Science VS Philosophy

The two subjects have been at loggerheads, but perhaps it’s time for the twain to “meet”

By Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Fri 12 Nov 2021, 8:22 PM

“More than ever, we need philosophy today.” The words of Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek have an echo of their own. He predicts the end of the relativism era, where science was just another product of knowledge. “We philosophers should join scientists asking big metaphysical questions about quantum physics, about reality,” says Žižek, easily among the most prominent proponents of this theory today. But is Žižek compelled to take sides in this somewhat ambiguous relationship between science and philosophy? There appears to be no debate raging on the need to revive philosophy as a discipline. Neither is there a campaign to dump everything that doesn’t stand the test of scientific inquiry. Universities worldwide produce thousands of “doctors of philosophy” as milestones of their academic zenith in whatever subjects they choose to master.

Yet, something appears amiss. There is a lopsided tussle between what science is doing to our lives and whether philosophy influences it. Scientific advancements of recent decades present the picture of a rudderless ship with little control. The idea of leadership driven by a cohesive philosophy seems a distant reality. All this is being accentuated by a lack of ideology in mainstream politics.

Here is the bottom line, though. Science may have grown out of philosophy, but somehow, if a piece of knowledge doesn’t adhere to mainstream scientific yardsticks today, it may get discredited as “unscientific”. The entire discourse is based on the premise that whatever is “unscientific” isn’t knowledge — or not the knowledge worth propagating.

Political correctness

Lou Marinoff, a Commonwealth scholar and a professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York since 1994, has no qualms about admitting that science developed from philosophy. But he adds a rider — “the more questions science answers, the more it raises.” Undoubtedly, large parts of science are established as reliable knowledge, yet it is also potentially subject to modification or revision by subsequent discoveries. So, if today’s science runs the risk of becoming tomorrow’s fiction, one often needs to go back to philosophy to find context. According to him, the natural sciences — physics, chemistry, biology — raise essential and unanswered philosophical questions, such that the greatest scientists themselves necessarily become philosophers at times: “The social sciences — e.g., psychology, sociology, economics etc — are particularly prone to value-laden biases or politicisations, and therefore require rigorous applications of critical thinking to assess the soundness of their theories, the credibility of their experimental findings, and the significance of their statistical pronouncements.”

Marinoff references the ethical challenges related to medical sciences that only increase as allied technologies advance. “Questions surrounding the permissibility or impermissibility of abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, and genetic engineering must be addressed in domains of moral, social, and political philosophy,” says Marinoff, who was once a speaker at Abu Dhabi’s Festival of Thinkers.

One doesn’t need to go far to understand where this science vs philosophy question is leading. Accelerating developments in computer science and information technology raise philosophical questions across a spectrum of global issues, ranging from identifying ethical versus unethical harvesting and reselling personal data to constructing moral compasses that govern machines in their increasing contact with humans. It is also about freedom of personal expression on mainstream media platforms that curate or censor content on purely political grounds and sway public opinion with constant propaganda and misinformation.

Marinoff shares an interesting anecdote to further this argument. During an encounter with advisors to former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, he was told that Australia was “lagging about fifteen years behind the US” due to being infected and debilitated by political correctness. They asked Marinoff what could be done to prevent its spread in their homeland. “My advice to them was ‘get further behind!’ Sadly, and to the contrary, they have caught up instead.”

Seen through the same prism are the approaches of a large segment of business leaders who routinely drive technological and, therefore, cultural evolution. Unfortunately, if not equipped with moral compasses, they can do as much harm as good. And that moral compass comes from philosophy, not science.

A symbiotic relationship

According to Sarah Setlaelo, a PhD in Philosophy candidate at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, in a fundamental sense, philosophy is the parent of all disciplines. “Despite the impressive status that science in theory and practice occupies in society, it still draws from the theoretical bedrock of philosophy,” she says, adding that the common-sense view of science as knowledge derived from facts is highly problematic.

Setlaelo uses a basic analogy: does a child need a parent? To her, “science is the genius prodigy whose successes often eclipse its heritage”. Even if one disputes this view, it is difficult to disagree that philosophy needs science for some of its content and inspiration. On the other hand, science needs philosophy to critically examine its foundations, assumptions, aesthetics, and ethics. “Philosophy and science are both the same and different. Science is fundamentally descriptive or factual, whereas philosophy is speculative and often normative or judgemental,” she tries to settle the debate. That suggests a symbiotic relationship instead of a zero-sum game. For example, progress in science raises philosophical questions that bear ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical implications.

In South Africa, the country of Setlaelo’s origin, philosophy finds itself within a milieu of economic, socio-cultural, and political factors. She cites the Transformation of Philosophy report of 2017. Many students register a negative view of the discipline and reportedly consider it unreasonably difficult, of little professional and economic utility, sexist, and racist.

