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Philosophers and Super Soakers: Science vs. Philosophy in the Modern Age

“In dismissing philosophy as an antiquated relic of our prescientific past, the scientist is making a very large and dubious assumption: that the abstract methods of philosophy . . . have nothing more to contribute to our developing understanding of the world.”

Robert Pasnau, “Why not just weigh the fish?

During our recent discussions in class, nothing struck me more than the clash between science and philosophy. The idea of an either/or relationship between the two was foreign to me, despite my upbringing as a scientifically minded individual. Previously I had viewed them as two sides of the same coin, one thinking and one doing, the philosopher pondering “Should we?” while the scientist wonders “Can we?”. Though this divide between the fields was new to me, the reason for it was immediately obvious: if philosophy cannot cure cancer or send a human to Mars, what good is it? This begged me to raise the question: Does philosophy have a place in the scientifically driven world of today?

A stereotypical philosopher, languishing in a pit of circular logic.

The hasty answer to this question would be no: if philosophy cannot achieve quantifiable results, then it should be discarded. If you were sick, would you want a doctor trained in medical science or a philosopher by your beside? However, this viewpoint is a short term solution, akin to slapping a bandaid on an injury time and time again instead of dealing with the cause of the problem (in this case, perhaps an awful sense of balance. But I digress.). This “solution” will work for a little while, until eventually the repairs are not cutting it and the whole system must be replaced. This is where philosophy steps in, addressing the human cause of the problem instead of dealing with the results. For example, science may roll out countless drugs for weight loss, but it is philosophy’s job to question whether we should be doing this at all.

Many pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction picture the world in a state of ruin after science has gone too far, unleashing a zombie plague, building hyper-advanced computer AI’s, or creating weapons that could wipe out a continent. In all of these (however unlikely) scenarios, these acclaimed scientists poured their lives into their work, never stepping back and looking upon the potential for wrongdoing and crisis. If every member of our supposed scientific organization had stepped back and thought “Hey, maybe this time travel device/weapon of mass destruction/sentient AI isn’t such a good idea.”, the post-apocalypticalization (totally a word) of the given fictional world would (likely) never have happened in the first place.

Scientific progress has been benefitting our world for hundreds of years, from building the first telescopes to developing vaccines that have saved millions of lives. Scientific progress is constant, reliable, and always moving forward – yet this is its failure. In its haste to cure cancer, plan a mission to Mars, or (again) build a sentient AI, science fails to consider the ramifications of its actions. This is where philosophy steps in, consider outcomes, potential hazards, and the wisdom of continuing down the current path. While philosophy may not make any quantifiable leaps and bounds, it serves as a leash on science for the betterment of humankind. Without philosophy, science would be forever driven by the question “Can we?” instead of “Should we?”

 

4 Responses to Philosophers and Super Soakers: Science vs. Philosophy in the Modern Age

  1. > if philosophy cannot achieve quantifiable results, then it should be discarded.

    Are all results quantifiable?

    If no, then on what basis do you think quantifiable results are better than non-quantifiable results? Why only accept quantifiable results. Aren’t non-quantifiable results equally important?

    If yes, then why not just say ‘results’ instead of ‘quantifiable results’? Is it true that philosophy produces no results whatsoever?

     
    • Avery C says:

      Great points. For clarification, when I describe a result as quantifiable in this sense I mean to say that it is measurable, tangible, or calculable – for example, you can measure the mass of a Higgs boson particle, hold a smartphone in your hands, or mathematically ratify a formula. Perhaps a better descriptor would be scientifically ascertainable, yet I hesitate to use that as it further biases the question towards favouring science over philosophy.

      In response to your first question, I would say that no, not all results are quantifiable. For example, a philosopher might come to the conclusion that life has no meaning. You cannot measure, physically feel, nor mathematically ratify that answer, so I would not describe it as quantifiable.

      As for your second question, as I implied throughout my post I do not personally support quantifiable scientific answers over non-quantifiable philosophical answers. This is shown extensively in the last paragraph of my post. I merely present this argument in favour of science, as it was a well-documented argument in the aforementioned essay that we read, “Why not just weigh the fish?” by Robert Pasnau. As I further detailed in my post, I believe this argument to be shortsighted and only part of a temporary solution for long term problems (see paragraph 2). It is my personal stance that non-quantifiable results are equally important, as I stressed in later paragraphs.

      Finally, I favoured writing quantifiable results instead of just results because it highlighted the differences between scientific and philosophical answers. I feel that this distinction was necessary to aptly present the argument that philosophical results were somehow inferior (again, not my personal opinion). Speaking of results, I would support the statement that philosophical inquiry does produce conclusions (which I would define as results), and that these perhaps less immutable results are equally valid as scientific results.

      Thank you for your time in asking these questions. They’ve really made me think for deeply about my post, and I found that to be quite enjoyable.

       
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