Friday, September 14, 2012

On Science and Philosophy

                                         “Philosophy? What can you do with that?”

     When most people think of philosophy they think of toga-wearing ancient Greeks sitting near marble statues or pillars pondering deep things. Today, philosophy is seen as a novelty, a fun thing to study, but with nothing practical to offer society. Discovery is science’s job, technology is the engineer’s job, and history and English cover everything else. With the growth of science and postmodernism, philosophy is grouped somewhere between art and religion, both increasingly seen as useless. But this misconception has yielded several problems for young thinkers who unknowingly buy into this ‘goods-determine-the-value-of-disciplines’ mentality. It’s my aim to clarify what philosophy is, its relationship and hierarchy over science, and its inevitability in human life.

     To start this off, I want to draw together some of the themes that arose from a small debate I had with an atheist blogger recently. His blog was critical of another debate between an atheist and a Christian. His main criticism of the debate was that both parties were appealing to philosophy to answer the question, “Does God exist?” His main point was that philosophy is only good at discussing concepts, ‘what if’ ideas, but has no jurisdiction to declare what is and isn’t real. He was implicitly arguing that science deals with real existence and philosophy with conceptual existence. At the end of the day he claims that debates between philosophers are nothing more than an act of philosophical ‘masturbation’, a ‘who-is-smarter’ game of words.
     But as was evident from this dialogue, this particular science enthusiast, although highly critical of philosophy, was presenting philosophical arguments to defend his way of seeing the world. This is an expected thing with such people, even with prominent figures like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.  The results of such ignorance are bad arguments, horrifically circular arguments. If you don’t understand philosophy, you are doomed to make the mistakes it has so wisely warned us about. In fact, atheists who adopt this epistemology, this scientism, are some of the most close-minded and angry individuals I come across, despite their painting themselves as “defenders of free speech and free thought”.  I’ll explain why.

     Consider the atheist’s claim that in order for something to be ‘real’, or count as knowledge, it must be demonstrated by the scientific method. This maxim certainly has a wide range of effectiveness. For example, the statement, stars converted light elements into heavy elements, is either true or false. The scientific method (in simple terms: observe the world, reveal a problem, form a hypothesis, experiment, match data to hypothesis, conclude the validity of the hypothesis) will deliver the scientists to the truth (high certainty). However, consider another proposition: “Murder is wrong.” The scientist can observe various acts of humans harming others, could explain the psychology behind it, yet would not observe anything in the data that would yield ‘wrongness’. Wrongness is a description of some human action, a statement about how things really are. Even the statement, which you would think follows from this epistemology, “Murder is subjective”, is also not something accessible by science, for it is possible that despite various opinions, there is still one standard. Science, then, must remain agnostic with regard to moral claims.

     Consider also a proposition that science bases its entire foundation off of, “The physical world is real.” The scientist might think this an easy and silly challenge to meet. So the scientist goes out to the world, finds a rock, performs the scientific method, and concludes the following: “The rock that is before me weighs 3.6 pounds, is subjected to gravity, is brittle, can absorb heat, and is rough to the touch. Therefore, with all things being equal, the physical world exists.” The problem, however, is that his argument is completely circular; it presupposes that which it was attempting to prove, that the physical world is real. The scientist might at this point get furious over such a ridiculous challenge. “Of course the physical world exists!”, he says, “What are we manipulating, what are we seeing if not something real? We create buildings, we make technology, and we make medicine! Illusions do not yield such things, you foolish philosopher!” The problem is that no matter how much one appeals to practicality, it does not yield truth, let alone the truth of the aforementioned proposition. To falsify a proposition making a truth claim, one only needs to point to one example in which it fails to hold. With regard to the atheist’s (naturalist’s) maxim, that something is real if and only if it can be demonstrated via the scientific method, it turns out to be a false statement because there exists a proposition that is held true without science. Reality, therefore, seems to appear a lot bigger than science which, consequently, proves that there is a reality outside the scope of science. Enter philosophy.

     Philosophy is much more than ‘thinking deeply’ (whatever that truly means). It, like science, makes observations about the world, but not just the physical, replicable, world. Philosophy can ask, “What is it for something to be wrong; what sort of conditions must be in place for such a word to represent an aspect of reality?” To answer the question, philosophy makes use of a discipline it defined: logic. The branch of philosophy, logic, sets up parameters for the inquirer to use in order to eliminate various contradictory answers. For example, they might start with thinking of ‘wrong’ as that which violates moral law. They then test this proposition, this premise, against defeaters: “If men determine the moral law, then what happens when two or more disagree on what is wrong? Surely, murder cannot be wrong and not wrong at the same time. But how, then, do we determine whose moral law is correct? Only he who has a perfect understanding of goodness can be the proper author and giver of the moral law. Therefore, we report our findings as such: (1) If a person exemplifying perfect moral knowledge declares a moral statement true, then the moral statement expressed is true; (2) The morally perfect person says that murder is wrong; (3) Therefore, murder is wrong.” Obviously this wouldn’t give us an answer, but it sets up the parameters which could lead us to declare whether the conclusion is true or false. The two premises would have to be debated and shown reasonably true before the conclusion can be true. For example, one might object by saying that it’s not possible that there be a perfectly moral man (objection to premise 1), or that even if there was it remains questionable how his ‘word’ simply determines reality, how he acquired this knowledge in the first place, or why he would be obligated to follow his own standard (objecting to premise 2). These would be arguments to counter the conclusion, thus showing that ‘murder is wrong’ is a false statement. But not all is lost, for one may wish to argue for the original conclusion further. Suppose one believes that there is a transcendent Creator of all that is; surely this being would possess knowledge of moral truth, given that it provides moral truth ‘being’. Therefore, such a being would possess moral goodness in its nature necessarily, thus evading the previous objections.  Once these premises are tested, and a worldview formed, the original conclusion can be adopted as true and consistent with reality. This is just a small and shallow account of ‘philosophizing’.

