Our narrow definition of “philosophy”
Posted on January 15, 2014
Each year, the website Edge poses a single thought-provoking question to hundreds of different intellectuals — scientists, philosophers, authors, journalists, poets — then collects and posts their replies online for the general public to read. Past questions include “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”, “What are you optimistic about?” “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Past contributors include Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Alison Gopnik, Lawrence Krauss, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Richard Dawkins, Carolyn Porco, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and many others.
This year’s question was “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” There are 174 responses and, while I have no illusion of reading them all any time soon, a couple have either caught my eye or been brought to my attention. For instance, fantastic entries by Laurie Santos and Tamar Gendler, and Paul Bloom, raise deep and interesting questions about accepted scientific consensus.
Then I came across Sam Harris’ entry, in which Harris decries what he refers to as “Our narrow definition of ‘science.’” Here is a snippet:
Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy—or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being “religious.”
The boundaries between true intellectual disciplines are currently enforced by little more than university budgets and architecture. Is the Shroud of Turin a medieval forgery? This is a question of history, of course, and of archaeology, but the techniques of radiocarbon dating make it a question of chemistry and physics as well. The real distinction we should care about—the observation of which is the sine qua non of the scientific attitude—is between demanding good reasons for what one believes and being satisfied with bad ones.
I found Harris’ entry strange for several reasons. First, the idea that science has a limited purview is not a scientific idea; it is a philosophical one. There are no experiments one could run, or empirical evidence one could bring to the table, that could determine the true scope of scientific inquiry. This is not to say that scientists have nothing of value to say regarding what science can and cannot study. Indeed, they have plenty to say. It only means that ideas regarding the purview of science are, at root, philosophical.
But what’s even stranger is that Harris has to know this. He studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Stanford and, as a public figure, has engaged with a number of respected philosophers (Massimo Pigliucci, Simon Blackburn, Patricia Churchland, Jesse Prinz). Indeed, Harris writes, directly after the blurb posted above, that “The scientific attitude can handle whatever happens to be the case.” Notice the move from “science” to “the scientific attitude.” The scientific attitude, though, is not science, or a scientific idea. It is an underlying philosophical idea, or rather, an approach to knowledge. I think Harris is aware of this.
Harris closes his essay by stating, “We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality. When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.”
To be clear: I agree with Harris that science should not be “distinct from the rest of human rationality.” Science should inform all areas of human thought to whatever extent it can. I also agree with Harris that science is an incredibly important field of study with increasingly relevant things to say about human nature and our condition on Earth. It should not be cordoned off in labs and museums; it should be consumed and digested by the general public. And I agree with Harris that “the scientific attitude” — that of relying on reason, logic, and evidence as guides to knowledge — is not just valuable, but necessary, in our modern society.
However, to achieve these goals, we need not broaden “science” to encapsulate all attempts at human rationality. That might sound easy, but it would actually destroy science. Boundaries exist for a reason, and while some are arbitrary, the boundaries around science are precisely what make science so special and unique compared to other areas of human study. And while I would concede that some people take a problematically narrow view of science, giving it no power to suggest certain ideas might need to change or be discarded, I submit that a more serious problem is this: too many people take a narrow view of philosophy.
Indeed, the unifying rationality Harris seeks is not found in science, but in philosophy. Science is, historically speaking, a branch of philosophy, and represents a strictly designed, targeted, and practical use of the tools of philosophy, which pre-date science. Where philosophy is generally concerned with the critical analysis of ideas, values, and beliefs in the service of accuracy, science employs predictions and tests, and relies on repeatedly scrutinized empirical evidence, to determine what is true about the physical world. Ideally the two work together, with our best knowledge regarding the natural world influencing our broader conceptual analysis regarding everything in the world around us, including the full range of human experience.
Yet an increasing number of people believe philosophy is useless or obsolete, and that all our efforts should be focused on science. This is deeply problematic, mainly because whether we realize it or not, we all must engage in philosophy before we engage in any kind of science. As Daniel Dennett has said, “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.” To deny this is to oversimplify.
We do not need a broader view of science. We need proper understanding of the role that science plays in helping us to figure out what is true — within the context of philosophy’s broader role in helping make sense not just of the work and findings of scientists, but of the entirety of the world around us, and within us.