Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Philosophy v Science: Which can answer the big questions of life? - Julian Baggini and Lawrence Krauss

From The Observer (UK), this is an interesting conversation between a philosopher and a physicist on whether philosophy or science is better suited to answer life's most pressing questions. Although, I have to say this is somewhat pointless since neither alone will ever answer all of the questions, or any one question in full.

Each needs the other - philosophy of mind and consciousness have certainly been influenced and improved by neuroscience; and there could certainly be more philosophy of ethics included in the world of science.

Philosophy v Science: Which can answer the big questions of life?

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
philosophy science
Does philosophy or science have all the big answers?

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.

JB I've got more sympathy with your position than you might expect. I agree that many traditional questions of metaphysics are now best approached by scientists and you do a brilliant job of arguing that "why is there something rather than nothing?" is one of them. But we are missing something if we say, as you do, that the "chief philosophical questions that do grow up are those that leave home". I think you say this because you endorse a principle that the key distinction is between empirical questions that are answerable and non-empirical ones that aren't.

My contention is that the chief philosophical questions are those that grow up without leaving home, important questions that remain unanswered when all the facts are in. Moral questions are the prime example. No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong. But that does not mean that moral questions are empty questions or pseudo-questions. We can think better about them and can even have more informed debates by learning new facts. What we conclude about animal ethics, for example, has changed as we have learned more about non-human cognition.

What is disparagingly called scientism insists that, if a question isn't amenable to scientific solution, it is not a serious question at all. I would reply that it is an ineliminable feature of human life that we are confronted with many issues that are not scientifically tractable, but we can grapple with them, understand them as best we can and we can do this with some rigour and seriousness of mind.

It sounds to me as though you might not accept this and endorse the scientistic point of view. Is that right?

LK In fact, I've got more sympathy with your position than you might expect. I do think philosophical discussions can inform decision-making in many important ways, by allowing reflections on facts, but that ultimately the only source of facts is via empirical exploration. And I agree with you that there are many features of human life for which decisions are required on issues that are not scientifically tractable. Human affairs and human beings are far too messy for reason alone, and even empirical evidence, to guide us at all stages. I have said I think Lewis Carroll was correct when suggesting, via Alice, the need to believe several impossible things before breakfast. We all do it every day in order to get out of bed – perhaps that we like our jobs, or our spouses, or ourselves for that matter.

Where I might disagree is the extent to which this remains time-invariant. What is not scientifically tractable today may be so tomorrow. We don't know where the insights will come from, but that is what makes the voyage of discovery so interesting. And I do think factual discoveries can resolve even moral questions.

Take homosexuality, for example. Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is "wrong", but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong". In fact, I think you actually accede to this point about the impact of science when you argue that our research into non-human cognition has altered our view of ethics.

I admit I am pleased to have read that you agree that "why is there something rather than nothing?" is a question best addressed by scientists. But, in this regard, as I have argued that "why" questions are really "how" questions, would you also agree that all "why" questions have no meaning, as they presume "purpose" that may not exist?

JB It would certainly be foolish to rule out in advance the possibility that what now appears to be a non-factual question might one day be answered by science. But it's also important to be properly sceptical about how far we anticipate science being able to go. If not, then we might be too quick to turn over important philosophical issues to scientists prematurely.

Your example of homosexuality is a case in point. I agree that the main reasons for thinking it is wrong are linked with outmoded ways of thought. But the way you put it, it is because science shows us that homosexual behaviour "is completely natural", "has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts", is "biologically based" and "not harmful" that we can conclude it is "not innately 'wrong'". But this mixes up ethical and scientific forms of justification. Homosexuality is morally acceptable, but not for scientific reasons. Right and wrong are not simply matters of evolutionary impacts and what is natural.
Read the rest of the discussion.
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