It's been a slow end-of-year for work... nothing since Portland. I'm in Dallas Texas right now, but trust me, there won't be any exciting photos from here. I'm stuck right next to 6 Flags. What a horrible place. So I'm going to intersperse some really old photos I took while living in Europe, and have never posted. Hover over them for a brief description and as always, if you click on them you can see a larger version for all those little details.
I have a ton of old photojunk like that, so I figure I ought to use them for these wordy posts... and this is going to be a wordy post because: I'm finished with another semester, hoo-rah! And I've got more accolades under my belt. My Philosophy professor loved my final paper. So guess what? Here it is. We had to make up our own topic, based on what we got out of the material we covered in class, and so mine was "Why Philosophy needs science." There's a little bit of bullshit in there—I have trouble both getting started and wrapping things up in my writing—and by the time I got to the end, I realized that this subject is much bigger than an 8 page assignment.
From Philosophy To Philoscientia: Escape From Aether Mountain
Though the literal definition of Philosophy is ‘the love of wisdom,’ that is no longer what Philosophy represents to people. It has come to signify man’s search for meaning in the Universe, which is not always the same thing as wisdom. It is a discipline of thought where the natures of things are pondered, values are ascribed to ideas, and those ideas are then used to ask bigger questions. In this historical hunt for truth and meaning, there is often an essential component missing; the critical evaluation of evidence. Assuredly, the great philosophers do not usually ignore evidence—and here I will use bow hunting as an analogy—but in the pursuit of knowledge, it has not always been deemed necessary for them to be one hundred percent sure of their footing or the current wind speed before aiming at a truth. When Aristotle posited the existence of a fifth element, which he named the aether, the only evidence he had to back up his claim was a personal conviction that there needed to be a substance which made possible the movement of atoms in a void, otherwise nature would have made no sense to him. The aether became a part of man’s understanding of nature for two thousand years and became the root of all manner of chicanery from alchemy to all-purpose elixirs. As Professor Smoot of UC Berkeley puts it:
Although there was some degree of experience and observation in the physics of Aristotle, at its heart was a philosophical approach to science where the laws of nature are constructed to conform to a particular philosophical outlook. This basis for the investigation of nature led to some strange statements by Aristotle - for instance, that women have fewer teeth than men. Either Aristotle was not a very accurate observer, he couldn't count, or he had odd taste in women. (Smoot, 1996)
In a very real sense, Philosophy is the evolutionary forerunner of Science. “The word ‘Physics’ derives from the Greek word for natural philosophy, physikos, and the early physicists were, in fact, often called natural philosophers” (The Ultimate Visual Dictionary of Science, p. 14). According to Reference.com, “natural philosophy (from Latin philosophia naturalis) is a term applied to the objective study of nature and the physical universe that was dominant before the development of modern science. It is considered to be the precursor of natural sciences such as physics.” Additionally, “the word ‘science’ comes from the Latin scientia, meaning knowledge” (The Ultimate Visual Dictionary of Science, p. 8) .
Therefore it seems that the definition and purpose of Philosophy had evolved, from the mere asking of rational questions about the nature of the world, into the collection of knowledge gained from testing the validity of such questions through physical experimentation. In other words, the early philosophers were simply scientists who hadn’t yet figured out scientific principles. Once those were better understood—for example that in order to propose an explanation for a natural phenomenon (make a hypothesis), you had to fully understand your starting assumptions and whether they were valid—the discipline of Science split off from Philosophy and became something new and more powerful. Philosophy, for better or worse, was left behind.
So now it would seem that Philosophy, in the minds of most people, is something completely other than what it was when it began. Statements that begin “My own philosophy is…” indicate that in common usage, a philosophy is a personal belief system. Even in modern Philosophy classes, students discuss different philosophical ideas as though they are a matter of opinion, or personal taste. But this forgets the fact that as a branch of study, Philosophy originated as a search for truth, a method of rational investigation for understanding the Universe and one’s place in it. When people became so good at it that they were using it to invent telescopes and predict natural events such as eclipses, they had to rename it and relegate philosophical query to strictly humanistic concerns. Is life a dream? What happens after death? What is the meaning of life? And other objectively unanswerable questions. But it shares deep roots with the scientific method, and perhaps the most important aspect of Philosophy is that it is all about asking questions.
The Greek Philosopher Thales made a claim that exemplifies both the strongest and weakest aspects of Philosophy and in the process invented Natural Philosophy:
Thales believed that the Earth floats on water and all things come to be from water. For him the Earth was a flat disc floating on an infinite ocean. It has also been claimed that Thales explained earthquakes from the fact that the Earth floats on water. Again the importance of Thales' idea is that he is the first recorded person who tried to explain such phenomena by rational rather than by supernatural means. (O'Connor & Robertson, 1999)
The weakest part of his earthquake explanation is of course that he is dead wrong. It illustrates the dangers of stating a philosophical belief without having any evidence for it other than some sort of idea arrived at by rationalizing a limited amount of knowledge. The relative strength of it, however, is as O’Connor & Robertson state; he tried to provide a rational, natural explanation rather than an irrational superstitious one. Moreover, his hypothesis is testable, in principle—sail out into the ocean and see if it is infinite, dig down deep enough and find out what is holding us up—but simply claiming that the Gods cause earthquakes is not.
