Inescapability of Philosophy

Thinking about the gay caveman and the media attention given to it, I’m left with a few thoughts.

It is currently the case that “science” and to a lesser extent “history” are the leading intellectual pressure-points.  If science can speak to us, then we are to listen and obey.  If history teaches us, then we must react to it in a politically appropriate way.  But here’s the reality- science and history are both methods of observation.

Science answers the question “What is this?”  History answers the question “What was this?”  But neither can answer the question “What does this mean?”  Neither can answer the question “What should we do about this?”

And those last two questions are what most folks seem to be interested in.  That’s when philosophy steps in.

This entry was posted in philosophy by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

12 thoughts on “Inescapability of Philosophy

  1. I don’t follow. It seems that science asks “what does this mean” in its interpretative work. Also, “what is this” seems to fit with, say, taxonomy, but how about physics? There “what is motion” seem like an odd question. “What should we do” seems to fit naturally in science; for example entomology is partly concerned with what to do about crop pests. But, as I said, I don’t think I understand what you meant.

  2. Hi Scott,

    When a scientist begins to “interpret,” he then leaves the realm of hard science and enters the humanities, the head of which is philosophy.

  3. Hi Steven,

    Thanks for clarifying, but I would like to understand further. Consider:

    A theoretical physicist provides a forty page proof of a mathematical statement. You, a fellow physicist, attempt to comprehend and assess her work. In doing so I would like to call you an interpreter because you must understand the mathematical concepts and techniques she introduces and follow the train of entailments she has discovered. I would also like to say that you are doing physics because you are weighing mathematical concepts, techniques, and propositions arising in connection with physical theory.

    How do you understand such work?

  4. I would go so far as to say that science is impossible without philosophy. Scientists may not be very good at it (and they’re mostly ignorant of classical philosophy), but science remains natural philosophy even though we don’t think of it that way anymore. No one makes observations outside of an interpretive grid. The many that are doing ‘hard’ science are simply following the few that have the insight and the courage to make interpretive (philosophical) statements.

  5. Bryan,

    A long long time ago, it was all philosophy. The modern idea that philosophy is one subject among many, or worse yet, a department, is pretty far removed from the classical tradition.

  6. Scott,

    It’s one thing to check the numbers, evaluate the use of the formula, and measure up the features of the “hard science” to see if the scientist has been careful and truthful. But what I’m talking about in asking “What does this mean?” or “interpreting” is in regard to causation, implications for people, social/moral/political implications, etc.

    Whenever a scientist seeks to extract truths for these latter issues from his findings, he is leaving science and entering philosophy (or the humanities more broadly).

  7. Steven,

    Would you recommend that scientists restrict their attention to making observations, or that they stop pretending their interpretations are science? I’m not trying to be snarky, I really am curious. Or would you just say they should listen to the philosophers? We’re mostly following Newton (at least in physics and astronomy), but then wouldn’t you call him a natural philosopher? At the same time, we do need a new interpretive grid in science, and I’ve often wondered if classical philosophy would be helpful in that regard. Where would you direct a scientist who is mostly ignorant of the classical tradition?

  8. Steven,

    This may sound impertinent, but I don’t mean it that way at all: The paper I described didn’t involve numbers. It was a 40-page proof of a mathematical statement involving new concepts, argumentative techniques, and trains of thought. I wonder if your reading points to a difference between the way we understand science. Checking numbers and calculations is routine and could possibly be done by a machine. However, it is quite possible that comprehending the paper I described would involve straining the imagination, surrendering beliefs about the way things are, and appreciating how unfamiliar and subtle patterns of thought can tease out relationships between seemingly unrelated things. Scientists read to learn about the world. That learning can lead to new discoveries about the world.

    Consider Newton’s work. I have to think that it included concepts (e.g. force), new and subtle patterns of argumentation (e.g. calculus), and suprising deductions (e.g. the prediction of elliptical orbits). Those who first comprehended his work must have been sensitive, imaginative, and patient interpreters. Moreover, this interpreting and learning has since led to further discoveries with manifold social implications.

    Was is wrong of Newton to present his concepts and patterns of thought, rather than just present experimental results? After all, I think it is hard to find anyone who believes that Newtonian mechanics is the final word about mechanics. On the other hand hasn’t time shown that, in some sense, there is truth in the concepts and patterns of thought of Newtonian physics?

