Science & Philosophy: would that they would play nice

There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle recently about the relationship between science and philosophy.  Though it’s been simmering for a while in some quarters, the latest flare-up seems to have come by way of Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe from Nothing, based on his wildly popular lecture on YouTube.  The timeline of the conflict is well-documented, with copious links to the original source materials, by Sean Carroll.

In a possibly over-simplified summary: Krauss said some things about philosophers with which some philosophers took umbrage; philosopher David Albert tore Krauss a new one in response; Krauss apologized, sort of; a variety of others have piped up, on one side or the other; and Carroll himself has assumed the role of mediator and tried to smooth everyone’s feathers.  A significant part of the argument eventually condensed around the phrasing of the subtitle of Krauss’s book: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing.  Specifically, the issue is the apparent implication that Why refers to an explanation of purpose rather than function.

I think that everyone is getting too distracted by words and opinions, and they’re missing some important points as a result.

First of all, Krauss should have known that making a categorical statement about philosophy as he did – even if it was in a relatively casual forum rather than, say, a journal paper – was problematic.  Then, Albert made a different error, insisting on changing the context of the discussion from science to metaphysics.  Finally, Carroll fails to recognize that sometimes, in this goofy language called english, Why in fact means How.

In the meantime, it seems that some fundamental points have been overlooked.

First, philosophy came first; science came later.  There is little doubt that without the body of knowledge that was available on logic and reasoning, science wouldn’t have been established.

Second, science and modern philosophy are both descended from a single discipline – ancient philosophy.  The split likely happened for the same reason any other discipline has ever split: the body of knowledge becomes large enough and range of research questions clustered enough.  Science was interested in questions of what existed empirically, and philosophy was interested in how thinking worked.  One discipline turned inward; the other turned outward.  Yin and yang; only the two together can yield a truly complete understanding of the universe.

Third, philosophy could not possibly have come to exist without philosophers having an interest in the universe.  That is philosophy basically started as an attempt to do science.

Finally, after science and philosophy went their separate ways, philosophy began an exercise of largely excluding any sense of empiricism, realism, or other grounding in objective reality.  Why should it?  That’s what science is for, right?  Unfortunately, this has led to questions of serious philosophical consequence that have precious nothing to do with reality.  This tends to make philosophy seem relatively useless.  But the thing to remember is that philosophy isn’t so much about what you can prove as it is how you can prove it.  Philosophy is a process, and its body of knowledge is largely methodological.  It doesn’t matter if philosophers argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; it does matter how they argue about it.

So here’s the punchline: while it’s rather natural that philosophers and scientists will snap at each other, it’s also misguided.  It’s rather counter-productive to argue so publicly, because it’s a waste of resources, and because it’s fodder for the insidious anti-science movement and for religious fundamentalists.


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