Why I Do Science and Philosophy

It seems to be fashionable for scientists to claim that philosophy is dead or useless.

If that’s the case then I must be a deeply confused person. If philosophy is “dead” because science has or eventually will answer all of philosophy’s questions, then you shouldn’t believe anything I’ve said on this blog: I haven’t run controlled experiments to test my ideas, so you shouldn’t take them seriously. If philosophy is “useless” because it asks non-scientific and therefore meaningless questions, then I’ve wasted a lot of my time talking nonsense and trying to make it sound reasonable.

But I don’t think that every question I have posed on this blog can be answered using science alone, nor do I think that I’ve been asking meaningless or unanswerable questions. Many of the ideas I have offered cannot be tested in a lab, but I think I have also offered good reasons for taking those ideas seriously.

Philosophy, a mural by Robert Lewis Reid.

It is true that the methods of science and the methods of philosophy are completely different. And it is also true that science and philosophy often ask very different kinds of questions. But both disciplines are motivated by the same passion, and that passion is the pursuit of truth. I spend a lot of my own time engaging with both science and philosophy because I’m not satisfied with existing answers to some of the deepest questions we know.

For almost everyone on this planet, our most profound questions – questions that human children begin to ask almost as soon as they are capable of asking anything at all – are given a single, all-inclusive answer: because God made it that way.

But that doesn’t do it for me. There are so many reasons to disregard the worldviews posited by every single existing religion. No, we don’t know the answers to all of our questions. But we do know that the specific claims made by these religions are wrong or incoherent or contradictory.

Discarding the answers offered to us by religion leaves us with an enormous amount of uncertainty. If God didn’t create the universe, create human life, give us a soul, and decide what’s right and wrong, then how did the universe come to be, how did humans come to exist, how are we subjects of experience, and what is right and what is wrong?

Whether we call these questions “scientific” or “philosophical” depends only on how we defend our answers to them. A question is scientific when an answer to that question can be tested “out there in the world.” A question is philosophical when an answer to that question can’t be proven or disproven using empirical data, but when you can still use logic to come up with more or less reasonable ways of thinking about that question.

Some of our deepest questions are purely scientific. For example, how humans came to be was ultimately answered by biologists and anthropologists testing – and confirming – Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The evidence for our having evolved from other organisms is absolutely conclusive. How life started on Earth at all is another purely scientific question, though one for which we do not yet have a definite answer (though there are some great hypotheses out there).

Charles Darwin, the naturalist who proposed the modern theory of evolution by natural selection.

Some of these questions are both scientific and philosophical. With the origin of the universe, for example, physics can take us to an instant after the Big Bang, and maybe even before that, but to ask why the Big Bang happened at all is a philosophical question. It’s a question upon which contemporary physics can and should have significant bearing, but it’s hard to imagine how you can answer it with an experiment. And it’s not a nonsensical question, since there are still rational (and irrational) ways of thinking about why there is something rather than nothing.

And some of these questions are almost purely philosophical: there’s no amount of evidence in the world that can differentiate between morally right and wrong. Once you have a good philosophical definition of morality, then various kinds of data can be used to help you decide how you should act on that philosophical definition, but the definition itself can be arrived at only through pure philosophical reasoning.

So I don’t think I have wasted my time pursuing both science and philosophy. Once you get rid of religion, the many questions for which you once had an all-too-easy answer come back to vex you. Some of these questions may be considered scientific. Some may be considered philosophical. Ultimately, to accept a solution to any of these questions will require that you have good reasons to do so, whether those reasons are derived from a careful experiment or from a meticulous argument.

I really want answers to these questions. But I will not allow my desire for resolution to distort my skepticism and my need to have good reasons for accepting any idea. Rather, my longing for answers pushes me to pursue the truth and to share what I find with as many people as I can. Maybe some day humans will have the answers to these questions. But the path to such knowledge will be paved by the scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers of today and tomorrow who want those answers and who refuse to accept the truth of a claim simply because they read it in a book written thousands of years ago.

So no, philosophy is not useless, and it most certainly is not dead.


4 thoughts on “Why I Do Science and Philosophy

  1. “Because God made it that way” also begs the question, “Why did God make it that way?” or “Why is there a God?” And so religious pursuit of truth, scientific pursuit of truth, and philosophical pursuit of truth is really all but variations of the same: A pursuit. If there is any one truth, I’d say it’s that we will never be able to stop seeking truth(s) that is/are beyond our current understanding of ourselves, however cyclical or paradoxical that may sound.

    1. I disagree as regards theology. At their best, science and philosophy take nothing as assumed. The question “Why is there a God” takes God’s existence as assumed. Assumed, presumably, on the basis of faith.

      As to whether we can ever stop seeking the “truth,” I agree. Truth is a claim’s correspondence to reality. The problem is, we can never actually know reality. We can just make a good case for a believing in a claim, and take as little assumed as possible when making that case.

  2. Which questions have actually been answered by philosophy? While I truly appreciate the philosophical discussion, I can think of few issues that have been settled by it. In that sense, science may answer the what and how, and philosophy may ask the why, but cannot answer it? Except perhaps in logical deduction from (arbitrary?) axioms, but then one can ask how much ‘new’ knowledge is gained.

    Sorry if I’m incoherent, writing this in a bit of a rush.

    1. Let me ask you this: what questions have been settled by science?

      Science, just like philosophy, is just a way of presenting a reasonable argument based on facts available to you. The history of science is replete with examples of scientists realizing that the story they came up with to explain their observations was wrong.

      As I mentioned in my last comment, a statement is true if it reflects reality. The problem is that we can never know reality itself. So even if we have very, very good reasons to believe that a statement is true (for example, “Short term memory is instantiated in the hippocampus”), we can never actually know if it’s true. Science doesn’t settle anything. It just gives us some really good reasons for believing some propositions. Philosophy can give us good reasons for believing some propositions as well, but because it offers ideas that can’t be empirically tested, people are probably right to take philosophical propositions with a bigger grain of salt than scientific propositions.

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