Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?

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Philosopher Julian Baggini fears that, as we learn more and more about the universe, scientists are becoming increasingly determined to stamp their mark on other disciplines. Here, he challenges theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss over ‘mission creep’ among his peers


Julian Baggini No one who has understood even a fraction of what science has told us about the universe can fail to be in awe of both the cosmos and of science. When physics is compared with the humanities and social sciences, it is easy for the scientists to feel smug and the rest of us to feel somewhat envious. Philosophers in particular can suffer from lab-coat envy. If only our achievements were so clear and indisputable! How wonderful it would be to be free from the duty of constantly justifying the value of your discipline.

However – and I’m sure you could see a “but” coming – I do wonder whether science hasn’t suffered from a little mission creep of late. Not content with having achieved so much, some scientists want to take over the domain of other disciplines.

I don’t feel proprietorial about the problems of philosophy. History has taught us that many philosophical issues can grow up, leave home and live elsewhere. Science was once natural philosophy and psychology sat alongside metaphysics. But there are some issues of human existence that just aren’t scientific. I cannot see how mere facts could ever settle the issue of what is morally right or wrong, for example.

Some of the things you have said and written suggest that you share some of science’s imperialist ambitions. So tell me, how far do you think science can and should offer answers to the questions that are still considered the domain of philosophy?

Lawrence Krauss Thanks for the kind words about science and your generous attitude. As for your “but” and your sense of my imperialist ambitions, I don’t see it as imperialism at all. It’s merely distinguishing between questions that are answerable and those that aren’t. To first approximation, all the answerable ones end up moving into the domain of empirical knowledge, aka science.

Getting to your question of morality, for example, science provides the basis for moral decisions, which are sensible only if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. Without some knowledge of the consequences of actions, which must be based on empirical evidence, then I think “reason” alone is impotent. If I don’t know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not. Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.

The chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home. This is particularly relevant in physics and cosmology. Vague philosophical debates about cause and effect, and something and nothing, for example – which I have had to deal with since my new book appeared – are very good examples of this. One can debate until one is blue in the face what the meaning of “non-existence” is, but while that may be an interesting philosophical question, it is really quite impotent, I would argue. It doesn’t give any insight into how things actually might arise and evolve, which is really what interests me.

Written By: Julian Baggini and Lawrence Krauss
continue to source article at guardian.co.uk

28 COMMENTS

  1. Krauss needs to attend to Aristotle’s comments, emphasized several times early in his Nicomachean Ethics, that the educated person seeks exactness only to the extent that the nature of the subject allows. Ethics, politics, etc. do not allow the degree of exactness found in math or the natural sciences.

  2. I believe Krauss and Hawking are making the point that in their field, the philosophical questions that are inevitably raised have now breached the limit of verifiable ‘reality’ and thus entered the mystical zone. To wit, a speculative cul-de-sac.

    That’s not to say that philosophy is dead, not by a long shot.

  3. Primarily philosophy was the only available tool to find answers to mental,emotional and social phenomena.now,in the twenty first century deploying magnificent science ,not only can understand what philosophers fiddled with for centuries, also manipulate it on chemical level.science works.

  4. There are far too many comments in the original to go through, but I’ll offer my views on some of what
    Baggini himself said (I agree too much with Krauss for commentary on him to be constructive). Incidentally, Jerry Coyne has discussed this article too: http://whyevolutionistrue.word

    I won’t say that I am confident people like Baggini are wrong about philosophy still being worthwhile, but I do find a number of their arguments on this issue unconvincing, e.g. there is an implication that areas where science is uninformative should be ones in which philosophy will fare better. The following comment seems to me especially confused: “I don’t think there is more stuff in the universe than the stuff of physical science. But I am sceptical that human behaviour could ever be explained by physics or biology alone.” By definition, what isn’t explicable in terms of physics has more to it than physics. From his wording, I think perhaps Baggini’s emphasis is on what we ourselves actually get round to explaining. But this is to misplace things. The epistemic credentials of philosophy are unaffected by what science happens to do in practice, if only because said credentials are a priori; indeed, not only are all philosophers’ arguments in this particular debate a priori, but it is commonly maintained that the principles of epistemology must themselves be exclusively a priori. (Having said that, I’m not so sure that’s right; what of the placebo effect?)

