Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Philosophy versus Science

Julian Baggini interviewed physicist Lawrence Krauss in the Guardian on “Philosophy v. Science: Which Can Answer the Big Questions of Life”.

Baggini suggested that "We have no reason to think that one day science will make it unnecessary for us to ask 'why' questions about human action to which things such as love will be the answer." He asked Krauss: "Or is that romantic tosh? Is there no reason why you're bothering to have this conversation, ... you are doing it simply because your brain works the way it does?" Krauss's answer to Baggini’s question was that his brain is built to enjoy this sort of activity. Krauss went on to say that "Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs."

Two household-name scientists these days who make remarks similar to Krauss's are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking. It's a familiar line. Baggini's discussion with Krauss ends in a genial agreement-to-disagree. I think Baggini could have pursued the central issue more effectively than he did. 

When Krauss said that his brain is built to enjoy the kind of discussion they’re engaged in, I think Baggini should have asked whether Krauss only cares about "enjoyment," or does he also care about finding the truth about the issues they're discussing? If Krauss cares about finding the truth, is this merely because his brain happens to be built that way? Or does he think there's something inherently valuable in knowing the truth? If he thinks there's something inherently valuable in knowing the truth, does he think this merely because he was programmed to think it? Or does he think there are good reasons to think it? Krauss is a scientist. I doubt that he'll want to say that science is significant only because certain apes have been programmed to feel that it's significant. To say that, is to say that science and the truth as such have no ultimate significance. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein would have been horrified by such a statement. 

But if Krauss agrees with Newton and Einstein that science and the truth as such are worth pursuing for their own sake, regardless of how we may have been programmed—so that someone who didn’t happen to enjoy seeking the truth, would be objectively unfortunate—then Krauss must acknowledge that "empirical" information about how we happen to have been programmed can't settle all the important questions about how we should live. Contrary to what he said, ethics and value in general are not just a branch of biology, even for Krauss. 

I think this is in practice the case for all of these people. No one really wants to turn over the decisions about how to live his own life, including what to believe, to his biological programming. We want to make these decisions ourselves! But theories blind us to these simple facts about ourselves. 

You might wonder whether neuroscience won’t show, or hasn’t already shown, that we can’t make these decisions ourselves. But it’s interesting that no scientist ever says that we can’t really decide for ourselves what to think about scientific questions; we just have to accept whatever we’ve been programmed to think. On the contrary, they all claim to be thinking hard and evaluating the reasons for and against. Just as we non-scientists do when we try to decide what kind of life to live, etc. If scientists can make their decisions about scientific questions rationally (and not just in the way they’ve been programmed to make them), then I think I, too, can make my decisions rationally. 

1 comment:

  1. What does this discussion of philosophy versus science have to do with philosophical mysticism? Philosophical mysticism requires real philosophy, real rational thought. The reductive materialism that's advocated by people like Lawrence Krauss appears to undermine the possibility of real rational thought and real philosophy. So a philosophical mystic will want to understand how reductive materialism can't be consistently maintained.