Philosophy and Science: Better Together

Recently, I wrote about what I saw as a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism that had arisen in the context of Donald Trump’s political ascension, among other things. But I think it’s also worthwhile considering other much milder forms of anti-intellectualism that sometimes come from unexpected sources — scientists, for example.

Most scientists blaze with enthusiasm when talking about the wonders they study — whether it’s the amazing discoveries of the past or the seemingly impenetrable mysteries that we are still grappling with today, hoping for a breakthrough. You can sense the passion and excitement that the scientist feels for her work and for the scientific endeavour itself, which is enough to inspire poetry. Read Unweaving the Rainbow or listen to Carl Sagan ponder our Pale Blue Dot and you’ll get my meaning.

Contrast that with the indifference and occasional hostility that some scientists feel toward philosophy. Despite having laid the groundwork for science, philosophy is, according to some, “useless”. Far from being a worthwhile academic endeavour, it deserves our contempt for pertinaciously contemplating pointless questions that have no real bearing on life — unlike science, which has tangibly improved our lives, in addition to profoundly enriching our understanding of the world. The overarching message: don’t bother with philosophy. Stick with science.

As someone interested in both, I’m driven to wonder where this attitude comes from and whether it helps (or hinders) science and philosophy, which I’ve always seen as inseparable in the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and “the good life.”

Underlying this attitude seems to be the impression that philosophers labour over questions that need not be pondered because they lack any obvious relevance to everyday life or the day-to-day work that scientists are engaged in. Why then do some people think that these questions are important and worth taking seriously?

Considering that science strives to advance our understanding of the world, as scientists we should care about philosophy because, in the course of pursuing knowledge, philosophical issues are simply unavoidable. The very act of seeking knowledge raises philosophical questions: what is the best way of figuring out truths about the world?; is there a universal scientific method, normative to all disciplines?; how do we distinguish between science and pseudoscience? These questions have real social and political implications for a society that increasingly turns to science for guidance on matters of practical importance.

But I would go further and argue that in the course of living philosophical problems are inescapable. Such problems pertain not only to ways in which we gain an understanding of the world but, more broadly, to ways in which we live as human beings. Philosophy shapes not only our conception of the world, but our engagement with it, and this occurs whether we are practicing philosophy explicitly or simply living by the results of others’ philosophical contemplation.

This is why I think philosophy should be pursued for its own sake, regardless of how useful it is to the everyday work of the scientist. The questions it raises are important and interesting in their own right.

Bumping into philosophical issues may be an inescapable fact of life, but is there any value to seriously contemplating such questions? Is it worth studying? As Bertrand Russell points out in the closing chapter of The Problems of Philosophy, the very act of philosophising is intellectually enriching, even if the answers we reach are not definitive.

Philosophy teaches us to bear doubt with equanimity. It encourages a spirit of open-minded inquiry, freeing us to examine both radical new ideas and habitual ways of thinking. It liberates us from “the tyranny of custom,” as Russell called it, and raises our guard against sophistries and other errors that would lead us astray. In doing so, philosophy equips its practitioners with critical thinking skills applicable to a wide variety of domains.

In an information-rich age replete with diverse claims clamouring for our attention and assent, in which many such claims are based on specious reasoning and promulgated by those eager to fool either us or themselves, what could be more valuable than that?

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5 thoughts on “Philosophy and Science: Better Together

  1. From my experience, people in scientific fields are primarily motivated by obsessive behaviors, rather than the pursuit of truth which science actually is. They can’t handle the wide variety of fluctuating information encompassed in life, thus preferring fields that require narrow focus on extremely precise information.

    Being in a scientific field, does not an intellectual make. Essentially, scientists and mathematicians are the grunts of the intellectual world.

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    1. I think there is value to specialisation and narrowing one’s focus on particular problems. That in itself is not an issue, but it does become problematic when one becomes tribal about it and loses sight of “the bigger picture.” We need to discourage that sort of academic parochialism. It doesn’t help anyone.

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  2. Ya, there’s value. Holes need to be dug, the tedious dirty work needs doing. That means someone has to crunch the numbers. But put one of them in an average situation in life? There’s a good chance they’ll randomly die lol.

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    1. The work is laborious, but I wonder whether it is any more or less laborious than practicing philosophy. As an example, the story goes that Wittgenstein laboured furiously over his ideas, even isolating himself so as to avoid distractions that might upset his intense focus on the problems he was grappling with. If pursued seriously and sincerely, both philosophy and science are hard.

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  3. Ah, but the difference being that hard science is a tedious process of minuscule progress being made by careful tabulation of large quantities of precise details. A process requiring little reasoning, and large amounts of route repetition and box-ticking.

    Philosophy and psychology, however, require reasoning, pattern recognition, and wrestling with the chaotic and vague forces of the human mind which are very difficult to quantify. Granted, science will eventually evolve to the point that it encompasses these subjects as a parent subject.

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