So, in asking a testable question about the nature of earthquakes, Thales provided humanity with a framework for investigating the world. In asking the question, he provided the groundwork for finding the answer. This is the strength of Philosophy, and its most important function, even in the modern world. It is important to note that not all philosophical questions are equal. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I will claim that the question “Is there a God or Gods?” is among the most useless. There is simply no way to ever answer that question. “Is there a teapot orbiting the smallest star in the Andromeda galaxy? Do leprechauns, unicorns, and angels exist? How deep is the well of human gullibility, anyway?” These are the equivalents of mental masturbation in that they are not testable, and serve no greater purpose than to distract the masses from questions of greater import.
Some might argue that this is exactly why people find Philosophy so fascinating, that it is in the very discussion or argument of such questions that truths can be found, even if rational explanations cannot. To this I would reply with another query; of what use are such truths? When two people disagree about the nature of something that has no basis in verifiable evidence—for instance when Muslims and Christians discuss their differing views of God—isn’t that the same as two people disagreeing about the color of the teapot in Andromeda? I cannot prove that the teapot, or God for that matter, don’t exist (let alone what color they are or what type of sexual behavior they condone), but do I really need to? There are an infinite amount of things which may exist, and disproving any one of them is not simply a waste of time, it is an infinite waste of time.
The human imagination can come up with any number of monsters, fairies, gods, teapots, or endless other scenarios, and thus rational inquiry must restrict itself to that which has measure. This is why Philosophy needs Science. Science is a natural extension of Philosophy which demands critical thought and verifiable facts from any statements that its progenitor may make, from which it learned how to use them in the first place. Philosophy is the train and Science is the track. Philosophy, as I have shown, tends to go off the rails when it ignores such Natural Philosophical strictures.
The Age of Enlightenment is significant in regards to two of my purposes in writing this paper. One—it is when Science finally reached its age of majority. Thanks to Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics, a new world of thought became available to mankind and it definitively demonstrated the most accurate system for understanding and explaining how the Universe operates: Aristotle’s physics were replaced with non-teleological explanations discerned using the Scientific Method. Two—a most interesting correlation occurred in the remaining branches of Philosophy. In the period known as Early Modern Philosophy, philosophers began to abandon traditional authorities:
During the Middle Ages, philosophizing took place in the arts faculties […] and in the theological faculties of the universities. It thus came under the direct and censorious scrutiny of the Church. By the seventeenth century, however, [...] it had become more common to find original philosophical minds working outside the strictures of the university—i.e., ecclesiastic—framework. [...] by the end of the eighteenth century, [philosophy] was a secular enterprise. (Nadler, 2002, pp. 1-2)
When philosophers emancipated themselves from the yoke of authoritarian “thought,” they ceased looking for truths and causes that had their basis in religious or Aristotelian assumptions, and began focusing their attention towards more humanistic concerns such as the nature of the mind, free will, and secular morality. I believe that these two intertwined occurrences—the parting of ways between science and philosophy, and the more deterministic direction which philosophy itself then took—illustrate the power of philosophical inquiry and its dependence upon testable facts—i.e. the Scientific Method.
As I asserted earlier, the most vital aspect of philosophy lies in asking questions. That is its ultimate strength, and when philosophical questions are asked properly they can lead to astounding discoveries. What causes Earthquakes? Gods? No! Water? No! Tectonic plates bumping into each other and generally sliding around like a bunch of drunken Greeks? Yes! Next Question! The fact that asking simple questions led to finding the method for asking better questions, and in turn led to finding the ways to then answer those questions is perhaps the most dramatic quest in the history of humanity. In other words, if Philosophy is the question—How do I find answers to my questions and know that I’ve found a truthful answer?—then Science is the How. Ask a testable question, experiment, revise your assumptions and make a prediction, experiment again. Revise again. Ask again. Philosophy is thus most successful when Science can prove that it has asked a good question.
The danger of Philosophy then is of course when you ask a question that you are certain that you already know the answer to, based especially on feelings of how the world “ought” to be. Socrates was the earliest recorded human to realize this and he made it his life’s work to instill in his students, and thus in humanity, the humility of never assuming too much self-certitude. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates says:
I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either. (Plato, p. 21d)
What he was communicating is that it is folly to claim knowledge that is unearned; if you assume that you know something without having subjected it to rational dissection first, then further questions that you may ask based on this assumed knowledge will be faulty. His famous technique of questioning his opponents has come to be called the Socratic Method, but with a little age and maturity the Socratic Method begins to look quite a lot like the Scientific Method. When Aristotle assumed that there must be something like aether holding up the heavenly bodies, every question that future Western philosophers asked about the nature of the Universe afterwards was supposed on the basis of this false knowledge. Two-thousand years were wasted trying to find a way to turn lead into gold using Aristotelian principles. It is a shame for humanity that Aristotle didn’t heed his grand-master’s teaching more closely.