    While actions motivated by love are amenable to a discussion of “why” phenomena, the whys emerge from neurochemical whys, whereas a divine purpose presumably wouldn’t. The point is not whether whys exist somewhere, but whether there are whys, or anything else, lacking a bedrock made of hows. As with the explained-by-physics comment above, Baggini seems to think physical complexity is a reason to keep philosophers employed.

    Nor will I say those who are cynical about philosophy’s value needn’t deal with the morality example, although I’d love to hear about another one for once. Could it be that the only worthwhile philosophy is ethics, so that the word philosophy is no longer needed? Baggini’s comparison of homosexuality with rape misses the detrimental consequences the latter has, if only for its victim rather than for its perpetrator. We mustn’t pretend Krauss was arguing, “that which is natural and not eliminated by natural selection is good”. The other thing that bothers me about philosophers’ example of morality is that, although the reason they think science won’t finish the job alone is ultimately rooted in Hume’s is ought gap, we mustn’t forget philosophers suffer the same constraint. If I say A is bad because of consequence B, neither philosophy nor science need convince David Hume there’s anything wrong with consequence B. What then do philosophers add to our potential question-answering?

  5. “By definition, what isn’t explicable in terms of physics has more to it than physics.” Can you explain the shape of the Mandelbrot set? If so, could you define what you mean by explain? Are you sure that’s the same sense Baggini was using?

    Think also in terms of what will give the closest answer in a practical length of time. An incorrect process can give a more accurate answer than a correct one early on. It may also give access to realms of consideration not readily reached by a precise process. That can make the incorrect process preferable. It does also raise the issue of how one validates such thought. By predictive power? How can that be applied to, e.g., History? Is documenting and rigorously defining models for testing the most useful thing historians could be doing? How necessary is it? What would be tested?

    “Baggini seems to think physical complexity is a reason to keep philosophers employed.”
    It may be. After all, human brains evolved to deal with human brains. Complexity has been part of their selective environment.

  6. I have literally no idea what point you’re trying to make. To me, to explain a mathematical truth is to prove it’s a theorem, so I can explain the shape iff I can prove what shape it has. If you doubt I can explain it, maybe it’s you who should be defining what use of “explain” you have in mind when you ask if I can do it. What I am sure is that Baggini seemed to care about what has been detailed by science or will eventually be detailed by science, rather than what in reality has only details to it of the sort science discusses. In any case, philosophers aren’t made necessary by any properties of or unresolved questions concerning the Mandelbrot set.

  7. Who adds another 2 paragraphs to a post after I’ve already been replied to the original 1-paragraph version, as I had been called to? I still don’t see any philosophy-justifying points in the new material.

  8. Easy question to answer!

    Science, of course! Especially in the last hundred years there has been no doubt what discipline has the valid approach.

    I see the philosophers here are getting their two cents worth in, but that is the combined worth of philosophy compared to the riches bestowed upon humans by science.

  9. Science is philosophy… its called natural philosophy. Why do you have an image of Aristotle and Einstein? Both believed that only philosophy could answer the core questions of the universe. Evidence below.

    ‘…physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may
    seem, uniquely determined by the external world’

    ‘In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand
    the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears it ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, But he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism And he cannot even imagine the possibility or meaning of such a comparison.’

    – Albert Einstein

  10. “…the philosophical questions that are inevitably raised have now breached the limit of verifiable ‘reality ‘and thus entered the mystical zone.”

