Monday, 15 June 2009

Philosophy versus science?

Science and philosophy have sometimes seemed opposed. In fact science and philosophy are complementary. Often it is philosophy’s role to set questions and explain methods; science’s to apply the methods and answer the questions.

Science is sometimes seen as no more than a collection of facts and theories. But we owe to philosophers, notably Karl Popper, the realisation that science is above all else a method. It is the best method yet found by which we protect ourselves from error in our understanding of the world.
In truth natural selection did not so much make us great thinkers as great survivors. Our mental capacities, no less than our physical ones, are optimised for survival in the conditions that formed us. They therefore include a number of cognitive biases that helped our ancestors to avoid being eaten but which make it difficult for us to think clearly.

The scientific method, including the use of mathematics and logic, insists that we suspect our intuitions and that we test them by observation and experiment. This insistence is, of course, applicable to every factual claim, including those of theologians, alternative therapists, politicians and marketers.

But science is, of course, also a set of facts and theories. Both are often extraordinary. Science provides us with facts about the early moments of the universe and about the many strange and beautiful things in its current vast extent. It provides us too with facts about very small things – from sub-atomic particles to bacteria and cells. It reveals the amazing variety and complexity of living things.

But above all science provide us with explanations. With, that is, general theories that explain a vast range of phenomena from the motions of planets to the reactions of molecules. And these are preferable to the speculations of theologians and philosophers, or the prejudices of laymen, because they have survived rigorous testing. They are not mere opinion. These theories are, at best, wide-ranging, elegant and profound. They produce surprises as well as explaining the commonplace. It’s for this reason that I agree with Prof. A C Grayling’s remark last Saturday that science is “humanity’s greatest achievement”.

It’s often said that science cannot tell us what to do. Apologists for religion often suggest that this is a weakness. This is not the place to examine their own claims to moral and practical insight.

We are all faced with periodic needs to make morally difficult decisions. Humanists, like others, generally rely on their feelings and the advice of those they respect. But some of us would like to have a solid basis for these decisions and we look to the work of moral philosophers to at least clarify the issues. Philosophers can, indeed, bring clarity to complex issues; it’s what they do. In practice decisions often depend on basic moral principles, which humanists often share with others, and on our understanding of the facts. Specifically of the likely consequences of our actions.

But here we are back to science! For establishing facts and the likely consequences of actions are, at least when we try to take a general view, just what science does. Thus we see why Prof. Jonathan Glover, the notable moral philosopher, said in last year’s BHA Bentham lecture, that science could offer more than philosophy in resolving difficult moral problems.

Science rarely tackles morally significant issues because scientists often do not see how they could contribute (and perhaps because they fear the criticisms that would follow if they did). Yet humanists in particular need science’s contribution.

1 comment:

crabsallover said...

Prof. Peter Atkins thinks a scientist is an optimist whilst a philosopher is a pessimist.

Peter Atkins: I think the distinction between a philosopher and a scientist is that a philosopher is a pessimist and a scientist is an optimist. Because of the extraordinary tool that mankind has discovered, namely the scientific method, we are optimistic that this method is is capable in principle of answering every conceivable real question (it might take 100 or 10,00 years).

We need to understand what is good; what all of us think of good is moulded by evolution from ape to human; being able to reflect on consequences of actions; Scientific method is capable of answering every reasonable question; science is only way to knowledge and truth. A philosopher is a pessimist - a scientist is an optimist!

He explains why he thinks Philosophy is pessimistic here in a 30 minute talk: