Monday, December 3, 2012

Philosophy, Science, & Scientism

Austin Hughes has an interesting piece in The New Atlantis: “The Folly of Scientism”.  I think I will have more to say about it later, but here I want to consider the difference between philosophy and science. 
Philosophy is the attempt to become wise, that is, to replace opinions about the most important things with knowledge about those things.  The most important things fall generally into two classes of questions or topics.  Human beings want to know what the nature of the world is and what their place is in that world.  This desire is not directly related to any practical concern.  We just want to know, or at least have something we can take for granted.  We also want to know how to live in this world. 
These two questions find their most famous expression in the two creation stories with which the book of genesis begins.  The first creation story lays out the order of creation.  The second explains why human existence is difficult and points to the solution for the difficulty in getting right with God. 
Most human beings rely on such received stories, supplemented by experience, to satisfy the craving for answers to these two questions.  The distinction between opinions and knowledge, however, drives the philosopher to attempt to answer them by a single method: relentless questioning.  The philosopher attempts to achieve wisdom by asking one question after another until, hopefully all questions have been answered.  That no philosopher has yet managed to achieve that goal explains why philosophy continues to this day. 
Unlike religion and mythology, philosophy is not ubiquitous.  It begins in specific place and time (Asia Minor in the sixth century BC).  All subsequent philosophy seems to depend on contact with the tradition that began there.  This is not to disparage other traditions of thought; it is simply to recognize the one that gave birth to modern science 
Socrates encountered philosophy as an ongoing practice.  His student Plato found it necessary to devote each dialogue to a distinct set of questions.  Aristotle further refines the distinctions by establishing distinct lines of inquiry for his various books.  Each book begins with certain questionable assumptions and proceeds on the basis of those assumptions.  For example, his Physics begins with the assumption that various natural things exist‑growing plants and moving spheres.  With that procedure‑putting aside more general questions to focus on more specific ones‑science is born. 
All science follows that general pattern.  One way to move toward a comprehensive knowledge of the Kosmos is to try to understand the various parts of the Kosmos.  Modern science follows suit but adds a new requirement for science that Aristotle did not.  It insists on articulating the questions in such a way that the mode of answering the question is implicit.  This is what is meant by the phrase “a testable hypothesis” and any genuinely scientific hypothesis hast to meet that criterion.  The power of that addition to the concept of science is evident to anyone who appreciates modern science. 
“Scientism” is a pejorative term for the claim that modern science can answer all questions and that it is the sole standard for the truth of any belief or proposition.  I am not at all certain that this term is useful.  If you think that more is being claimed on behalf of modern science that it warranted or that science has over stepped its proper bounds, it is enough to demand a testable hypothesis. 
Much of contemporary science looks a lot more like classical than like modern science.  For example, what explains the phenomenon of homosexuality?  David P. Barash comments on this biological mystery in The Chronicle.  Contemporary research programs offer only marginal findings.  All we can do is list the prospective explanations and consider the strengths and weaknesses of each.  That is pretty much how Aristotle proceeded.  

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