Philosophy v. science
Posted on September 24, 2012
In case you missed it, a couple weeks ago The Guardian ran a back-and-forth between philosopher Julian Baggini and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss on the question “philosophy v. science: which can answer the big questions in life?”
As one might expect given their different academic backgrounds, Baggini and Krauss do not answer the same way. Yet the result is not as clear cut as saying “Baggini answers philosophy” and “Krauss answers science.” In fact, Baggini leaves plenty of room for scientific advance; he’s just skeptical that every meaningful question (by the way: what qualifies as a “meaningful” question?) is reducible to a discussion on scientific evidence. And while Krauss appears to believe science is a nearly all-powerful tool for understanding, he does admit that philosophy can inform decision-making.
That being said, I think Baggini and Krauss do diverge in how they answer the question, and it’s worth reading the entire article to learn why. Here’s a sample answer from each to give you a taste of their differences.
Getting to your question of morality, for example, science provides the basis for moral decisions, which are sensible only if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. Without some knowledge of the consequences of actions, which must be based on empirical evidence, then I think “reason” alone is impotent. If I don’t know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not. Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.
My contention is that the chief philosophical questions are those that grow up without leaving home, important questions that remain unanswered when all the facts are in. Moral questions are the prime example. No factual discovery could ever settle a question of right or wrong. But that does not mean that moral questions are empty questions or pseudo-questions. We can think better about them and can even have more informed debates by learning new facts. What we conclude about animal ethics, for example, has changed as we have learned more about non-human cognition.