Monday, November 24, 2014

Philosophy vs Science

In recent times we seem to be a entering a new argument characterizing our time, the one between Philosophy and Science. I have read a whole slew of articles and posts on this issue lately. Most of these posts have been in defense of Philosophy sparked by incidents where famous physicists like Stephen Hawking and Neil de Grasse Tyson seem to be disparaging and dismissing philosophy as a worthless enterprise. I recently read another post by a scientist sparking me to write this post providing a counter-view.

When Hawking or Feynman or NdGT criticize philosophy it seems disingenuous, since these minds have produced sentences of great philosophical earnest and profundity in recent times. I myself am incredibly partial to philosophical speculation and conjecture, this blog can easily convince you. Yet I find myself agreeing with these "critics" of philosophy. So I will pretend I understand what they mean by their dismissal and try to elucidate it.

Also I will limit myself to natural philosophy, philosophy that seeks to explain the natural world around us. For sure, there is philosophy of morality and behavior and politics and others that I am unaware of, but I presume no physicist is trying to comment on that, nor am I qualified to comment. 

Much of the debate between philosophy and physics seems to be muddled by the semantics of what philosophy is. Both science and natural philosophy can be said to be the love and pursuit of truth as it pertains to the natural world around us. Science, in fact, is a descendant of natural philosophy in the sense that all the old world fathers of science were philosophers of their time. For most defenders of philosophy, the shared heritage and eventual divergence seems to be a positive argument justifying why philosophy is relevant. I do not agree. Just because we have a different word to define two nuances of the pursuit of knowledge doesn't mean they need to be done by two separate classes of people. 

The problem is that natural sciences have so far surpassed the realm of common knowledge that it is impossible to ask meaningful questions, much less answer them, without a long and intricate study of the natural sciences.

As a result, today there can only be two constructive kind of philosophers. 
1. Active scientists who are of an intellect and courage required to see the larger picture and ask questions that may or may not be easily answered. 
2. An individual who is well trained in science, enough to reach the frontier of human knowledge, but chooses to not engage in active scientific research preferring the more contemplative and speculative method of philosophy.

Regardless of which camp you are in, you qualify to be called a scientist. The designation of philosopher can be applied to the second class only with full knowledge that they are ex-scientists or at worst, amateur scientists, but never non-scientists. Any non-scientist, one who did not go through training in science simply cannot understand what is already known and therefore cannot even ask the right questions about the unknown.

The point is beautifully made in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, although about religion, not philosophy. Physicists and scientists often deflect unanswerable philosophical questions by saying that is not the purview of science but of theology. And Dawkins asks, why? What expertise does religion bring in the attempt to answer the question?

A similar question could be posed to philosophy. If you have an individual who is not trained in the science and is asked the question why the universe exists, how good can we really expect the answer to be? If you do not understand string theory or the standard model or relativistic field theory, what expertise about the nature of the universe can you bring to that question as a philosopher versus a scientist? My feeling, and perhaps the view of the famous scientists in question, is that a natural philosopher without training in science has nothing to add to this conversation. 

Another notable spat in the philosophy science tussle was the one between David Albert and Lawrence Krauss, wherein Albert criticizes Krauss' book for dismissing that the philosophical question of why the universe is as it is compared to the scientific question of how the universe came to be as it is. I personally do not dismiss the question, in fact, I would side with Albert on his criticism of Krauss (I am not a fan of Krauss, that's why I don't count Krauss in the list of physicists I'm defending here). Albert is a professor of philosophy but has a PhD in theoretical physics. He represents the second method for practicing constructive philosophy. I am fairly sure his kind is not the one physicists have a problem with nor do I. 

Remember, Feynman, Hawking and NdGT are huge public faces of science and face vastly more of the general non-scientists populace than most others. I am sure they have to face questions everyday from "philosophers" who would like to stump scientists in an attempt to prove that science does not have all the answers. The anti-science ignorance is betrayed by the presumed non sequitur that if scientists cannot answer the question, someone else has to do it. Bringing us back to Dawkins' question, who? Who is qualified to ask or attempt answers to these questions? A philosopher? The famous scientists, in my opinion, are dismissing amateur philosophy by non-scientists who can easily be misled into believing that a difficult question is a profound question.
As the post points out, Hawking, Feynman and NDT themselves are philosophers in many respects and we are all wiser for it. In fact philosophy, in so much as it is questioning every aspect of knowledge and attempting to formulate answers, is the fundamental building block of science. I believe philosophy of science should be a required learning for all scientists, to either excite and unleash their inner philosopher or at the very least, inform them of the thought process of the giants in their fields. Science encompasses and surpasses all of natural philosophy, one could say philosophy has grown into modern science, hence the observation that philosophy is dead and replaced by science. 

A final confusion here is the difference between philosophy is dead vs philosophy is unimportant. Latin and Sanskrit are dead, yet a study of these languages is essential in liguistics. They are essential to understand how the currently alive languages evolved and to understand broader aspect of the civilizations they thrived in. They also might provide insight into the future of language evolution and methods of language construction.

Similarly a study of philosophy is essential, not only to understand the history of science and philosophy but also to understand the evolution of human thought in the past, present and future. More importantly, philosophy for a non-scientist is introduction to scientific thought and for scientists, a source of great foresight and insight.

But natural philosophy, as a separate entity and not as an attribute of scientific thought, making any meaningful contribution in understanding the physical world is just as likely as Latin making a comeback as a practical language. 

A scientist with a philosophical bent is a great scientist. A scientist who is not a philosopher is a good scientist. A philosopher who is not a scientist (and not trained as one) is just "dopey".

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