Thursday, November 19, 2009
Massimo Pigliucci has, I think, an excellent post at his blog, Rationally Speaking, entitled "On the difference between science and philosophy," that nicely captures most of my objections to the attempts by some atheists to smudge the very real lines between science and philosophy and/or to denigrate philosophy.
Science, broadly speaking, deals with the study and understanding of natural phenomena, and is concerned with empirically (i.e., either observationally or experimentally) testable hypotheses advanced to account for those phenomena.
Philosophy, on the other hand, is much harder to define. Broadly speaking, it can be thought of as an activity that uses reason to explore issues that include the nature of reality (metaphysics), the structure of rational thinking (logic), the limits of our understanding (epistemology), the meaning implied by our thoughts (philosophy of language), the nature of the moral good (ethics), the nature of beauty (aesthetics), and the inner workings of other disciplines (philosophy of science, philosophy of history, and a variety of other "philosophies of"). Philosophy does this by methods of analysis and questioning that include dialectics and logical argumentation.
Now, it seems to me obvious, but apparently it needs to be stated that: a) philosophy and science are two distinct activities (at least nowadays, since science did start as a branch of philosophy called natural philosophy); b) they work by different methods (empirically-based hypothesis testing vs. reason-based logical analysis); and c) they inform each other in an inter-dependent fashion (science depends on philosophical assumptions that are outside the scope of empirical validation, but philosophical investigations should be informed by the best science available in a range of situations, from metaphysics to ethics and philosophy of mind).
So when some commentators for instance defend the Dawkins- and Coyne-style (scientistic) take on atheism, i.e., that science can mount an attack on all religious beliefs, they are granting too much to science and too little to philosophy. Yes, science can empirically test specific religious claims (intercessory prayer, age of the earth, etc.), but the best objections against the concept of, say, an omnibenevolent and onmnipowerful god, are philosophical in nature (e.g., the argument from evil). Why, then, not admit that by far the most effective way to reject religious nonsense is by combining science and philosophy, rather than trying to arrogate to either more epistemological power than each separate discipline actually possesses?
This was one thing the positivists were consistent about, at least. I would have enjoyed the God Delusion a lot more if he had passed over the 747 argument in silence.
However I think Massimo's definition of philosophy of being essentially rational is in its turn too narrow. Metaphysics is derived from something more akin to poetry than to reason. We can use reason to compare metaphysical schemes, but their origin is in our faculty to envision, not to analyze.
"So when some commentators for instance defend the Dawkins- and Coyne-style (scientistic) take on atheism, i.e., that science can mount an attack on all religious beliefs, they are granting too much to science and too little to philosophy."
If he is going to mention Dawkins, he should at least take the time to read the man. Nowhere does Dawkins suggest that science can attack *all* religious beliefs, only those that have a measurable effect on the natural world.
It's a bit of a lazy exaggeration from Massimo.
Well, Dawkins is better than Coyne but he has gone too far at times as to what science can answer. (And I also think the 747 argument is pretty bad.)
As to metaphysics, I don't know if Pigliucci would claim that metaphysical schemes have to arise from reason, just that they have to be examined and, ultimately, judged by it. Maybe he does but I don't see that in this piece.
I am not here to defend Dawkins arguments, some are good some are horribly bad (hrmf 747), I just think addressing what he actually says is a better strategy.
We don't want to end in the Eagleton camp creating composites like Ditchkins, just because it is easier to argue against a caricature rather than the real thing.
I was responding to his definition of philosophy from that post:
"Broadly speaking, it can be thought of as an activity that uses reason to explore [list of areas of philosophical exploration.]"
I suppose that's not entirely exclusive language, but I asked him to clarify it all the same.
Daniel C Dennett argues that Darwin's Dangerous Idea is like an universal acid. It cannot be contained. He makes the argument that much of the evolution denial of the last 150 years has been through various groups trying to set boundaries against the universal acid spreading.
Now it seems that philosophers are trying to set boundaries against science. Science does seem to be dissolving the concepts of absolute truths and absolute meanings. And what is worse they are doing it almost as a byproduct of rational inquiry and empirical processes.
Are there very real lines between science and philosophy or are there merely imaginary lines? What tests do you propose? Are there testable arguments that could resolve the issue?
P.S. For all those philosophers who will immediately respond saying that philosophy doesn't work through testable arguments - just think what you are implying about the use of philosophy (and I know that that is a philosophical stance too).
It would imply it isn't science ... but that's what we've been saying, that science should not aspire to be philosophy or vice versa. Art, music, literature, not to mention such emotions as romantic and familial love, are not science either. Are they of no human value? On what empiric basis do you reach a conclusion, one way or the other, on the question of the value of those things? If you have none, then you are doing philosophy.
Even if, as you claim, there is no clear, bright-line, demarcation between science and philosophy there is surely a fuzzly line. What purpose is there to mixing them all together? Why, then, shouldn't we mix science and religion together and teach it to children as all equal?
I'll agree that Dawkins doesn't say that science can mount an attack on all religious beliefs ... just on all the ones he doesn't then dismiss as empty and meaningless.
You assert that "Art, music, literature, not to mention such emotions as romantic and familial love, are not science either." I would reply that certain aspects of those things (such as the natural causes of those things) are already science, and increasingly so. Some aspects of those things (such as meaning) are claimed by religion too.
I could reasonably assert that, in the broadest sense, religion, philosophy and science (and art and music and politics etc.) are different sets of tools used by humans to understand their world and their place in it. At the moment the scientific method seems to be reducing the number of gaps for god(s) to exist in. It also seems to be reducing the freedom of philosophy to (sometimes) go off on an unconstrained tangent. That suggests to me that any 'boundary between magisteria' is a flimsy and changeable definition rather than a reflection of any underlying reality.
That "suggests," not itself being a scientific result, is philosophy. Wilkins just made this point.
Sure, science will expand but philosophy will still be needed to understand what that means.