Thoughts on Philosophy and the Sciences

The deficiencies of each of these alternatives, in each of their variations, have been well demonstrated time and again, but this failure of philosophers to find a satisfactory resting spot for the pendulum had few if any implications outside philosophy until recent years, when the developments in science, especially in biology and psychology, brought the philosophical question closer to scientific questions – or, more precisely, brought scientists closer to needing answers to the questions that had heretofore been the isolated and exclusive province of philosophy.

Daniel C. Dennett,  Content and Consciousness

Rereading Denett’s book Content and Consciousness makes me see how little has changed between 1969 and now in philosophy. The point of his statement above is to show how over time (history) the questions of philosophy are replaced by the questions of scientists. Why? Is there something about philosophy that keeps it at one remove from reality? Are we forever barred from actually confronting the truth of reality? Is it something about our tools, our languages, our particular methodologies, etc.? What is it that the sciences have or do that makes them so much better equipped to probe the truth about reality? What Denennett is describing above is the movement between differing views of reality that philosophers time and again seem to flow through from generation to generation, shifting terms from nominalism/realism, idealism/materialism, etc. down the ages always having a battle over approaches to reality that seem to be moving in opposing ways. While the sciences slowly and with patient effort actually do the work of physically exploring and testing reality with varying probes, instruments, and apparatuses that actually do tell us what is going on.

Levi R. Bryant has a couple of thought full posts on his blog Larval Subjects (here) and (here) dealing with the twined subjects of philosophy’s work and reality probing. In the first post he surmises:

Here I think it’s important to understand that philosophy is not so much a discipline as a style of thought or an activity.  We are fortunate to have a discipline that houses those who engage in this sort of conceptual reflection, that provides a site for this reflection, and that preserves the thought of those who have reflected on basic concepts.  However, I can imagine someone objecting that certainly the scientist can (and does!) ask questions like “what is causality?”  To be sure.  However, I would argue that when she does this she’s not doing science but rather philosophy.  Philosophy doesn’t have to happen in a department to be philosophy, nor does it have to be in a particular section of the bookstore.  One need not have a degree in philosophy to engage in this sort of reflective activity; though it certainly helps.  It can take place anywhere and at any time.

The notion that scientists ask questions that are philosophical is true and that in that process they are doing philosophy is also true, yet I think it overlooks the fact that scientists not only ask questions that are philosophical they also answer these questions scientifically rather than philosophically and that seems to make all the difference between the two domains of knowledge. Science is not only as Levi points out of philosophy a “sort of reflective activity”. The sciences utilize a set of methodologies that allow them to probe reality not only using conceptual tools as in philosophy, but also with very real scientific instruments, apparatuses, etc. Obviously Levi would not disagree with this, and I’m sure he knows very well that this was not the question he was pursuing. This is not an argument with Levi about philosophy. In fact I have no problem and agree with Levi in the points he was making. The point of his post was more about What philosophy is? In other words the ontological question not about the differing goals of philosophy and science and what they do. Yet, my point is just that: would the typical scientist stop with the question “What is causality?” – would he like the philosopher be satisfied with reflecting on what is – stay with the metaphysical and speculative ontological question? No. The typical scientist wouldn’t stop there he would also ask the same question as the philosopher but instead of trying to solve the nature of causality as an ontological problem his emphasis would not be on the is but on the activity of causality itself(i.e., what is it that causality is doing?). The difference is subtle, for the philosopher this reflection on the nature of causality is about what causality is, while the same question for the scientist is about what causality does: under what conditions could I test the mechanisms of causality? etc.  That is the rub, the splice, the cut or suture between the two disciplines or styles or approaches toward the nature of causality.

There is a subtle connection between philosophy and science as well. You can ask of science how it pictures the world, study its laws, its theories, its models, and its claims – you can know and listen to what it says or describes about the world: the is of the world. But you can also consider not just what it says about the world – but what is done: experimental sciences not only reflect the is they also understand the actual workings of causality by experimental methods that under controlled or highly contrived circumstances allow them to peak into the nature of causality and what it does not just what it is.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Philosophy and the Sciences

  1. Pingback: What is the task of philosophy today? | noir realism

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