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Science is the New Philosophy

February 16, 2009
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I have believed that science is the new “Philosophy”, for some time now. That is to say, it is not a new philosophy, but that it has replaced the role of philosophy itself as the premium path to “enlightenment”; from Xenophanes to Aristotle, from Descartes to Kant, Heidegger, Rousseau and beyond – all posited an explanation for the external world and most of them sought to create concepts that answered the questions of why and how.

Aristotle’s crystalline spheres, for example, as an explanation of the solar system’s “formula”, or Descartes’ physics, was a product of their philosophical inquiry in to the nature of things. They even postulated on ethics and the notion of morality – where it applies and how to apply it, etc. To them philosophy was an exercise in their love for wisdom and was futile without the possible achievement of the “Truth”.

Which is why I feel that Nietzsche was right to criticize them and Freud brazenly bold when he called philosophy a kind of intellectual schizophrenia, because the so-called “Truth” eludes all attempts – as it has for our entire history. (This in no way discouraged them) I am not trying to trivialize contemporary philosophers’ remarkable prowess or to dismiss their ideas. It’s just that they have missed the boat; life is today (as in reality it always has been) about pragmatism and nothing is more pragmatic and practically applicable as science.

The fundamental difference between science and philosophy is that it does not fall prey to a hubristic pursuit as “search for the truth”. It’s objective is to create the most simple theories that fit our empirical experience. That is, it is the synthesis of Occam’s Razor and the Scientific Method.Unfortunately though, even some scientists have become deluded in this pursuit; they seek to “discover” theories or to “find patterns” instead of creating theories of patterns in the observable external world, which comes with the assumption that such patterns inherently exist.

This is a grave mistake because it attributes to their theories a kind of permanency that can not and ought never to be disproved. That is, it assumes a discovery of “Truth”. Yet the history of science teaches us that it is not an absolute, but that the very nature of science is an imprecise estimation that seeks to perpetually revise its own “cognition” of its relationship to reality. In other words science is the literal embodiment of Socrates‘ now-sacred declaration; “I know, that I do not know”.

Practitioners of scientific research need to have this kind of meta-cognition; a kind that monitors their own belief system – monitors their own memes, so that it does not develop its own language that assumes itself as axiomatically true. The scientists who lose this meta-cognition, may still create a rational system through which they can interact with and understand the external world, but fall prey to their own discourse; a discourse that uses words and phrases such as “the architecture of the solar system” or “the cell is designed in a way to” etc. This is the product of a profound anthropocentric psychology that fosters loaded words with theistic connotations. It is what I have ridiculed here.

Man still remains, unfortunately, the measure of all things for a lot of these scientists. In contrast to that, other scientists exhibit superior meta-cognition by not merely avoiding such terms and thoughts, but by actively participating in what once would have been the exclusive domain of philosophy; an exploration of the human existence in relationship to the external world.

Martin Rees, a professor of cosmology and astrophysics and master of Trinity College at the ancient University of Cambridge, is one such person. I read his article titled the Mathematics: The only true universal language at the New Scientist online. What I found remarkable was that the sheer profundity of his essay echoes that of both modern and previous philosophers. He recognized, for example, that human beings may never be able to understand the “Truth”:

An interesting possibility, which I think should not be dismissed, is that a “true” fundamental theory exists, but that it may just be too hard for human brains to grasp. A fish may be barely aware of the medium in which it lives and swims; certainly it has no intellectual powers to comprehend that water consists of interlinked atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. The microstructure of empty space could, likewise, be far too complex for unaided human brains to grasp.

Although I must complain that he seems to assert this as a possibility in contrast with the assumed norm of being able to “grasp” the “Truth” of the external world! Mr.Rees must ask himself why it isn’t generally recognized by scientists that there is at best an equal possibility of understanding or not understanding the “truth” of the nature of the external world. Mr.Rees’s skepticism seems to me to barely allow for the possibility of being incapable of attaining the so-called truth. This isn’t “I know that I do not know”… but “I think it’s mind boggling that I may not know!”.

He is like philosophers in other ways too; he talks about possibilities beyond ourselves and uses analogies the way Plato favored:

String theory involves scales a billion billion times smaller than any we can directly probe. At the other extreme, our cosmological theories suggest that the universe is vastly more extensive than the patch we can observe with our telescopes. It may even be infinite. The domain that astronomers call “the universe” – the space, extending more than 10 billion light years around us and containing billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, billions of planets (and maybe billions of biospheres) – could be an infinitesimal part of the totality.

There is a definite horizon to direct observations: a spherical shell around us, such that no light from beyond it has had time to reach us since the big bang. However, there is nothing physical about this horizon. If you were in the middle of an ocean, it is conceivable that the water ends just beyond your horizon – except that we know it doesn’t. Likewise, there are reasons to suspect that our universe – the aftermath of our big bang – extends hugely further than we can see.

