Philosophy vs. Science

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Since the first two parts of the Plantinga Pwns series were pretty intense philosophically and covered quite a lot of ground, and given that the next topic in the series is the problem of evil - which also promises to be pretty intense - I decided to write this post as a bit of a breather.  Here I'll cover the basics of philosophy "versus" science.  (If you'd like to read up on the subject in more depth, check out Part IV of this book by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, the philosophy of science wikipedia page, and - if you're feeling ambitious - Part II of Popper Selections)

Of course, philosophy and science really are not in opposition.  That is a somewhat common misconception, and it is often peddled by popularizers of science.  Richard Dawkins has a well-known disdain for philosophy and especially philosophers, and a book like The God Delusion drips with contempt for all things philosophical.  Peter Atkins and Lawrence Krauss have also voiced their low opinions of philosophy, and Steven Hawking in the first pages of his book The Grand Design announced that "philosophy is dead."

The argument, in short (there is no long argument), is that science has usurped philosophy as our primary means of learning about reality.  Further, that philosophy really didn't do us any good.  When is the last time that philosophical talk resulted in an invention like the steam engine?

It's valuable to point out here that "science" as popularly understood and science as practiced are two very different animals.  In the former, science follows the "scientific method": observe, hypothesize, experiment, repeat.  In the latter, it is much more complex, which has dismayed many a student of higher education.  There are issues of approximation due to computational feasibility, there are judgment calls about what data to keep and what to discard, there are probabilities and uncertainties, there are disagreements about methodology, there are issues of interpretation of data.  The flowchart of a high school experiment is straightforward; the flowchart of a PhD candidate's research is the stuff of nightmares.  So, science is not as rock-solid as it is often perceived.  Certainly, it can be prodigiously powerful, but it has limitations.

However, at bottom, the argument against science being the ultimate arbiter of truth is this: science depends on philosophy.  No philosophy?  No science.  To see how this is so, let's begin by summarizing some of its limits.

Presuppositions of Science

First off, science presupposes the efficacy of mathematics.  Mathematics is one of the very foundations of science.  Because of this, science - properly understood - cannot study mathematics or affirm its veracity.  To do so would be to argue in a circle, as science depends on mathematics.

Further, science presupposes that our various senses and our cognitive faculties are - on the whole - reliable.  We cannot seek to argue that our senses and cognitive faculties are reliable using science.  It may be tempting to think that we can, in fact, test the reliability of our senses and cognitive faculties, as there are so many studies coming out in recent years that intend to do precisely that.  This is true to an extent, but these studies nonetheless assume that the researcher's faculties are reliable; if not, the scientific endeavor wouldn't be able to get off the ground.  In fact, any sort of study of the real world would be impossible, and we would be left with an indefeasible skepticism.  So, science cannot prove our faculties of observation and thought are reliable in any strict sense.

Science also assumes that the universe is orderly, obeys a uniformity (i.e. it functions in a predictable manner - the gravitational constant, for example is ... um, constant, was constant, and will be constant), and is understandable.  Science makes other assumptions as well, but let's move on to one final assumption that is widely but not universally held.  It will help shed light on the real issue between philosophy and science.

The Assumption of Scientific Realism & the Primacy of Philosophy

The vast majority of people today hold to a view of Scientific Realism, despite the fact they do not know it.  What is scientific realism?  It's the view that science discovers truth about the universe.  The opposing position - antirealism or instrumentalism - is the view that science at best creates a "useful fiction," which provides a sort of pragmatic view of science; it may not discover what the universe is really like, but it does provide useful methods.  It's pretty obvious that most people are scientific realists; they assume it is true.  It may even be surprising that it's up for debate.  "Of course science discovers how the universe really is!"  But how do we know that what we see and hear are not really phantasms, or the appearance of a universe that is at bottom very different from what we observe?  How do we know that we're not living in the Matrix?

How is one to determine which of these two (and other) views is right?  Certainly science itself cannot answer the question, even if the answer seems obvious.  And here it becomes clear that this is fundamentally a philosophical question, not a scientific one.  Questions such as - What does the scientific endeavor actually discover? Do scientists really come to a hypothesis without any prior assumptions or bias or are their hypotheses theory-laden? How do we determine what is really science and what is only pseudoscience? - these are all difficult questions, and they cannot be answered in science itself.  They are philosophical questions, more specifically, questions of the philosophy of science.

The key difference here between philosophy and science is that science is a 1st-order discipline while philosophy is a 2nd-order discipline.  A 1st-order discipline only studies the information related directly to that discipline.  Physics for example, studies the interaction of particles at the subatomic level all the way to the orbits of planets on the celestial scale.  Physics obviously has nothing to say about 19th century French poetry.  A 2nd-order discipline covers both questions within that field (e.g. with philosophy: what is knowledge?) and can ask presuppositional questions about another field.  Philosophy includes the study of philosophy, sometimes known as metaphilosophy.1  Because philosophy of science asks questions about goals, definitions, and presuppositions of science, good science depends on a good philosophy of science.

Aside from all of this, there are various things science can't do, and other questions it can't answer.

What Science Can't Do

When it comes to the existence or nonexistence of an immaterial being like God, it should be obvious that science is unable to rule in favor of one or the other.  It studies the physical world, and as such has nothing to say about anything immaterial.  And contrary to (somewhat) popular belief, the fact that science cannot study the immaterial world or even determine whether or not it exists does not mean that the immaterial world doesn't exist.2

Science also has nothing to say about ethics - it makes no normative claims.  It is often argued that science does make normative claims in that survival of a species is preferable to extinction, and therefore actions taken by members of that species can be right or wrong depending on the species' survival.  But this makes the assumption that survival is preferable to extinction.  Why think that?  It may seem obvious that survival is better, but science cannot give a reason why.  It merely describes the way in which certain behaviors tend towards survival and others towards extinction; it is merely descriptive, not prescriptive.  One has to step outside of the bounds of science to answer the question

Finally, science has nothing to say of aesthetics.  There have been attempts to explain, say, the love of music purely in evolutionary terms, but they seem to be embarrassingly reductionist and post-hoc, speculative evolutionary psychology.  For example, a possible explanation is that the love of music is rooted in the frequency spectrum of aural communication, and that these sensitivities to various frequency spectrums "in the wild" to promote survival have sort of spun off into a purely recreational endeavor.  But this amounts to no explanation at all, for it leaves us with another question: why did those original aural sensitivities "spin off?"  And what good is recreation that has nothing to do with survivability?

Where Does This Leave Us?

It may seem that science has taken a pummeling in this post.  Certainly, issues such as the problem of demarcation (what is science and what is nonsense), bias, and interpretation of data all remain.  But all is not lost.  If it weren't for science, the authors of this blog would be out of jobs.  I think we are all convinced that science is a powerful tool; it has changed the way we live, and it has increased our lifespans.  But there are questions that it simply cannot answer.  The are issues within in it that must be solved without.  And this is why questions the ultimate questions, such as the existence or inexistence of God, must be answered on the battlefield of philosophy

1.  Admittedly, there is some debate about this.  Some philosophers do not see the distinction between 1st- and 2nd-order philosophies is useful.  Others believe metaphilosophy isn't actually part of philosophy, but is its own discipline.
2.  Now, miraculous claims within the physical world could fall under the purview of science or history.  For example, it seems plausible that some sort of genetic test could in theory confirm or discredit a virgin birth.  But that's a bit off topic, and the subject of much ongoing discussion.
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