Philosophy and Science: Why the Chasm?

Most people have no problem distinguishing between a philosophical question and a scientific one. For example: “what is the purpose of being?” versus “what makes up a living being?”. Easy, no problems there.  However, many inquiries are not so clear cut, most notably being the timeless question of God’s existence—a topic many of today’s celebrity scientists have found a lucrative second career in discussing. In his watershed book, The God Delusion, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins famously declares that the question of God’s existence falls completely within the realm of science, and should be scrutinized accordingly; following in Dawkins’ footsteps, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss recently stirred quite the controversy with his book, A Universe from Nothing, which contends that conventional philosophical notions of ‘nothing’ are outdated, flat-out wrong, and that, scientifically speaking, something really can come from nothing. So why are both these men—and many more like them—so outwardly contemptuous of philosophy? And, as a natural corollary to that question, what has philosophy ever done to contribute to human understanding of reality? Or even better yet, what is it doing now, in the twenty first century, which helps us wrestle Nature’s secrets out of hiding?


Karl Popper: Philosopher Science and proponent of Falsifiability

The main contribution philosophy has made to science is in the realm of, fittingly enough, the philosophy of science. Far from being mere fanciful musings on ‘the meaning of matter’ and things of that ilk, philosophers of science have painstakingly constructed an elaborate logical system/general handy book on how to conduct scientific experiments and interpret their results.  In addition to this, philosophers have historically been the most radical thinkers, coming up with ideas—a few of which are mentioned in the paragraphs below—that forever changed our intellectual landscape.  And finally, philosophers today who wish to contribute to real scientific progress find a cozy niche in the world of cognitive science and the study of consciousness.

Philosophy of Science

As every practicing scientist knows (or at least should know), the foremost touchstone of a theory is its falsifiability; if a means of experimentally proving the theory wrong cannot be imagined, it must be discarded. Where did this idea, arguably the single most indispensable concept in science, come from? The answer, surprisingly, is that the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) defined—and throughout his life refined—the notion of what we now call empirical falsification, establishing it as the primary demarcation method for separating science from non-science. Protocols such as these, the sum of which become the core methodology of the practice, are revered not only for their subtly, but for their immeasurable utility. Democritus

Ideas before Observations

Despite the last paragraph’s praise, protocols such as these are worthless unless the studier knows, at least generally, what he is studying. One cannot hope to understand Nature’s secrets unless there exist general facts, ‘axioms’ if you will, of science—from which all other facts can (in theory) be derived. On that topic, upon being asked if “in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?” Nobel Prize winner/cult physicist Richard Feynman responded: “That all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” Early then, the atomic theory of matter is one of the aforementioned fundamental ‘axioms’ of modern science. But who first propounded this theory, which we now know to be correct? The answer is, again surprisingly, that it was the philosopher Democritus (460-370BC)—along with his teacher Leucippus— who first posited that everything in the universe is made up of infinitesimally small indivisible particles, interacting in an empty void.

Cog Sci & Consciousness

Many today argue that modernity’s distinction between a philosopher and a scientist is a matter of semantics—that until recently they were one in the same; in the same breath, gung-ho naturalists will claim that philosophy is now a vestigial field, a stagnant and stale pursuit which yields no useful scientific results. While it is true that modern philosophy has little to contribute to fundamental sciences such as physics and chemistry, other fields, such as cognitive science, benefit immensely from the work of recent philosophers. In fact, cognitive scientists are now in a position similar to that of physicists in ancient times: their collective works fall on a very long horizontal gradient, with one extreme being ‘pure’ science and the other extreme being ‘pure philosophy’.

The need for philosophy in cognitive science stems from the uselessness of science’s classical tools, i.e. observation and simple mathematical description, when applied to the human mind. Just as the preposition that everything in the universe is made of atoms is a fundamental ‘axiom’ of physics, the fact that the brain is comprised of billions of interconnected neurons is a fundamental axiom of cognitive science. But unlike physics, cog sci (specifically the study of consciousness) has not benefited much from this reductionist approach. Before we could even begin to seriously study consciousness, we had to define it. Without a problem to solve and a tangible, well defined system to poke and prod, the study of consciousness was doomed to devolve into a hyper-specialized field of esoteric definitions with Latin-Greek mongrel names.

Depiction of Conscuiousness, 17th Cent

Depiction of Consciousness from the 17th Century    <Click To View>

The system aspect of cog sci has already been discussed: neuroscientists and research physicians now understand at least the basic biological scaffolding of the human brain (and brains in general). But up until the mid 1990′s, there was still no accepted definition or ‘problem of consciousness—that is, until the philosopher David Chalmers published his seminal book, The Conscious Mind, and several other academic papers. In his writings, Chalmers defined the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness to be explaining how and why humans have personal, subjective, phenomenological experiences, and proposed several means by which this might be done. His definition is basically the equivalent of Artificial Intelligence’s Turing Test, which is a litmus test for determining whether a robot is truly intelligent or not; if the hard problem of consciousness is solved, we can confidently say that we understand the mind/brain interface (in the same way we understand the nature of matter through the study of atoms). Chalmer’s formulation gave, and continues to give, direction to the scientific study of consciousness.

But even before Chalmers, in the 1970’s, philosophers were making headway in cog sci. A notable example is the NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel, who, in 1974, published his famous paper entitled “What’s it Like to be A Bat?”, in which he contended that current theories of mind omitted consciousness (what he defined as what it feels like to be something), and therefore fell pitifully short in describing reality. In some ways, Nagel’s work was a predecessor to Chalmers work, but it wasn’t until an exact definition of the ‘problem’ of consciousness was given could research be done in the right direction.

The Moral of the Story

Those who claim that philosophy has failed to directly contribute to scientific knowledge and learning in recent years are either ignorant of the evidence against them or intentionally ignoring it. This essay has not mentioned the innumerable contributes philosophy has indirectly made to science (for example in the realm of bioethics, a burgeoning field which we are all going to hear much more of in years to come); it has instead, briefly presented four  cases– one ancient, three modern–in which a philosopher has made an important contribution to science.

Leo Kozachkov (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Leo KovachkovLeo Kozachkov is an undergraduate at Rutgers University, studying physics and mathematics. He is currently working as an Aresty Research Assistant under Professor Thomas V. Papathomas. He enjoys writing, drawing, creating/playing music, going on long walks with his beloved dog, and reading/hoarding books.His grandest hopes are to discover a new physical law, have a mathematical theorem feature his last name, and to write many books.

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