Friday, May 10, 2013

The Necessity of Philosophy in Scientific Progress

I recently stumbled upon an interview between Ross Anderson of The Atlantic physicist Lawrence Krauss. The interview was entitled Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete. I was very much taken aback about Krauss' inaccurate claims against philosophy.

Here is a section of the dialogue:


I want to start with a general question about the relationship between philosophy and physics. There has been a fair amount of sniping between these two disciplines over the past few years. Why the sudden, public antagonism between philosophy and physics? 

Krauss: That's a good question. I expect it's because physics has encroached on philosophy. Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then "natural philosophy" became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there's a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves, and so then you have this natural resentment on the part of philosophers. This sense that somehow physicists, because they can't spell the word "philosophy," aren't justified in talking about these things, or haven't thought deeply about them---

Is that really a claim that you see often?

Krauss: It is. Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, "those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym." And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it's fairly technical. And so it's really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't.

On that note, you were recently quoted as saying that philosophy "hasn't progressed in two thousand years." But computer science, particularly research into artificial intelligence was to a large degree built on foundational work done by philosophers in logic and other formal languages. And certainly philosophers like John Rawls have been immensely influential in fields like political science and public policy. Do you view those as legitimate achievements?

Krauss: Well, yeah, I mean, look I was being provocative, as I tend to do every now and then in order to get people's attention. There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they're really doing is mathematics---it's not talking about things that have affected computer science, it's mathematical logic. And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that's generated in other areas.


I am amazed at his ignorance of this portion of the interview. I am especially amazed about his assertion that descriptive philosophy is simply mathematics (and he erroneously inserts literature in this category.) I will put aside his childish claims about philosophy for now and take a moment to address the larger issue. 

Here are some question that Krauss avoids: If we were given a purely descriptive model of how the world works, would our understanding still lack in what we ought to do? What sort of meaning is derived from this sort of model? What implications does such a model have on our lives? Why does such a model exist? In fact, science does not seem to care about these questions. Where the scientist is concerned with descriptions, the philosopher deals with the implications of such descriptions. 

The before-mentioned questions are ironically just as pragmatic as the scientist's search for objectivity in modernity (although, they are of two completely different pursuits). Philosophy, being the older discipline of the two, is the fundamental reason why we undertake scientific endeavors. As humans, we are drawn to the epistemological underpinnings within our interaction of reality.  

Where science is a process that is the most useful mechanism for solving our world's problems, there will always exist an inner struggle to make sense of the discoveries of science. When we view science as an outside experimenter, we do so as philosophers. The system used to critique science is completely different from the science itself; if it was the same mechanism, it would be logically irresponsible to use the same process in matters of scrutiny. This is why science is oftentimes used to criticize religion, just as science (generally) is kept valid through philosophic logic and mathematics.

If one conducted pure science, without the balm of philosophy, the world would exist as an unimportant object, devoid of meaning. Philosophy is the main reason we do science: we wish to know more about the universe and thus increase the benefits within our lives. Yes, science has much to say about the mechanisms of stem cell technologies. But science does not tell us why such technologies are needed. For this, philosophy is the necessary ingredient. 

Science, on the other hand, provides a crucial task in systematizing occurrences in the world. It provides information about how matter works within the confines of scientific developments. This is, by no means, a small accomplishment. But this alone - this process of bitter cause and effect - tells us nothing about how to act within the world. The best possible way to achieve this conclusion is to combine science and philosophy in order to discover the possible normative dimension. 

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