What is wrong with scientists in the 21st century? Scientists of yesteryear, from Albert Einstein to Neils Bohr, had great reverence for philosophy. In recent years, however, more and more physicists are pounding their fists on the dining room table, declaring science has a monopoly on truth, and that other modes of learning about the world are superfluous and futile. Prominent examples include Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, Peter Atkins and more recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson. These scientists serve as representatives for what can best be described as scientism.
Scientism is the view that the only truth that matters is scientific truth. Any other methods of learning about the world are charlatans masquerading under the guise of wisdom. Philosophy—and presumably history, literature and religion—are outdated methods of learning superseded by advancements made in science. These claims are as arrogant as they are ignorant. Rather than fighting fire with fire, let’s tackle these claims head on; shall we?
The problem with the charges made against philosophy is that they assume the discipline is intended to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Yet philosophy and science are two different disciplines intended to answer different questions. Science consists of developing theories that explain the operations of the natural world; whereas philosophy consists of determining how we ought to live (ethics), what we can know (epistemology), and what, if anything, stands outside the material world (metaphysics). We should therefore be unsurprised that philosophy has not made scientific advancements, in the same way that physics has not advanced art.
To make matters worse, those who dismiss philosophy often do so on philosophical grounds. Philosophy is not necessarily concerned with answering questions but with proposing the right questions. Philosophers make advances by weeding out questions that are logically incoherent (what is the sound of one hand clapping?) in the same way scientists make progress by weeding out false hypotheses. When scientists claim philosophers are pursuing questions that have no answers, they are using reason and logic (the basic ingredients of philosophy) to dismiss philosophy. This is the equivalent of using Newtonian physics to dismiss the existence of gravity.
One need not appeal to voodoo and mysticism to illustrate that there are truths about the world which stand outside the purview of science. These include not only mathematical truths frozen in a platonic realm, but concepts of human rights and language. Yet where do human rights and language exist? In a vacuum? On pieces of paper? Surely our civil liberties would continue to exist even if the Constitution was obliterated. Although the ontology of human rights and language lack the empirical confirmation that science demands, this does not prevent us from unlocking truths about these concepts through other disciplines.
In addition, science is fueled by philosophical gasoline—the pursuit of wisdom. Although scientists may reference the economic and technological growth that stems from funding certain experiments, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), these studies are fundamentally pursued for their intrinsic value. When terms such as “intrinsic value” and “knowledge” are being peddled, physicists are speaking the language of philosophy rather than science.
Many people accuse philosophy of being impractical. Yet even if this were true (it isn’t), philosophy would still be worth pursuing, in the same way that the LHC was worth building despite the practical benefits it may produce.
Science and philosophy can be comrades in arms rather than enemies. Science, for example, can contribute to a premise in a philosophical argument. If moral consideration is marked by sentience, then science can determine at what stage the nervous system of an embryo develops. By the same token, scientists can use philosophical principles to evaluate scientific data. Quantum mechanics, for example, has many interpretations which have no empirical basis. Scientists must therefore use philosophical ideas, such as principles of simplicity and aesthetic preferences, to determine which interpretation of quantum mechanics makes best sense of the data.
Case and point: Science is built upon an epistemological foundation. Dismissing philosophy with science saws off the branch that it rests upon. Claiming science has a monopoly on the market place of ideas is not only arrogant. It’s anti-intellectual.
By Nathan Cranford