   The problem with science is that the ‘goods’ it produces are often seen as a sign of its supremacy.  Some feel that because science gives us laptops, cell phones, missiles, tanks, medicine, etc, therefore it is the beacon of truth and knowledge. Philosophy seems to produce ‘behind-the-scenes’ goods, almost like an anonymous donor. Even if one were to reveal the limitations of science, such that one acknowledges that it has jurisdiction only in certain (although arguably large) aspects of reality, it might not be convincing for one who is content playing video games their entire life. This leads me to my final point.

     The most practical thing philosophy gives humanity comes from ethics and existentialism. What is good, how do I become a virtuous individual, and what am I living for? It’s a great shame in America that most people base their entire philosophy of life on simple shallow slogans like, “If it doesn’t hurt anyone then it’s ok”, or, “Do whatever makes you happy.” The problem is that these slogans hardly cover any aspects of reality and make people morally desensitized. Egotism is often cultivated by such shallow philosophies of life, because individuals ‘expect’ that they will get ‘theirs’. Everything becomes for some end to increase their happiness, even to the point that giving money to charities is to make them feel good and justified. It doesn’t take much thought, however, to see that these slogans just don’t cut it. There are too many defeaters for them. But this also brings into view the proper mood for individuals to adopt when developing a philosophy of life: that truth should stand as the compass, not pleasure. Once pleasure is adopted as one’s compass, then any sort of statement can be believed. A person with a philosophical mind knows what they believe, why they believe it, and can formulate a worldview to guide them through the world and its various experiences.  An adept philosopher will have each belief backed up to some degree by other propositions so that an intricate web of beliefs is formed into a worldview.

     The expression, “Everyone is a philosopher” is only a half-truth. Yes, everyone ‘does’ things for reasons that, when expressed, can be some sort of philosophy. However, not everyone is a good philosopher. Scientists are probably the perfect examples of this. It’s one thing to offer an explanation on how stars formed, what makes up matter, how ecosystems work, but an entirely different thing to tell people (based on these facts) that no supernatural beings exist, that morality is ‘this’ way, that governments should be like ‘this’, that people should strive for ‘this’. Often times these statements hold little weight philosophically and are based on a shallow naturalistic epistemology.  Richard Dawkins puts forth very little science in his book The God Delusion, but rather passes his very wide but shallow philosophy off as science. The result?  An angry, close-minded, ‘science-or-myth’ mentality that predominates most of the New Atheism movement.

    In short, without an understanding of philosophical concepts, one is doomed to develop shallow worldviews which inevitably fail. One who criticizes philosophy is more likely to place walls around themselves which serve to cover up that which they disagree with. Not knowing why you believe something, and the presuppositions behind them, will usually result in pleasure serving as the compass, instead of truth. One who appreciates truth also appreciates the challenges it offers to the way they see things, and thus are more open. Viewing disagreeing viewpoints in a noncontroversial manner allows the individual to be more tolerant of others. In an age where disagreement is seen as intolerance, we need individuals who can think and communicate their ideas more than ever before.


  1. "Some feel that because science gives . . . therefore it is the beacon of truth and knowledge."

    Worse than that, some believe that if science can explain something (earthquakes, electricity, orgasm) the means that Creator God does not exist. And scientists who are driven by an atheist world-view see no problem with this impossible leap of pseudo logic.

    At any rate, good post.
    God Bless
    See you there!

    1. I agree. Describing a Ford engine in terms of physics and chemistry does not falsify the claim that it was made by Henry Ford or that he had specific purposes in mind. Likewise, describing matter and energy that make up the universe says nothing about whether a God created it or had special purposes for it. Science is agnostic on these issues.

      And it seems odd, from my experience, that atheists demand 'demonstrable', 'scientific' evidence for the existence of God. Yet when it's brought to their attention that God is nonphysical (outside the jurisdiction of science) they take extreme measures by either claiming (a) that nonphysical = nonexistent, or(b)that the theist is merely concocting and modifying God to avoid scientific criticism. With regard to (a), the atheist is assuming the burden of proof because they are making a claim about reality, and implicitly rigging the battlefield, so to speak, by claiming that only science can judge existence. With regard to (b), all the theist has to do is show that all the good arguments for God's existence prove God's essential attributes, thus avoiding the accusation of ad hoc argumentation.