Talk delivered at the conference Rethinking Liberal Education, Amsterdam University College, June 15, 2013. Abstract
In this paper I review the problematic relationship between science and philosophy; in particular, I will address the question of whether science needs philosophy, and I will offer some positive (if incomplete) perspectives that should be helpful in developing a synergetic relationship between the two. I will review three lines of reasoning often employed in arguing that philosophy is useless for science: a) philosophy’s death diagnosis (‘philosophy is dead’) and what follows from it; b) the historic-agnostic argument/challenge “show me examples where philosophy has been useful for science, for I don’t know of any”; c) the division of property argument (or: philosophy and science have different subject matters, therefore philosophy is useless for science). These arguments will be countered with three contentions to the effect that the natural sciences need philosophy. I will: a) point to the fallacy of anti-philosophicalism (or: ‘in order to deny the need for philosophy, one must do philosophy’) and examine the role of paradigms and presuppositions (or: why science can’t live without philosophy); b) point out why the historical argument fails (in an example from quantum mechanics, alive and kicking); c) briefly sketch some domains of intersection of science and philosophy and how the two can have mutual synergy. I will conclude with some implications of this synergetic relationship between science and philosophy for the liberal arts and sciences. Contents
In this paper I will argue that: (i) The natural sciences need philosophy; and (ii) That scientists need philosophy. I will also address some possible consequences of these theses for the Liberal Arts and Sciences. In doing so, I will have to define exactly the sense in which I mean that science ‘needs’ philosophy and make a distinction between different ways in which different aspects or branches of science need philosophy. I am a theoretical physicist, and most of my examples will be from physics. This being part of my professional bias, I claim that the arguments that apply to physics apply to biology, earth science, and other natural sciences as well. As I will argue, the most important distinction to be made is not between one natural science and another, but between fundamental and applied science. Once this distinction is made, the harm of treating all of the sciences en bloc, on the model of physics, can be minimized. The counterpart to the above theses, that philosophy needs science, that the state of the art of science should be one of the starting points of the philosophical quest, and that philosophers therefore need science, is today perhaps even a more pressing topic of study. Unfortunately, I do not have the space to address those interesting questions here. It may be somewhat unexpected that a physicist should be defending philosophy. After all, the thesis that philosophy is useful for science is not likely to be agreed upon by all practicing scientists. Science, not philosophy, is widely regarded as the more secure source of knowledge. Science, at least, has a method for declaring theories wrong, in other words for falsifying its results. This method is called Experiment. And science has given us machines, abundant energy, technology, and a healthy attitude of skepticism. The scientific worldview has freed us from prejudice, ignorance, and the ironclad rule of authority. Natural scientists, not philosophers, have earned the trust of the public opinion in matters of truth, learning, and understanding. Experimental results, hard facts, and not the scholastic distinctions of the philosophers are the final judges in the court of Science. This, at least, would seem to be a widely held view, and partly for good reasons. So why care about philosophy after all? The relation between science and philosophy is an...
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