What’s the purpose of philosophy?

Daniel Brint ... of interest Leave a Comment

Is philosophy simply harder than science?

What’s the purpose of philosophy? Alfred North Whitehead characterized it as a series of footnotes to Plato. You can see his point. On the surface, we don’t seem to have progressed much in the two and a half millennia since Plato wrote his dialogues. Today’s philosophers still struggle with many of the same issues that exercised the Greeks. What is the basis of morality? How can we define knowledge? Is there a deeper reality behind the world of appearances?

Philosophy compares badly with science on this score. Since science took its modern form in the seventeenth century, it has been one long success story. It has uncovered the workings of nature and brought untold benefits to humanity. Mechanics and electromagnetism underpin the technological advances of the modern world, while chemistry and microbiology have done much to free us from the tyranny of disease.

Not all philosophers are troubled by this contrast. For some, the worth of philosophy lies in the process, not the product. In line with Socrates’ dictum – “The unexamined life is not worth living” – they hold that reflection on the human predicament is valuable in itself, even if no definite answers are forthcoming. Others take their lead from Marx – “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however is to change it” – and view philosophy as an engine of political change, whose purpose is not to reflect reality, but disrupt it.

Even so, the majority of contemporary philosophers, myself included, probably still think of philosophy as a route to the truth. After all, the methods we use wouldn’t make much sense otherwise. Our papers aspire to be pedantically precise. We state our theses carefully, marshal supporting materials, and challenge our readers to find counter-examples. For the most part, it’s not much fun, and it certainly doesn’t do much to influence people. If all that painstaking analysis didn’t help us approach the truth, we could surely find better things to do with our time.

Still, if truth is the aim, where’s the progress? Wouldn’t philosophy do better simply to hand things over to science, with its proven track record? Well, one answer to this challenge is that philosophy has been doing exactly that for some time. According to the “spin-off” theory of philosophical progress, all new sciences start as branches of philosophy, and only become established as separate disciplines once philosophy has bequeathed them the intellectual wherewithal to survive on their own.

There is certainly something to this story. Physics as we know it was grounded in the seventeenth-century “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes and others. Similarly, much psychology hinges on associationist principles first laid down by David Hume, and economics grew out of doctrines first developed by thinkers who called themselves philosophers. The process continues into the contemporary world. During the twentieth century, both linguistics and computer science broke free of their philosophical moorings to establish themselves as independent disciplines.

According to the spin-off theory, then, the supposed lack of progress in philosophy is an illusion. Whenever philosophy does make progress, it spawns a new subject, which then no longer counts as part of philosophy. In reality, philosophy is full of progress, but this is obscured by the constant renaming of its intellectual progeny.

The spin-off theory only takes us so far, however. What about those areas where we still seem to be struggling with the same issues as the Greeks? Philosophy hasn’t outsourced everything to other university departments, and still retains plenty of its own questions to exercise its students. The trouble is that it doesn’t seem to have any definite answers. When it comes to topics like morality, knowledge, free will, consciousness and so on, the lecturers still debate a range of options that have been around for a long time.

No doubt some of the differences between philosophy and science stem from the different methods of investigation that they employ. Where philosophy hinges on analysis and argument, science is devoted to data. When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be. It is a professional requirement that they must present observational findings. If you don’t have any PowerPoint slides displaying your latest experimental results, then you don’t have a talk.

Given this contrast, it is scarcely surprising that philosophers disagree more than scientists. Data are data. If you are shown some experimental findings, well, there you are. But arguments have loopholes. In particular, the arguments constructed by philosophers tend to have a lot of moving parts, with ample scope for clever critics to query premisses. So there is always plenty of room for philosophers to take issue with each other, where scientists by contrast have to accept what they are told.

You might think that the difference in investigative methods is due to the different subject matters studied by science and philosophy. Questions of physics and chemistry can always be settled by experimental investigation, whereas empirical methods get no grip on morality and free will. But that would be the wrong diagnosis. Plenty of experimentally intractable problems arise right within science. Take the interpretation of quantum mechanics, or the evolution of altruistic instincts. These are scientific questions all right, but they admit no simple experimental resolution. The problem is that, even though we have all the experimental results we could want, we can’t figure out a coherent theory to accommodate them. Philosophical problems arise within science as well as outside it.

The real difference between philosophy and science is not subject area, but the kind of problem at issue. Philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox. People can be influenced by morality, for example, but moral facts are not part of the causal order. Free will is incompatible with determinism, but incompatible with randomness too. We know that we are sitting at a real table, but our evidence doesn’t exclude us sitting in a Matrix-like computer simulation. In the face of such conundrums, we need philosophical methods to unravel our thinking. Something is amiss, but we aren’t sure what. We need to catalogue our assumptions, often including those we didn’t know we had, and subject them to critical analysis.

This is why philosophical problems can arise in scientific subject areas too. Scientific theories can themselves be infected by paradox. The quantum wave packet must collapse, but this violates physical law. Altruism can’t possibly evolve, but it does. Here again philosophical methods are called for. We need to figure out where our thinking is leading us astray, to winnow through our theoretical presuppositions and locate the flaws.

It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing. They are much happier with what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”, working within “paradigms” of settled assumptions and techniques that allow them to focus on issues that can be settled experimentally. When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.

One of the great scandals of modern intellectual life is the way that physicists brushed the problems of quantum mechanics under the carpet throughout the twentieth century. Led by Niels Bohr and his obscurantist “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, they told generations of students that the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the theory were none of their business. “Shut up and calculate” was the typical response to any undergraduate who had the temerity to query the cogency of the theory. (This slogan has been variously attributed to Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and others. The indeterminacy of the attribution is itself a testimony to the prevalence of the attitude.)

If you ask me, the relative inconclusiveness of philosophical debate does nothing to discredit the discipline. It is the natural upshot of the task facing philosophy. Most people don’t enjoy banging their heads against nasty paradoxes. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Given this, it is unsurprising that philosophical problems aren’t easy to settle. The difficulty of philosophy doesn’t stem from its peculiar subject matter or the inadequacy of its methods, but simply from the fact that it takes on the hard questions.

Perhaps there is more progress in philosophy than at first appears, even apart from the spin-off disciplines. On the surface it may look as if nothing is ever settled. But behind the appearances, philosophy is by no means incapable of advancing. The deficiencies of established views are exposed, and philosophy moves on to explore new territory. Throughout the nineteenth century, nearly all philosophers thought that the world was some kind of mental construction, but you would be hard put to locate any such idealists today. The “boo-hurrah” account of moral judgements was all the rage in the middle of the last century, but no-one any longer defends this simple-minded emotivism. Headway may be slow and contested, but this does not mean it does not exist. Maybe philosophy delivers just as much progress as can be expected, given the difficulty of its task.

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