“Stop this nonsense, let’s talk science.”
“Philosophy? I read science.”
Such were the words of a senior colleague of mine in response me answering his question: “what do you read?”. To be very fair, I am quite a tight-lipped person myself, especially at the workplace, and I knew that I’d given him a cold vibe when I said it, largely due to how awkward and uncomfortable I felt when I answered it while I found no reason to lie. All this aside, I suppose it is only a common notion today that science is the successful sibling of philosophy, wherein the latter is regarded as an artefact of the ancient past. I am quite sure that those of us who have had any bit of curiosity to ask what philosophy is about wouldn’t have such a constricted view of it, but the responses I’ve heard so far have not been the most encouraging, in contrast to science. And this is completely understandable for a society that is thoroughly moulded by scientific advancements and to acknowledge its rightful contribution to the standard of living that the majority of us are enjoying today—not forgetting our parents’ expectation for us to be a doctor or engineer. However, before anyone can boldly claim that science is everything, I believe it is important to clarify what even science is—and its relation to philosophy, if any.
A Brief History of Science
As a general thing, what the word ‘science’ designates cannot be attributed by a single civilisation or thought tradition. Formally, however, the word ‘science’ is borrowed from the Latin word scientia, meaning ‘knowledge’, awareness, understanding’. It has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek natural philosophy of classical antiquity, as a conception of ‘the way’ that things are by nature—Laozi sneezes and the Buddha smiles. These men were purportedly to be the first to distinguish between ‘nature’ (essence) and ‘convention’ (accidental). More importantly, a hallmark feature that science has “inherited” from natural philosophy is in its approach to explain the natural world in terms of laws rather than the supernatural. A few cornerstones of science that date back to the ancient times as philosophies include mathematics, the theory of atoms and the application of logical reasoning to understand human nature and political communities.
Given that science, as a discipline, emerged out of philosophy and had later on distinguished itself from the latter, does this fact undermine the scientific achievements that we have seen? To this, I must impartially say, absolutely not. Nonetheless, it remains true that scientific progress itself that has been intricately related to the flourishing of civilisations, saw a return to the study of classical Greek texts during the Renaissance period—a period that comes after the “dark” Middle Age of Europe where we saw a standstill in intellectual progress—, from which further scientific thoughts were developed. It was towards the end of this period when philosophers such as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes was born and later on revolutionised scientific thoughts that opened the doors towards Age of Enlightenment.
In the Age of Enlightenment, we saw the work of a natural philosopher that has become a major classic of modern science—Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica—, which concepts are today taught in secondary educational institutions all around the world—Newtonian Physics. It was also during this period when scientific progress was aimed at generating wealth and inventions that contribute to higher standards of living for one and many.
“The real and legitimate goal of sciences is the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches.”Francis Bacon
The Scientific Method
Allow me to quote a definition of the Scientific Method from Wikipedia:
“Scientific research involves using the scientific method, which seeks to objectively explain the events of nature in a reproducible way. Scientists usually take for granted a set of basic assumptions that are needed to justify the scientific method: there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; this objective reality is governed by natural laws; these laws were discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation.”Wikipedia, a combination of sources (di Francia, Heilbron)
Let us now attempt to understand what are implicit in these sentences. As quoted, the conclusion of a scientific research is dependent on the measurements and reliability of the results, which is one of reproducibility. From this, it follows that what is reproducible must be explainable, through certain laws of causation. What most people unfortunately don’t understand today is that not only has science sprout out of philosophy, but that it has and will always have a philosophical principle that underlies each of its methodologies.
“There is no such thing as a philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”Daniel Dennett
Fundamentally, the aim of all scientific research is to produce knowledge for real-life applications. The nature of this knowledge, however, is one of probability and not certainty. This understanding is not a personal interpretation out of prejudice but rather a fact that is known and acknowledged by scientists themselves. A scientific theory is none other than a set of presumed logical propositions that adequately explains a particular observable phenomenon time and again. An American philosopher named Thomas Kuhn once argued that the process of scientific observation and evaluation takes place within a paradigm, which is a logically consistent ‘portrait’ of the world that is consistent with the observations made from its framing (the propositions). If enough ‘anomalies’ occur within the framed paradigm, that is, when the established scientific theory is unable to account for or explain the appearances of such phenomena (anomalies), a paradigm shift occurs when a new paradigm is able to make sense of them—and this is a scientific revolution. A famous example of a paradigm shift would be the Copernican revolution when it was theorised that it was actually the Earth that revolved around the Sun, and a more recent example would be the domain of quantum mechanics as opposed to classical Newtonian physics when it comes to explaining the behaviour of very small particles.
“It is important to realise the fundamental position of probability in science. At very best, induction and analogy give only probability. Every inference worthy of the name is inductive, therefore all inferred knowledge is at best probable.”Bertrand Russell
Owing to scientific inventions which aim is to improve our standard of living and quality of life strictly from a material perspective, it wouldn’t be too apparent that the naïvety of science is a veil that conceals itself from its own ignorance. When it comes to understanding the mind and human psychophysiology, however, the scientific lens is less than ill-equipped. This is because the scientific method employs a composite of two opposing and irreconcilable philosophies to draw conclusions from the findings of private data (i.e. human subjectivity): empiricism and rationalism—which I consider to further elaborate in a separate blog post. For this reason alone, there exists a contradiction that science will never be able to resolve, because a correct understanding (i.e. knowledge, certainty) of the mind and human psychophysiology will reveal the incompatibility of science with regard to these domains at the very heart. Scientific thought is incapable of coming up with theories of feeling, perception and consciousness amongst other things in the realm of human subjectivity without introducing contradictory presumptions.
“I do not altogether agree with you that statistics and probability are incompatible with certainty and private data. Certainty and private data are the stuff of which statistics are made of, and confusion only arises when probability is taken for certainty and statistics for private data (or vice versa). I do not find any contradiction between them, and consequently the question of establishing one over the other does not arise—they are not opposed. But if you want certainty, then the statistical world (which is not a world) is a falsification; and if you want results (which are only probable) then private data are useless, since all you get are arbitrary changes (changes in the objective component of consciousness—i.e. what it is ‘of’—are gratuitous). What are incompatible are the two different wants; you cannot get them together.”Ñānavīra Thera
To wrap up our first question on whether science truly is the successful sibling of philosophy, I would give a very qualified answer to it. Yes, if “success” is to be understood strictly in the material sense, but even this requires further contextual clarification—see how Nietzsche prophesied the World War decades prior. No, because the phenomenon of paradigm shifts only clarifies that groundbreaking scientific discoveries are philosophical in nature, in their display of dismantling former scientific beliefs (though scientific communities may call them ‘theories’). In actual fact, science isn’t a sibling of philosophy at all, but rather is a form of philosophy that has forgotten its own core foundations.