    Too true. By dictionary definition, dark matter seems ‘supernatural’ . The sharper we can define what creates and sustains the universe, some philosophers, who should anticipate it with joy, can only squirm. The cosmological constants have subsumed all notions of ‘Heavenly Father’.

    Dr Krauss admits to being a provocateur. He provokes me to study physics.

  11. For some science replaces the position of God in the known universe. Science is the alpha and the omega, the creator of all that is seen and unseen.  Philosophy moves outside of the known definable universe and with it follow true religion.  There is still much to philosophy about including, what came before the big bang.  Science divides the known universe into its constituent parts like a child trying to figure out how toys work, only to find that the constituent components are too complex to provide answers.  Some of those complex components include the “driving gears,” for lack of better words, of the fundamental particles of nature, the complexity the biochemistrry within every cell in nature, and for me the science of the nature of the existence of the universe within spaceless, timeless “nothingness ” beyond the universe.  We are unfortunately limited by the laws of nature functional within the bounds of the universe, we cannot therefore attempt to observe or detect any evidence that solves the fundamental mystery of “why” and “how” the universe exists.  There is much hope therefore for philosophers, true religion and for God to one day to say “hello, I exist”. 
    There is fortunately still space for supernatural belief of other dimensions not limited by the laws of science.  “Science as God” is dead therefore.

  12. So, if I understand you correctly, philosophy like physics is pretty much a process of trial and error. Except in philosophy there is no immediate requirement to be entirely accurate in your findings. In which case it could be applicable to the statistical law of averages.

  13. Ziggletooth, your quotations don’t prove these thinkers thought philosophy could help, only that they thought physics couldn’t. This shows phrases such as your “only philosophy” are weasel words. And no-one cares that science used to be called natural philosophy; this doesn’t mean all scientific achievements count as philosophical achievements or that if we got rid of philosophy we’d have to get rid of science – it means “philosophy” is a vague term to refer to stuff we don’t even understand well enough to put in the right box yet and, once we do, philosophy shrinks. 

    Does anyone hear remember when I accused people like Baggini of committing the fallacy of assuming that where physics is unsuccessful philosophy will therefore do well? Thank you, miunguhoran, for explicitly saying that’s how you’re arguing. But could philosophy’s fans please either provide evidence philosophy can do this stuff, or else stop pretending it can?

  14. But could philosophy’s fans please either provide evidence philosophy can do this stuff, or else stop pretending it can?

    We’ll concede whenever empiricism gets a good definitive grip on the human condition. In the meantime, philosophy is a better alternative than the outright storytelling.

  15. Could you give an example of such storytelling by scientists, and of what philosophical alternatives to it are superior and how we know that is so? 

    I’m also unclear on what it is you will concede once empiricism gets such a grip. Are you saying that not until then will you concede you should back up those “philosophy can do X” claims you make? If you were saying something different, feel free to clarify. 

    But you should concede such a responsibility immediately; if we can’t show philosophy can achieve something, we shouldn’t pretend that it can. The only reason this debate is even happening is because there are things science hasn’t yet managed. Scientists don’t claim without evidence that it can, though they give reasons why it’s plausible that it one day could. If anyone wishes to make such a less ambitious claim for philosophy, I’m all ears, but they’ll need to make that case as convincingly as they can. The more ambitious claims made here for philosophy need to be evidenced at least as well.

  16.  

    mlunguhoran 
    We are unfortunately limited by the laws of nature functional within the
    bounds of the universe, we cannot therefore attempt to observe or
    detect any evidence that solves the fundamental mystery of “why” and
    “how” the universe exists.  There is much hope therefore for
    philosophers, true religion and for God to one day to say “hello, I
    exist”. 

    The god-of gaps argument is still live and kicking, among the diverse contradictory forms of  “Trooo religion”!

    There is fortunately still space for supernatural belief of
    other dimensions not limited by the laws of science.

    At least in the minds of those looking for such gaps!

