Science vs. Philosophy: A Bogus Battle

Lately, it seems to be popular for scientists, particularly physicists, to bash philosophy in the media. In 2011, Stephen Hawking told the audience at Google’s Zeitgeist conference that philosophy was “dead,” because it has (in his view) failed to keep up with scientific knowledge. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss said in a 2012 interview with The Atlantic that “science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.” Even Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who usually comes across as a fairly broad-minded guy, contributed to the piling-on in a recent Nerdist podcast, dismissing philosophy as a futile distraction, when compared to science:

“…if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress.

Fortunately, not all scientists agree with this characterization of philosophy. I’ve read some good responses to this, courtesy of Sean Carroll (a physicist) and Ashutosh Jogalekar (a chemist). I agree with both authors’ takes, particuarly Jogakelar’s point that it’s silly for scientists to take this stance, when so much of what science is, is a form of philosophy.

Now, I am not a scientist, but I have at least a mote of scientific literacy. And as far as I understand it, science is so much more than just running experiments and crunching data. I don’t think figures like Hawking and Tyson would disagree. Before doing anything else, scientists first must figure out what the questions even are that ought to be asked (i.e., make hypotheses), and then they have to figure out how to go about getting the answers (i.e., design experiments). And, most importantly, once they’ve finished their experiments and observed the results, then they have to figure out what the results mean. In other words, you can’t just do stuff, you also have to evaluate the things that you do. To evaluate anything is to be engaged in philosophy, and to skip out on that evaluative step is to leave one’s own work value-less.

It could also be argued that one can spend too much time evaluating and not enough time doing, which might be what Tyson was trying to say in that Nerdist interview, but I don’t know. I can’t speak to his intentions. The impression that I got from his words was that he felt philosophy to be a waste of time, period. I can’t agree.

To tunnel at my point from the other side of the mountain: science provides facts and theories, but when the question “what should we do?” pops up (and it always will), it does not have any answers. At best, science creates the necessary tools to help figure out the answers, but that’s it. Science can draw us a map, the best map we can possibly have, but it can’t say where we ought to go.

# I’ve revised this from the original post and added a bit more background information to hopefully make the issue clearer. This blog is, after all, aimed at non-specialists. Like myself.


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2 Responses to Science vs. Philosophy: A Bogus Battle

  1. Sam Cicero says:

    The really scary thing, at least that’s been handed to us from science fiction, is the power of science without thinking of the consequences and without a philosophy behind what’s being done. Philosophy is incredibly important to science, and vice versa. Scientific studies can provide insight to philosophical questions. I think to create the idea that one subject gets to a closer or more true truth becomes a very philosophical question. And deciding on what’s best for society is a fundamentally philosophical question. All endeavors to incease humans’ knowledge of the universe are valid and worthy. I would love to send a rocket to Mars but if that just means it will be a mere extension of the problems that we have on Earth, what’s the point?

  2. Zach Ayres says:

    That’s well-said, Sam. Science fiction has long warned of the dangers of scientism. What you wrote also reminded me of how ironic it is that NdGT has dissed philosophy after hosting the remake of Cosmos, a program that aims to get the public engaged with science in a meaningful, *philosophical* way.

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