01 September 2012

Science & philosophy: similar in their difference

This is a small contribution to the on-going discussions about the "merits" of philosophy viz-a-viz science.  It seems that there's one camp, including Jerry Coyne, Larry Moran, and many others (including me) who have come to believe that philosophy's contribution to understanding reality is largely over and done.  Then there's another camp - including (not surprisingly) a whole bunch of philosophers - who think philosophy is as important today as it ever has been.

I've already written a tiny bit about it.  Basically, I see religion as Understanding Reality 1.0, philosophy as Understanding Reality 2.0, and science as the current 3.0 version.  There's no question that that philosophy has had a tremendous impact and is foundational to the establishment of science.  But it's not really done much for science lately.

Given science's status as philosophy's progeny, it should not surprise to find certain rather deep similarities as well as differences.  Here's a similarity that I've really only noticed in the last few months: in all the discussions I've read about science versus philosophy, there's a particular fundamental adherence by both camps to a certain stance.  I find that the differences between their respective stances are fundamental to the friction between them.

First, though, a disclaimer.  I do not mean to paint all philosophers and all scientists with the same two brushes here.  I know there are many philosophers, and many scientists, who do not fall into the two categories I'll describe.  However, it seems that the argument of science versus philosophy is largely between those philosophers and scientists who do fall into these two categories.  To try to avoid over-generalizing, I will write about two stances rather than two groups of individuals.

Also, I do not mean to imply that these two stances are the only two possible stances.  These are just the two stances that seem to me to be pertinent to the whole philosophy versus science thing.

The philosophical stance is one in which the proper formation of an argument is the only thing that matters, and that the validity of the premises are entirely irrelevant.  That is, when this stance is invoked, the entire argument is placed within a conditional: if the premises are true, then....  This means that holders of this stance are perfectly happy to accept arguments that have ludicrous premises so long as the arguments themselves are properly formed.

Example #1. I recently attempted to suggest to Richard Carrier, a well-known expert in History, that some of his arguments may be driving a greater wedge between scientists and philosophers, when we should be working together more closely.  Based on what I've read of his work, I can't see my point being especially controversial to him.  However, I suppose the form of my argument wasn't good enough, for he tore me a new one.  (The post in question is here.)

I mean, considering how fucked up the world is today, and considering the potential for good that exists both in philosophy and science, doesn't it make sense that we should waste our time arguing amongst ourselves?  Mightn't one at least acknowledge the desirability of the goal while at the time suggesting how to argue the point better?  Wouldn't that be better than just denying the entire thing because of some (possible) flaws in form?  If the goal is worthy, isn't it better to work together to address the flaws than to just denounce the entire discussion?

Example #2.  In a recent post in his excellent blog, Larry Moran writes:
It was a real eye-opener to hear Elliot Sober defend creationism by arguing that supernatural beings could have guided evolution by making undetectable changes in DNA [The Problem with Philosophy: Elliot Sober]. Sober is a highly respected philosopher. He doesn't believe in supernatural beings but his argument in defense of guided evolution was the subject of a lecture at the University of Chicago. Listen to the questions and discussion on the video and you'll see that a group of prominent philosophers actually take this sort of thing seriously.
Again we have a philosopher who doesn't believe in the supernatural, extolling arguments that can be applied to the supernatural. He's trying to make an excellent argument without worrying at all about the validity of the premises.  The suspect nature of the premises is apparent from Larry Moran's Evil Aliens analogy.  Indeed, the analogy underscores that the focus of the philosophical stance that Sober assumes is on the argument and not at all on the premises.

The philosophical stance, then, is that what matters and, by corollary, the premises are essentially irrelevant.

The scientific stance is similar to the philosophical stance in that there's a tenet that characterizes the stance that some scientists don't recognize as a premise.  The tenet is this: follow the evidence.  Theory is subordinate to the evidence, in that a theory is only as good as the evidence that supports it.  If there was compelling evidence that the moon is made of blue cheese, then the scientist who adopts this stance would be compelled to accept that the moon is made of blue cheese.  I think that this stance amounts to saying that the premises of an argument are at least as important as the form of the argument, and that an argument with questionable premises is as meaningless as one of questionable form.

This is often exemplified in arguments for evolution and even against religion and god.  That is: many scientists have stated that they accept evolution because it best explains the evidence and provides powerful predictive ability.  Similarly, many scientists have said that they would accept the existence of (some) god if the evidence in its favour were compelling.

In the scientific stance, one does not believe in the premises or the conclusions of scientific arguments.  Rather, the beliefs of the scientific stance are on the method of science.  The evidence is accepted if it meets standards that are believed (with good reason) to be robust, and the conclusions are accepted if they are believed (with good reason) to be robust.

Of course, the evidence for which one would search depends on existent science - thus the scaffolding of scientific knowledge extending through the centuries.  Of course, if we discovered a flaw in some old yet still accepted theory of science - say, Classical Mechanics - then a great deal of what constitutes the scientific body of knowledge would also be suspect.  That is just a risk that we face with science.  And yet, the success of science in predicting so much suggests that while our models are certainly imperfect, they are rather close to the mark.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I would summarize the difference between the two stances as one focuses on the form of arguments, whereas the other focuses on the premises.  The fact that each stance has a specific focus is, to me, the similarity between them.

Of course, this is exactly where the philosophical stance and the scientific stance conflict.  The philosophical stance seems to have a very hard time accepting the imperfect nature of establishing the validity of the premises, because, in the end, premises are based on perception, observation, and information that we gather imperfectly from outside ourselves.  On the other hand, once one has the premises, the entire body of the argument can be run essentially internally to the mind and without any recourse to external inputs.  The philosophical stance seems to prefer the "perfection" of the purely abstract reasoning of argumentation to the imperfect - impure - nature of evidence.

Now, I have to side with the scientists here.  This is because science really does subsume a very significant portion of philosophy, and in addition applies certain standards of quality to the premises.  It not only covers what is logically possible, but also what is most plausible from the evidence.  And science has been incredibly successful, even with its inherent imperfections.

In closing, I return to my notion of religion, philosophy, and science forming an evolutionary path, one that might be represented as:

  1. Religion started as an attempt to explain stuff in an entirely ad-hoc way, based on evolved instinct (e.g. self-preservation, social instincts, etc), and common experience. As such it was (and still is) in constant need of revision and re-interpretation.
  2. Philosophy is an improvement on religion in that it established certain methods of reasoning that allowed a consistency of results that religion simply cannot offer.
  3. Science builds on philosophy by adding requirements for robustness not only of the methods of reasoning, but also of the premises used.