    By the way, I do not intend to argue against philosophy.

  9. Hi Scott,

    I don’t mind the questions at all, but I am having trouble seeing exactly where they are going. I agree that many scientists also engage in philosophical pursuits in order to discover new areas of science. I simply think it is important to state the difference between each method.

    Newton is a great example of the scientist who does more than science. His Principae is actually called of “Natural Philosophy.” He engaged in theology and alchemy, as well as a few more bizarre practices. Insofar as Newton’s laws can be empirically tested, then that work is science. Insofar as the rest upon primary assumptions about the “way things are” (ie. that they are mostly stable and orderly) they could just as easily be considered metaphysics.

    I don’t want to say that scientists are unimaginative or that they are only crunching numbers. But their fundamental job is to observe and test their observations against previously accepted standards. To then ask what the findings mean for other people’s lives, ethical behavior, political structures, communal practices past and present, etc. is to go beyond that job into something else.

  10. Bryan,

    The best world would for scientists, philosophers, theologians, and historians to create a sort of Omnibus which could then become the leading “subject” of the academic class. Until that day, I think scientists should do their best- as a very many of them do- to stay within the self-pronounced bounds of scientific method objectivity.

  11. Hi Steven,

    Well I think we do disagree. For example your statement

    “But their fundamental job is to observe and test their observations against previously accepted standards”

    seem to me to be off. It misses “theorizing”. Newtonian mechanics is neither a set of observation nor the testing of observations, but it is a very important part of physics. This goes back to our exchanges about interpretation in science.

    If you talk to a student who has learned calculus-based physics you will find that it takes time to learn to read the things in a Newtonian way. By “things” I have in mind scenarios such as standing on a ladder or perhaps spinning a top. Learning Newtonian mechanics involves learning to read such scenarios in a Newtonian way.

    What I have described is typical of other fields. The physics of electricity and magnitism is communicated partly in terms of the concepts of vector calculus. Continuum mechanics is communicated partly in terms of the concepts of tensor calculus. Learning these fields involves reading things with these concepts.

    Concepts are a part of physics. Characteristic interpretive habits are part of doing physics.

    And this kind of reading of things, if it is done well, can involve tuning in to aspects of the way things are. I believe this because of the successes of physics. If this is true, if it’s true that the concepts and interpretive habits of physics shed light on the way things are, then the law of love may obligate the physicist to speak to his neighbor about what he has learned.

    This obligation may be carried out as a physicist or as a mere man. As a physicist he may rightly say “Hey bud, you’re looking at that the wrong way. Consider this ….” “Bud” may be a fellow scientist or a non-scientist. As a mere man he may rightly say “Hey look what I found. We should really see if this could be useful in medicine” — perhaps he found x-rays.

    I admit that scientists can be badly mistaken. The “Hey bud etc.” can be entirely misleading. But it can also be the right thing for a scientist to say.

  12. I know this trail has gotten a little cold, but I’ve been busy welcoming another son into the family and am back for more discussion if you’re up for it. You seem to be giving mixed messages, but perhaps I just need clarification. You seem to be saying 1) knowledge is integrated and should not be compartmentalized as we tend to do these days and 2) scientists should stay in their own compartment and not venture out into the humanities. I think you want to bolster the authority of philosophy in an intellectual climate that only listens to science, and perhaps that will require putting science in its own little box for awhile. I entirely agree that our current view of the ability of science to make authoritative pronouncements borders on the ridiculous. But if knowledge really is integrated (and not merely supposed to be taught that way), then our modern compartmentalization is just an obscuration and one should be able to see connections if one is looking for them. And I’m telling you, as a scientist (remember, you’re supposed to listen and obey :-)), that philosophy really is inescapable. Things in nature are not labeled with forces and masses and velocities; scientists simply don’t make measurements outside of a philosophical framework for making sense out of their measurements. Take Newtonian natural philosophy out of science and you no longer have science as we currently understand it. Aristotle would have been appalled at how much we “interfere” with nature in order to understand it, right? Doesn’t that just indicate that we’re operating in a different philosophical framework? I think this actually goes some way towards deflating the authority of science; scientists aren’t just collecting Data that Speaks. They’re collecting data within a philosophical framework, the assumptions of which can be discussed and debated.

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