give a defense of itself, to explain itself. But this is where the scientific method runs into trouble. It works great when it is projected outward at an object, and this is why it seems so forceful and persuasive; you can’t argue with results. But it falters – indeed, it can say nothing at all – when turned to itself, the subject. More properly, this subject is not the scientific method itself but rather the individual human being utilizing it in his or her pursuit of knowledge.

Accurately speaking, it is that person, the scientist, who must be able to explain his or her activity as a human being in the activity of seeking knowledge. Just as we have a science of biology, of physics, or of chemistry, so we need a science of science – in other words, a science of human beings as thinking beings who seek to understand themselves in their world. The study of nature must take into account human nature as the centre of what it means to grasp nature.

Science cannot get by without philosophy, even after centuries of ostensible quasi-independence. A cursory survey of some of the work being done in contemporary theoretical physics quickly gives the impression that modern science has almost come full circle to something that could be described as very similar in principle to classical metaphysics. Indeed, if anything, it is even more “out there.” String Theory is one such example. It is in principle unfalsifiable, so one is entitled to wonder whether it satisfies the strict criteria for a scientific theory, i.e. a reliable account of the world based on facts yielded from repeated, observable tests. Yet, it stands undeniably on top of the culmination of modern science’s most groundbreaking insights.

This points beyond the horizon of what we’ve traditionally deemed within the realm of the scientific method. This being the case, if String Theory can be treated seriously within scientific discourse, there may be some hope for a more widespread respect for philosophy as a life’s pursuit among prominent scientists when we begin to see the scientific method’s horizon as limited or partial, and therefore something that can be surpassed. We begin to see science in itself, when freed of scientism, as part of a collaborative project pointing beyond itself to a larger whole of discovery.

Education ideally introduces people to this inquiry into the whole. Of course, this always begins and ends with an awareness that one is human and therefore a part within the whole, the part that is open to trying to grasp the whole. So, philosophy understood as the love and pursuit of wisdom about nature, full stop, needs to be recovered. Currently it is broken into two, the humanities and the natural sciences. If we want to restore and fulfill the philosophic spirit for courageous inquirers, we need to bridge that gap and bring the two camps into conversation once again.

What prevents the humanities and sciences from talking today? Scientism and historicism. Scientism, as we’ve noted, gives its adherents the excuse they need to stand aloof from the purveyors of other forms of knowledge pursuit. It’s the bias scientists need to examine if they are to engage outside their nooks effectively and engage meaningfully with the humanities. But we can’t let the humanities off the hook: infecting that domain are the dogmas of historicism or existentialism (i.e. nihilism), the doctrine that all truth is relative to time, place, culture, what have you. It is not difficult to see how such a prejudice hampers the prospects of science education in the general public. This is the “nihilism” Neil deGrasse Tyson rightly criticizes, but wrongfully calls philosophy.

These two vices of the sciences and humanities have the same root: positivism’s separation of facts and values. As noted above, this distinction falls apart because it is itself a value judgment under its own criteria. Historicism recognizes this flaw but runs with it to the wrong conclusion, assuming that facts, not just values, are fictitious as well. This is how we end up in the existential nihilism that presents perhaps the biggest challenge ever faced by the spirit of inquiry. This is the real obstacle to be overcome, and facing it will require all the efforts of the humanities and sciences together.

Tyson is right that philosophy is all about questions, but wrong to suppose that this is a bad thing, or even that science at its core is any different. Philosophy properly understood is zetetic, proceeding by inquiry, asking questions, engaging in dialogue, and therefore in constant awareness of limits, problems, and one’s own ignorance. The scientific method properly understood inherited this. Science, like philosophy, is not primarily about certainty, and while it is more answers-focused that its parent, it is ideally open to potentially never-ending questions and perpetual revision. This is why the principle of falsifiability is so central to rigorous scientific experimentation.

We ought not to dismiss the possibility of answers, as historicism does, nor assume prematurely the adequacy of existing answers, as scientism does. Both dismiss the asking of questions out of impatience, in the latter’s case, or despair in the former’s. However, it is precisely the questions that matter. When both warring camps recognize this, the true spirit of inquiry might finally be able to come in from the cold. If what we truly want from our education institutions are scientists and humanists, or at least reasonable citizens informed through scientific and humane learning, then an education with philosophy as its unifying idea is what we need.

Illustration courtesy of Fren Mah, Visual Editor. 

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