    “Science as God”
    is dead therefore.

    Science never was a god in the first place. 
    It is the best method we have for testing and establishing evidence of what is true.

    Philosophy moves outside of the known definable universe and with it follow true religion.

    This is where the neuroscientists and psychologists follow into the minds of  “the followers of true religion”, to understand the processes which lead then to believe they have information for which there is no evidence,  and why they seek out places at the frontiers of scientific exploration, to hide those claims (for the present) beyond falsifiable testing.

  17. Philosophy is dead, long live philosophy!

    But before we bury it, I think it’s worth mounting a defence
    if for no other reason than its past service to humankind, philosophy like
    mathematics is simply a tool as has been pointed out quite rightly in an
    earlier post science “does” philosophy, there is no branch of science that I
    can think of that has developed independently of philosophy, and scepticism and
    reason are still essential to science, nor has philosophy been a passive
    partner in the scientific adventure, many of the best Philosophers have also
    been practicing scientists or mathematicians (Russell), was it not Kant who
    first proposed that many nebulae (galaxies) were in fact outside of the
    observable universe? This was contrary to the scientific consensus among
    astronomers of the time.

    Still, it is true that today in relation to the big
    questions in cosmology or for answers relating to the fundamental nature of
    reality it is to cosmologists and physicists to which we necessarily turn, in
    these fields it is the specialised theorist and the experimentalist that hold
    sway, it is also true that over the last century philosophy has, how shall we
    put? Lost its way somewhat.

    So might we not then simply dispense with philosophy? No, not
    in my opinion, because its utility in any particular branch of science is not
    what gives philosophy its value, its value comes from its examination of
    rational thought, it will always be an incomplete project, but who given the ubiquitous
    nature of human irrationality and superstition would be foolish enough to
    conclude that the work of Philosophers is complete?

    No, Philosophy is not dead, but it needs to learn from the sciences
    it spawned and should be the guardian of reason and the champion of rationality,
    not the purveyor of opaque and tedious nonsense.

    I rest the case for the defence; it is now for the reader to
    deliberate the fate of the accused.

     

  18. Could you give an example of such storytelling by scientists, and of
    what philosophical alternatives to it are superior and how we know that
    is so?

    By ‘storytelling’ I mean the religious drivel. I am remiss for not being specific on that point.  In light of that, if you wish to equate the Stoic philosophy of ethics with the Abrahamic original sin business, knock yourself out.

    I’m also unclear on what it is you will concede once empiricism gets
    such a grip. Are you saying that not until then will you concede you
    should back up those “philosophy can do X” claims you make? If you were
    saying something different, feel free to clarify.

    Here’s a concession: I recognize that philosophy has nothing pertinent to contribute to quantum cosmology at the current level of understanding. On the same token, I recognize that in terms of the “human condition”, it is devilishly difficult to obtain good data on the worldview of infants. In this respect, philosophy is a better placeholder than anything religion can offer.

    “Philosophy can do X” began with Thales stating that all natural phenomena have natural causes. Now that statement is axiomatic among empiricists and rationalists, but 2600 years ago the idea was strange and dangerous.

    This debate illustrates to me the unnecessary schism between speculative thinkers and experimenters. Both are necessary for knowledge to advance, and I consider it a success when a philosophical premise is either validated or terminally debunked with good data.

    If you feel that philosophy is dangerously close to dogmatism, I agree. The distinction I’d like to make is that philosophers understand that dangerous proximity and are just as willing as empiricists to discard bad ideas.

  19. But can philosophy tells us about the human condition better than science can? It sounds like you don’t wish to defend the view it does (could, of course, is another matter). As for the value of speculative thought, I entirely agree; I’m a theoretical physicist. We theoretical scientists work out what hypotheses would explain what & what evidence could rule out certain hypotheses. Without us, experimentalists wouldn’t have goals; without them, we theoreticians’ insights wouldn’t say how the world is (in Steve Zara’s terms, they wouldn’t show which truths are real).  However, we all seem to agree theoretical physics isn’t an example of philosophy, even if a derivation of that conclusion from definitions isn’t explicitly provided in practice. So does philosophy add to the tools already used in science? (I also don’t think philosophy owns critical thinking today, because science has that built in.)