Another example of reading your own presuppositions into philosophy and the danger this can lead to are the Nazi interpretations of Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s philosophy seems diabolical and radical when taken at face value, and his harsh German writing style doesn’t help. But he was anti-Judaist, not anti-Semitic or in other words, he was anti-religious and anti-authoritarian, not racist. His idea of the coming master race did not involve singling out any particular race, Aryan or otherwise, for the honor. Instead, it involved the eventual evolution of all mankind in a similar manner as when Homo Erectus evolved into Homo Sapiens. However, he envisioned the Übermensch as the end result of a more spiritual or mental evolution, perhaps even as a goal which humanity can set for itself purposefully.
Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth was anti-Semitic, and she had total control over all of his manuscripts for many years. It is well documented how she used and changed them to her own purposes. Thanks to her meddling, “Nietzsche's philosophy had been made ambiguous and incoherent, allowing loose interpretation. This ambiguity prompted Nazi interpreters to choose a context that supported Nazi literature and prophesy” (Kalish, 2004). When you think you know the truth, you will go looking for something to support it even if what you find must be altered—or conflicting evidence ignored—in order to do so. This is called confirmation bias and needs to be just as assiduously avoided in Philosophy as it is in Science.
Therefore in order to avoid the appearance of confirmation bias myself, I wish to make one final point whose distinction I may not have made clear until now. When I say that there is danger in philosophizing without a scientific license, so to speak, I am not mainly talking about philosophical speculation. Although any philosophical speculation can be strengthened with a more firmly logical, scientific footing, there is no harm in sitting around the dorm room and wondering if the Universe is an atom in a giant cheese pizza. Nor is there any harm in writing a philosophical paper, treatise, or novel based around uncertain principles—whether by a stoned college undergrad or a tenured Ivy League professor—so long as it’s speculative nature is made unequivocally clear. As a matter of fact, such speculation is the cornerstone of much progress in all of the Arts and Humanities. If you are too afraid to ask absurd questions, you will never learn how to ask the good ones and in any case, the truth is often found out to be more absurd than could have been believed in the first place.
No, I am mostly talking about making policy based on such speculative philosophies. As in the case of the Nazis who based many of their actions on a misunderstood reading of Nietzsche, there is danger in claiming that you have found a woman’s, Jew’s, or homosexual’s place in society, or the meaning of life, or the one true God, all based on a logically flawed philosophy. It is mostly a given among scientists and philosophers nowadays that you must be certain of your footing before you aim for exciting new questions, but it is almost never a given among the less educated. Philosophy in the hands of a politician is often a tool for suppression. If people demanded that the philosophies of the powerful lived up to well understood facts and not to simple ideology, it would be infinitely more difficult for the atrocities of population marginalization and genocide to occur.
If Philosophy then is the love of wisdom, and Science is knowledge, it must be understood that there can be no wisdom without the love of knowledge. It is far easier to convince an ignorant population to commit atrocities in the name of an ideology or a deity than it is to convince an educated one that recognizes the difference between a well-reasoned position and a scatterbrained dogma. If a philosophy is to do no harm, it must be understood in its entirety by an educated population before decisions of policy are based on it.
Conversely, in an age of nuclear and biological weapons proliferation, it would seem that knowledge is also in dire need of some wisdom. How do you then gain the wisdom to use knowledge? It is not so much a chicken and egg situation, but a male and female one. So, while my main assertion is that Philosophy needs scientific back-up in order to be valid, the reverse is also necessary. The two must be learned hand-in-hand; they each need the validation of the other in order to survive.
Dorling Kindersley Limited, London. (1998). The Ultimate Visual Dictionary of Science. New York: DK Publishing.
Kalish, M. (2004, June). Friedrich Nietzsche's Influence on Hitler's Mein Kampf. Retrieved December 07, 2012, from UCSB Department of History: http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/133p/133p04papers/MKalishNietzNazi046.htm
Nadler, S. (2002). A Companion to Early Modern Philosophy. Blackwell Publishers.
O'Connor, J. J., & Robertson, E. F. (1999, January). Thales of Miletus. Retrieved December 03, 2012, from School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland: http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Biographies/Thales.html
Plato. (n.d.). Apology. http://perseus.uchicago.edu/perseus-cgi/citequery3.pl?dbname=GreekTexts&query=Pl.%20Ap.%2022a&getid=1.
Smoot, P. G. (1996, December 21). Professor Smoot Courses' Page . Retrieved December 03, 2012, from CMB Astrophysics Research Program : http://aether.lbl.gov/www/classes/p10/aristotle-physics.html