Setlaelo, who has been a multi-platform writer for magazines and newspapers for 14 years, has a ready prescription. She believes there is a need for “thought leaders to come down from the ivory towers of academia and engage in mainstream discourse.” Setlaelo, who is also a contributing author of the biography The Kelly Khumalo Story, thinks they can directly influence social culture, politics, policy, and social development through their well-formulated and well-articulated insights. “This is a well-suited but sadly underexplored opportunity for philosophers.”

Tolerance of alternatives

Benedict Beckeld, who holds a PhD in Philosophy and Classical Philology from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, questions the very basis of labelling a piece of knowledge as scientific or otherwise. “‘Scientific discourse’ as a term is often used as a cudgel to exclude unorthodox views, and that goes against the scientific practice, both philosophically and historically,” he says.

According to Beckeld, the actual scientific practice seeks to explore as many empirical possibilities as possible, and taking unorthodox views seriously is an integral part of that process. “There are, of course, certain rules that scientific exploration requires, but it too often happens that appeals to ‘science’ become a means of excluding that with which one simply disagrees.” Beckeld’s upcoming book is interestingly titled Western Self-Contempt: Oikophobia in the Decline of Civilizations (May 2022).

He surmises that science and philosophy need each other and suggests that the determination of science is itself not a scientific but a philosophical question. “Just as science must often expand its tolerance of alternative methods and viewpoints, it must, on the other hand, also understand its limitations because much of what passes for science nowadays is, in fact, philosophy,” says Beckeld.

Beckeld cites the pertinent example of the global debate about Covid restrictions, where some argue that “science” requires us to lock down or to force everyone to vaccinate. In contrast, such policy choices are philosophical, not scientific. “Science needs philosophy to find answers in such situations. Philosophy, too, has historically needed science to take over certain areas that philosophy has exhausted,” he argues, offering the questions of time and the infinite as examples.

Myriam Dagmar van Ast-Stork, who chooses to call herself a strategic philosopher, believes in “slow thinking for slow talking for slower action for results that make sense.” She sees science as one of the most powerful words worldwide. According to her, this power is manifested not just at the high-power discussions at universities or at United Nations but equally at a dinner party where the lady of the house reads out of a book of herbs. “She doesn’t really know the author but finds the content most valuable. She knows from her own experience and other sensical ingredients — nose, eyes, and touch — how to identify the herb and use it for personal use,” Ast-Stork says, adding a philosophical dimension to a rather mundane example.

“If one guest looks at the book and calls it ‘not scientific’, that marks the end of the discussion. The lady of the house just smiles and nods. She knows that there is no argument right now that could open up a window to get onto the same line as the ‘believer’ of science. And, yes, ‘science-believer’ is a thing,” she says.

Ast-Stork laments that often the word “science” needs no further logical or consistent explication. “The word alone is enough. Rational thinking stops, and often people get congested through that word as if it were the description and just explanation for everything and to everything,” she says. She has an evocative explanation of what philosophy means for the world today. “Love for wisdom is the true meaning of philosophy, also embodied in gnothi seauton, an ancient Greek aphorism meaning ‘know thyself’. Nowadays, scientific thinking scientifically misses empathy, love, and thinking of oneness. Globally we need network thinking with local logic and humane action,” says Ast-Stork, who has been leading philosophical salons where people get the opportunity to listen and are listened to.

Politicised science

Despite the tendency to blame science for some of the ills facing humanity today, it would be untenable to conclude that science has outlived its utility. Just because science cannot prevent earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, heat waves, ice ages, meteorite strikes, and solar flares — among other natural phenomena — does not mean that it has not bettered human lives.

Going back to Marinoff’s contending hypotheses leads us to the “scientific” data-driven method, which gives science a semblance of invincibility. The only rider is that it takes time — sometimes decades — to confirm or disconfirm them. Moreover, in the words of Marinoff, “when science is politicised or hijacked to serve political ends, then any statement can be discredited as ‘unscientific’.”

He also refers to the Covid-19 pandemic example where opposing politicians often describe mutually contradictory policies as “following the science”, while unilateral policies may change as the science changes. “Even well-educated laypersons cannot easily assess what is ‘scientific’ versus ‘unscientific’,” says Marinoff.

He hints at this being a sign of the demolition of the traditional Western education system, whose former world-leading results were predicated squarely on the written tradition and the generic skills required to absorb and further it: reading, writing, and reasoning. “As a discipline dating back to ancient Greece, Western philosophy forms the foundation of such education,” he says. So, Socrates encouraged citizens to philosophise in the agora; Plato founded the Academy to train future leaders; Aristotle largely invented the curriculum we sustained and developed in the ensuing centuries.

In sum, both scientists and technologists, along with the cadres of their consumers, can benefit from philosophical inquiry and dialogue with philosophers. Marinoff has the most concise argument to sum up the science vs philosophy debate. “By safeguarding the foundations of education — reading, writing, and reasoning — philosophy’s fingers are plugging the failing dikes, helping to forestall a deluge of delusion and an inundation of ignorance unrivalled since the Dark Ages descended on Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire,” Marinoff signs off.

(Ehtesham Shahid is Editor at the Emirates Policy Center. 
He tweets @e2sham.)

More news from Long Reads