And then he also briefly touches upon philosophical skepticism, similar to Descartes’ First Meditation:

Maybe in the far future, though, post-human intelligence will develop hypercomputers with the processing power to simulate living things – even entire worlds. Perhaps advanced beings could even simulate a “universe” that goes far beyond mere patterns on a chequer-board and the best movie special effects. Their simulated universe could be as complex as the one we perceive ourselves to be in. This raises a disconcerting thought: perhaps that is what our universe really is.

And this man is a cosmologist and astrophysicist. Philosophers on the other hands, are still arguing over utilitarianism, objectivism or over cryptic nuances of esoteric works of over-read ancient philosophers. They may not be intellectually stagnant, but they certainly are institutionally stuck in a rut.

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  1. Philosophy has been and is the mother of all sciences… all questions that science began to deal with were once questions of philosophy. The only difference is that science deals with ‘definite’ knowledge, definite in the sense that its theories can be tested and falsified (or provisionally verified) by empirical experiments and observations, while philosophy deals with matters for which we have no definite answers. The revolutions of the sun, moon and planets were a part of philosophy because at that time there was no definite way of solving the question. But with the invention of telescope, the domain of the heavens was brought to empirical observation and it became possible to definitely refute geocentric model. Similarly, psychology was initially philosophy, so was evolution… but once definite methods were discovered to tackle these questions, they became a part of science. The statement that ‘science is the new philosophy’ makes sense mostly in the area of metaphysics, because modern physics has now arrived at the point where it can ask and attempt to answer metaphysical questions like the origin of universe, the nature of matter, the nature of space-time etc. But science still has little to say about matters of ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, philosophy of religion, logic etc, and alot of scientific focus is being made on philosophy of mind and it is possible that it would soon become a question of science.

    You are right when you point out that “It’s objective is to create the most simple theories that fit our empirical experience.” Scientific theories are only models of explanation of how the world appears to us… they may be true, or they may not be true, but we can never know and hence the question is irrelevant to science. But the truth that we talk of here is the ‘ultimate truth’ (whatever that means). For instance, when science speaks of earth revolving around the sun, it is not simply a model, but it is also actually “true” because the earth does revolve around the sun, and we can directly observe its motion. The earth’s revolution around the sun is not the ‘truth’ which philosophy speaks of. My point is: when science is able to directly observe a phenomenon, there remains little point of it being not true. It is the truth which we postulate behind the observed fact is what can not be determined. For instance, to explain earth revolving around the sun, Newton postulated “gravitation force” to explain it. No one can directly ‘see’ gravity; hence, the theory of gravitation is a model. Einstein came and replaced gravitational force with space-time curvature. That’s another model. We cannot see space-time curvature. The theory is accepted in science because it “works”, it explains the observation. Is it true? Well, we would never know…

    And to be fair, philosophers of the 20th century themselves have given up the task of finding the “truth”, after Wittgenstein in the the analytical philosophy and Postmodernism in the Continental philosophy, few philosophers, if any, care about finding the “truth” anymore.

  2. Salahudin al-Rawandi permalink

    I agree that post-modern philosophy is no longer about the search for the truth – i wanted to mention that but decided not to due to it being tangential to my overall assertion.

    I would credit Sartre and other existentialist philosophers for that, including a few analytical ones.

    Overall I believe that science, being the product of philosophy as you pointed out, is the heir to philosophy itself. Tomorrow, if not today, all of philosophy will eventually be replaced by science… but perhaps the only remaining question will be the one philosophers are afraid to tackle – that which Nietzsche attacked them for – the question of why.

    Why do we exist at all… I don’t think science can tackle that question… and so far it’s been the domain of religion.

  3. A very good post and also wonderful comments. I dont think that science has replaced or will replace philosophy. First of all science as we have been told grew out of philosophy. “Natural Philosophy” of Newton’s time is known as science now.
    Despite huge advancement , philosophically the plain of science remains the “theoretical framework” of natural philosophy.
    The point of view that Science is new philosophy was project of Logical Positivism and it had to be abandoned. Science is “riddle solving” of a sort, it just examination of “statements about reality”. What reality is ? is not a riddle of Science. Science is a system which is collecting data for philosophers to place in a wider picture. Science itself is not capable for doing this.
    Hawkins says he explains equations not cosmos and he is right. Metaphysically we know “empirico-postitivism” was a baby of Idealism and it left reality beyond its scope .
    Philosophy on the other hand is still debating does “empirical data” or an appeal to senses as a claim of knowledge is legitimate one?
    Philosophy has no limits, it has no boundaries. Main project of philosophy is “why we think like that”

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