Science and Philosophy




Science and Philosophy



What does the value of science consist in? There are two possible answers: its usefulness and its interest. Nothing needs to be said about the first, but the second raises the question of what kind of interest science has. Let me distinguish specialist interest and general interest—the interests of professional scientists themselves and the interests of what we may as well call the general public. Funding and the like depend on the general interest of science (putting usefulness aside as too obvious to harp on). So what does the general interest of science consist in? When the average intelligent person takes an interest in science, what explains his or her interest? 

            We can best answer this question by considering the specific kinds of science that people tend to find most interesting. The answer is: astronomy, physics, biology, and psychology. Thus people have been very interested in astronomical findings about our place in the physical universe (the heliocentric theory, the big bang, the distribution of galaxies, etc); physical discoveries about the fine structure of matter (the atomic theory), the general nature of motion (Newton, Einstein), space and time, etc; biological discoveries about the origin of species (Darwin), the nature of inheritance (DNA), our kinship with other animals, etc; and discoveries about the roots of our mental life, the existence of an unconscious (Freud), how our minds relate to our brains, etc. That is, people are interested in findings about the physical nature of the universe (micro and macro), the origins of life (especially human life), and the underlying nature of the mind (especially the human mind). They are not generally interested in the fine details; what intrigue them are the large-scale conclusions.

            We can imagine a species without such interests. Apart from us, all terrestrial species lack any interest in science, mainly for reasons of intellectual limitation; and even if they could be made to understand the questions, there is no guarantee they would find much interest in the answers (though they might). On the other hand, extraterrestrials might naturally and innately possess scientific knowledge and hence take it for granted, finding it nothing to write home about. I think the reason we humans find such things so interesting is that they impinge on our natural conception of ourselves and of the world around us. We experience reality in certain ways, and these ways are limited and partial, also sometimes distorted. We see the stars in a certain way; we sense matter with our various senses; we observe similarities and differences between ourselves and other animals; we are aware of our own mind and its peculiarities. Scientific knowledge expands and sometimes questions our ordinary conception of things. Science is interesting to us because it bears on the big questions raised by our ordinary consciousness of the world: we want to know whether that ordinary consciousness is accurate, complete, and objectively correct.

            But doesn’t that sound a lot like philosophy? Isn’t that what philosophy is about? Philosophy is about the big questions: the universe, life, mind, and everything—especially the status of our ordinary conceptions of things. It is because we have such general philosophical interests that we find the contributions of science so interesting. We find that science helps us with our philosophical concerns, as these concerns spontaneously arise in us. If we had no such concerns, science would be of interest only to specialists and those devoted to its usefulness. We are interested in science in the way we are because we are philosophers—because we ask big questions about reality and dwell on our own natural awareness of the world. Are we the center of the universe? It feels as if we are—but astronomy teaches us otherwise. Is matter as solid and continuous as it looks? Atomic physics teaches us otherwise. Was life created by a superior form of intelligence? That seems likely on the surface, but it turns out that life arose by a succession of mindless accidents. Is the mind limited to what we are conscious of? Psychology teaches us otherwise, since an unconscious needs to be postulated. These are broad philosophical questions, and science is interesting precisely because it helps us answer them. It is the implications of science for these very general questions that seizes the attention of the general public—not so much the nuts and bolts of the scientific theories. We are moved by the significance of science for the big philosophical questions.

In particular, we perceive how science bears on our ordinary consciousness of the world—our perception and our common sense. We are thinking of this ordinary consciousness whenever we are gripped by a piece of science: we are comparing the way we naturally experience things and the way science tells us that they are. So we are reflecting on our own perspective on reality and assessing it in the light of scientific findings. We are thinking such thoughts as, “The world is actually very different from the way it strikes me”. That is a philosophical thought—self-reflective and self-critical. The general human interest in science depends on the availability of this kind of thought. Science is interesting to people because philosophy is (science used to be called “natural philosophy”). Thus science and philosophy are intertwined when it comes to human interest, even if individual scientists and philosophers have little to do with each other.

            The interest of philosophy, then, does not depend on its being an approximation to science; we are not interested in philosophy because it is on the way to becoming science. Rather, the interest of science depends on the existence of a prior philosophical interest. Humankind has been asking philosophical questions for a long time, and answering them in different ways, notably by appeal to religion, tradition, and revelation; but it has turned out that science is the best way to answer these questions. The questions themselves pre-date science, or even any conception of science. We would have them even if science had never been invented. Science would not have the same interest for us if it were detached from these ancient questions—they are what give science the human interest that it has. If science were valuable only because of its practical uses that would be a very different state of affairs: but actually it engages with our deepest questions about the world and our place in it. The value of science thus partly derives from its aspiration to meet our philosophical needs. Bluntly, science is interesting (to non-specialists) only because philosophy is.

            None of this is to say that science can answer our deepest philosophical questions; it is only to say that people find science interesting because of the hope that it may. When people are fascinated by the big bang theory because it appears to explain where the universe came from, it may be that they have other origin questions in mind—such as how anything at all came to exist. The big bang theory does not in fact answer those questions (what existed before the big bang?). My point is that the intellectual value of science (as opposed to its practical value) for most people depends on the belief that the big philosophical questions can be answered by science. Some of these big questions can be answered by science (whether we are at the center of the universe, how animal life evolved), but some cannot (whether we have free will, whether we can really know anything). In either case the general public interest in science reflects a thirst for such answers.  [1]


  [1] If people were to stop asking the big questions, abandoning philosophy altogether, perhaps at the urging of scientists, the result would be that science would lose its general interest, becoming merely a subject for specialists and practical application. Scientists need philosophers in order to maintain their appeal. (This would all be clearer if we didn’t make such a sharp distinction these days between science and philosophy.)

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