I would like to start by clarifying that I’m not entirely unfamiliar with philosophy, as it was the subject in which I did my minor. I will mention, for the sake of full disclosure, that about 60% of my requirements were spent on classes specifically focused on logic, so I would never claim to speak authoritatively on any other area of philosophy such as metaphysics or epistemology.
I also want to say that I do have a higher opinion of philosophy than I think Brian gives me credit for. When I wrote my post, The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth, part of the reason the title was so long is because every word in there was being used to narrow down what my specific objection was. I don’t say that philosophy is “totally useless”, but rather relatively so; and even then only in the specific domain of determining truth. And while this wasn’t specified, by truth I mean any objective factual claim about the nature of reality: what things exist, how they work, etc…
Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that Brian and I really disagree, but I can’t really blame him as I’m also not convinced that I was particularly clear in my previous post.
First off, I don’t actually consider philosophy and science to be any sort of dichotomy. On the contrary, if philosophers and scientists are doing their job properly they each ought to be doing at least a little bit of science and philosophy, respectively. Personally I like to think of it as an Ouroboros: a cycle with neither beginning nor end. Philosophy takes observations about the world and then speculate on the implications of those observations. This is how we arrive at a hypothesis, which science can then test. Science produces results to determine whether the hypothesis should be rejected or not and then we can proceed to make more observations on the results of these experiments. And so we arrive back at philosophy.
The difference, in my experience, is that philosophers focus more on the speculative aspects, and scientists focus more on the experimental ones. But philosophers still sometimes have to gather data (for example, by doing surveys regarding people’s ethical intuitions on complicated moral problems) and scientists still sometimes have to use reason and logic in order to come to conclusions. In these cases you have philosophers doing science and scientists doing philosophy. Far from being a dichotomy, I believe the two things are intrinsically linked.
With that said, I’d like to address the assumptions that Brian suggests that I am making.
Assumption 1: Philosophy is nothing more than people speculating from their intuitions.
I think I cover this fairly well above, but of course it is. My point is that typically when philosophers come up with an interesting idea, they usually need to do some science on top of it: philosophy alone isn’t enough to get you to truth and people who say that it is (presuppositional apologists, for example) are not going to arrive at anything true, except perhaps by accident. You need science to take the next step.
Assumption 2: “Actual scientific discoveries” trump axioms.
I stand by this. When you cling to “from nothing, nothing comes” in the face of the evidence discussed in Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, then you are being absurd. When you cling to “we must have a soul, otherwise we could not have a mind” in the face of the evidence that everything in “the mind” seems to be a neurochemical reaction in the brain, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by refusing to update your model of reality.
Of course, everyone does have axioms, including scientists. The difference is that scientific axioms are not generally clung to in the face of evidence. We don’t have scientists who refuse to accept special relativity because it violates Newton’s axioms: you just don’t see that. Even more fundamental are axioms like regularity, where we assume that the universe behaves fundamentally the same in one place/time as in another: this is the basis for most (all?) of our physical laws. But if evidence were to overturn this view, you can be that scientists (once it had been properly verified) would abandon regularity, or at least come to treat it as an approximation.
Even Brian’s example of empiricism (“[the] idea that we can get new, accurate information from examing the world, and plugging that information into our existing beliefs to help figure out which of them (if any) is true.”) could potentially be falsified if it turned out we couldn’t get accurate information from examining the world, or if having accurate information did not help us figure anything out. So far, however, this appears not to be the case.
Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.
I’ll stand by this one too, with one minor alteration: One doesn’t understand things merely by thinking about them really hard. Of course it takes thought and reason to properly come to conclusions, but the idea is that this isn’t enough. I reject the notion of a priori knowledge. You also need to have some facts, evidence or data on your side. I do think I was unclear in my original post, but this was the main point I was trying to get at. In order to figure out facts about the reality, you need to have facts about the reality: you can’t just brute force your way through using the power of pure reason.
On a side note, this is why apologists like William Lane Craig drive me up the wall when they debate: They spend 15 minutes setting up how classical logic works before claiming that their god is a necessary precondition for the universe; ignoring the fact that the classical model of logic is not universal and there are many contexts in which it doesn’t apply (as a simple example, classical logic doesn’t have any way of handling propositions whose truth values may change over time). You can’t get to truth by the brute application of logic and reason: you also need observations and facts.
Which I suppose brings us to a valid question: what is more important, reasoning or observation? Obviously both are extremely important, but when it comes to describing the way the universe is, I honestly believe that we could get by on facts alone. It wouldn’t be pretty, but imagine a hypothetical machine intended to simulate the universe. If you were to simply plug in every fact about reality into the machine, such as physical laws or properties of objects in the (simulated) universe, devoid of any interpretation; you could get a pretty close approximation of the actual universe. Philosophy and science both have their uses, but when it comes to determining truth, in my opinion, science is the more valuable (and trustworthy) choice.
Assumption 4: Ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… don’t actually tell you about the world.
It depends what you mean by “don’t actually tell you about the world”. Specifically, what I mean is that branches of philosophy such as the ones mentioned above don’t tell you what sorts of things physically exist or how they physically work, ie: none of these branches help you arrive at facts about physical reality. I’m going to take ethics as an example. Ethics is great at figuring out if you should kill someone, when that’s okay (or not), and why. But an ethic isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we should behave, but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our society (or how we ought to).
Metaphysics, on the other hand does try to make claims about the universe. For example, when I took my metaphysics course, we learned about nominalism, which as I understand it (or as it was explained to me) makes various claims about, say, what it means to be red. Perhaps there is some ephemeral class of objects, and to be red is to be a member of that class; or that there is some inherent redness that is possessed only by red objects and this redness is shared between all red objects.
Ask a scientist what red is and they’re much more likely to give you an answer akin to “‘red’ is a linguistic marker we use to denote objects which reflect a certain segment of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, with a wavelength of roughly ~620-740nm”. Done.
To me, branches of philosophy such as metaphysics or theology which try to stake a claim on the nature of reality (which, again, is to say what things exists or how they work) without doing any sort of science-y stuff, are branches of philosophy that I just can’t bring myself to take seriously.
Assumption 5: Data has nothing to do with Philosophy.
I reject this, as much as I imagine Brian does. Data is the starting point for philosophy. It’s where we jump off from before we can go looking for more truth, and it’s ultimately where we come back to, with a whole bunch of science in between.
At the end of the day, philosophers and scientists are in the same boat: we’re all just looking for truth. There are philosophers (such as William Lane Craig) who are doing it wrong, but philosophy properly done really is the underpinning of science, which is what feeds back into philosophy.
So why, then, do I say that philosophy is relatively useless compared to science when it comes to determining truth, considering that the two are nigh-impossible to separate? Well, okay, I’ll admit that I may have been a little bit hyperbolic in attacking all of philosophy when really I was just trying to go after a couple of positions I keep hearing over and over again (“you can’t get something from nothing!”). But (and I say this knowing full well the bias that I carry with me as being primarily a scientist), I do believe that science is doing most of the leg work when it comes to the “figuring out what’s true” part of the cycle. Maybe that’s petty, seeing as how crucially philosophy underpins science. I’ll think some more about it.