Does Philosophy Have Value in an age of Science?

I’m not a trained philosopher, nor am I a trained scientist.  And yet, I can see the benefits and worth of both enterprises.  They are formal means of inquiry to resolve questions raised by human curiosity about the world and form of the natural world.  I took four classes in philosophy as an undergrad (“never grad”) and several classes in science fields while floundering around and trying to make a career decision.

I have a basic grasp of the common scientific methods from studying statistics.  The more commonly taught in secondary and post-secondary education is the “Not Disproving of the Null Hypothesis.”  Here are the steps in designing and processing an experiment, from Science Buddies:

Basic Scientific Method

Even though there are much more advanced scientific frameworks for generation of data and then study and then analysis, flow-chart is a helpful illustration of the concept of science.  It’s formal, and conclusions are not easily accepted.  If the investigator discovers new explanations for phenomena and present it to other scientists and investigators, prior to acceptance they will subject the data and method to their own analysis. If they find fault, they will reject the conclusions.  If they don’t find fault, then they will accept the conclusions, conditionally.

The analysis of the data is subject to rigorous review.  Where is the justification for such analysis and review?  Who decides what can be accepted as valid science, science that in fact answers the question?

Neil Degrasse Tyson is one of the most popular science presenters in our media.  Many see him as the successor to Carl Sagan, who he credits as a mentor.  He produced an updated version of Cosmos for Fox and it was very well done and enjoyable.  He travels and speaks and does radio and television interviews. He appears on panels at skeptic events. He hosts his own podcast, Star Talk, and I am a subscriber.

He obviously values the enterprise of science. He says so in his words and deeds. I was disturbed, then, to read of this exchange on a skeptical podcast:

dGT: How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that. [Note to the reader: I, like Neil, live and work in Manhattan, and I can assure you that I am quite adept at crossing the perilous streets of the metropolis.]

This was followed by an exchange between Massimo Pigliucci and Tyson on the value of philosophy.  The answer was not settled between them.  Pigliucci is a biologist and a philosopher, with PhD’s in each and he has the background to discuss the issue.  His reply is linked to from Vox in the above link.  I encourage you to read it.

Tyson is not the only scientist to be dismissive of science.  And this disturbs me because they use philosophy in their work.  It is embedded in the process of science.  Philosophy is the framework used by science to assign meaning, to answer questions and definitions of probability thresholds on when a causative phenomenon leads to a dependent phenomenon.  Scientists ask these questions of definition in their work on a continual basis.

When I started this post, I had intended to state that philosophy is the parent of science; but as I thought this through, I think that a more true analogy is that science is a symbiote of philosophy generated by budding from within.  There is no definable, clear, distinct break between science and philosophy.  They feed each other. New discoveries in the lab, or from the telescopes, or in the field,  need to be verified and tested against defined methods developed by asking deep questions.  Science needs philosophy to ask the questions, determine if their work has answered said questions, and to decide if the question and answers have any value.  Philosophy needs science in order to understand the question based on tested data.

The disturbing element to this dismissal by Tyson of philosophy is that we are moving into an era in which people are being taught that opinions are more important than facts.  We are seeing that the United States are being divided in large part because we don’t agree on what the facts may be regarding politics, health care, economics and the public policy of science.  Human thought is a combination of perceptions based on sensations filtered through analysis.  We determine the likelihood of facts, using thought processed shaped by our education.  Critical thinking is a vital skill that is being devalued, in order to enable propaganda.

It’s not just Trump winning by being an ass to his enemies during the campaign.  There is a deep and abiding and growing mistrust of education and critical thought emerging in the United States and lawmakers are writing bills that attack the teaching of the concepts of critical thought on race and gender.

We need critical thought in order to process and determine the courses of action suggested by science and yet, we have scientists trying to undermine the value of critical thought by dismissing philosophy.  How do we determine what is “fake news?”  If the president-elect can simply define it by fiat, what are we to do when we watch CNN and it is critical of Trump?  Are we to accept Breitbart as real news?

I was sadly amused that Tyson recently stated that we need to have a government based on “Reason.”  Here is a paste of his tweet from July 29, 2016:

Earth needs a virtual country: , with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence


I read this and I wondered how will he propose that we determine what is rational if we don’t respect philosophy, which is the basis of reason.

Greg Laden and I are going to ask Dan Fincke, a trained philosopher, about the relationship between science and philosophy and the potential costs of dismissing the framework of “knowing.”  We will be recording the next episode of Ikonokast on Tuesday, January 18th and have it ready for listening shortly after.

Neil, just to let you know, Philosophy is how you discuss “ideas.”

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