  20. Science in general and physics in particular will always be the place to go for answers to the so-called big questions, philosophy is just for those who think that navel contemplation will provide answers.

  21. Circa 1971 I bought a book by Bertrand Russell called The History of Western Philosophy. I expected it to be about techniques to deal with unpleasant situations in your life, or what was worth valuing.  However, it reminded me far more of abstract mathematics, without the rigour.  They created quirky, oversimplified, limited ways of looking at the world, but made no predictions.  They postulated things without any evidence at all they were true. I was highly unimpressed.  I have  often come across various famous people who claim to have been influenced by some philosopher or other.  My reaction is REALLY??

    Aristotle I had great contempt for. He cared not a whit for what was true, just with what he thought would be pleasing if it were true. He was Christian at heart.

  22. I think the book Russell wrote around that time for popular consumption was “Wisdom of the West” at least that was its title in the UK, it was simply a potted history of philosophy from the classical to contemporary, it was not actually written as a manual for life, I think that was “how to win friends and influence people” or possibly “Everything you wanted to know about sex, but are
    afraid to ask!” which were published around the same time.

    But I am being mischievous roedygreen, don’t think me unsympathetic and you appear to have learned rather more philosophy than you had wished, Aristotle could not have been a “Christian” but he is most definitely the classical philosopher of choice for theologians, for reasons to numerous to list here, but you can hardly lay the blame for that on Aristotle himself, although I have to agree
    with you he is not my favourite classical philosopher either.

    “They postulated things without any evidence at all they were true”

    This is actually right, if you refer to the classical philosophers, it would not have entered their heads to “test” their hypotheses empirically,  it was a purely intellectual exercise, where empirical methods were actually employed, that would have been considered as “metaphysics”*  (not to be confused with the contemporary meaning of the term), even so they postulated “Atomism”, established the Earth was a sphere, calculated its diameter, the distance between it and the Moon,
    the Moons diameter and the distance between the Earth and the Sun, which they suspected the Earth revolved around.

    Before we get “sniffy” about that particular methodology let’s not forget it was employed by Einstein, Richard Feynman and many other theorist who’s major breakthroughs were as a result of pure thought “experiment” or conjecture only later confirmed by experiment or observation, such is the nature of human enquiry.

    Like it or not, Philosophy is embedded in science, some of the most insightful philosophers of our time have been the physicists, cosmologists and biologists engaged in the frontiers of modern science even though they would not describe themselves as such and do not identify with Philosophy as practiced in the humanities departments of  academia.

    *
    Metaphysics became natural philosophy then physics, the contemporary use of the term means something else (in my opinion).

  23. >He was Christian at heart.

    I certainly did not want to imply Aristotle was Christian. That would be impossible. His dates were 384BC 322BC.  I just meant that this way of deciding truth based on what aesthetically appealed rather than what he observed, the way Christian do.  One of the things that has always puzzled me was the esteem Christian fathers held the ancient Greeks in some ways even more than Christians.

    One of his more famous claims was that swallows do not migrate, but rather burrow in the mud for the winter. Only centuries later somebody had his servants dig for swallows.

    When I first learned geometry, I was in love with the notion of a hierarchy of proofs.  Then I began to worry, how do I know I am not making assumptions a based on the particular drawing I am using for my proof? Algebra had much more appeal because what was legit and what was not in a proof as much cleaner.  I hoped for even greater formalism and rigour as I learned to program punch card computers.

    Aristotle would have been soaked in this kind of deductive thinking. Perhaps that it why he applied it so often when it was not appropriate.

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