Science and Philosophy, a Beautiful Friendship: A Response to Michael Shermer

There’s been some very public dig-taking between the science and philosophy camps lately. Lawrence KraussNeil DeGrasse TysonStephen Hawking, and other scientists are saying philosophy’s become irrelevant, little more than an esoteric old boy’s club. On the other hand, philosophers, theologians, politicians, and others criticize ‘scientism‘, the conviction that science, and only science, can and should be the ultimate source for all human knowledge; that all truth claims, that all ethical, metaphysical, and political beliefs, should not only be informed by or founded on, but entirely determined by, empirical evidence.

Michael Shermer’s article ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics‘ (Scientific American, February 2015) doesn’t dismiss philosophy so directly. He includes philosophy in a list of three other arenas of human thought, with religion and political theory, as those to which most people turn for answers in matters of right and wrong, good and evil. Science can, Shermer says, provide those answers, and goes on to explain why he believes ethics has no better source for them. The history of the human race is rife with slavery, torture, theft, and discrimination, yet all diminish human flourishing. Much of this harmful behavior consists of the group abusing certain of its members for the sake of others. But since it’s individual beings that ‘perceive, emote, respond, love, feel, and suffer’, Shermer says, it’s individual beings that are the ‘fundamental units’ of nature (evidenced by the fact they’re what natural selection targets). The primary purpose of ethics, then, is to promote the flourishing of individual beings, and to denounce all that doesn’t.

Yet as I read Shermer’s article several times, satisfied as I am that he places high value on the importance of empirical evidence, I find I have some objections. He doesn’t discuss how easy it is to jump to conclusions, inferring the ‘ought’ too quickly from the ‘is’. David Hume is the philosopher most famous for describing how tricky it really is to derive the ‘is’ directly from the ‘ought’, or in other words, the problems with assuming that just because something is a certain way, that means it should be that way. For example, how do we go about deciding that one fact, or one ‘is’, is more important than another fact when determining what ought’ to be done?

I also worry his argument helps perpetuate a certain myth, widely maintained by those who feel the need to erect walls around their respective fields of inquiry. In some cases, like Krauss’s, this whole debate appears to devolve into some sort of intellectual pissing contest. The myth is the claim that there’s a sharp dividing line between each field of inquiry, just as the committed political libertarian perceives the divide between the one and the many, the individual and the group. When Shermer includes philosophy in the list of alternate sources for ethics, and, implicitly, dismisses it as the best candidate, I think that he hints, wrongly, that philosophy is in competition with science generally.

A famous example of leaping too quickly from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’, or in other words, deriving an ethical system too quickly from a scientific discovery, is eugenics. Many were so enthusiastic about the thrilling new scientific theory of natural selection, derived from observations in nature, that they thought it could be applied to all explanatory theories. Just as it is a fact that nature selects against certain individuals based on the ability to thrive in its environment, so it is that human beings should emulate nature and act as rational arbiters of fitness. In other words, we should select select against those individuals we think ‘degrade’ society by their existence and by their capacity to pass on their ‘undesirable’ qualities.
Scientists widely thought, from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth, that the human species could be more efficiently ‘perfected’ through the judicious selection of traits to pass on to future generations.

Here, philosophy and science (and yes, even religion) could have done a much better job at working together: arguably, these eugenic ethicists could have used a lot more Hume, philosopher, and a little less Cesare Lombroso, physician and criminologist who thought all bad human traits were physically inherited. It’s not that the physical sciences should not contribute to ethics, not in the least. It’s that more checks and balances between fields of inquiry could have kept so many over-eager scientists from over-applying their discoveries where there are good arguments to show they did not belong. If eugenicist scientists had paid more heed to Hume’s warning that we can’t so readily derive the ‘ought’ (what we should do) from the ‘is’ (the actual state of affairs in the world), perhaps they may have more carefully considered all of the evidence, including human moral instinct and logical arguments in favor of human equality, done a better job of including all available scientific data in their social theories, and restrained themselves from unleashing such a destructive ideology on the world.

But shouldn’t ethics be informed by facts about the world? If it isn’t, doesn’t that make ethics too arbitrary, or too abstract, to be applied to the lives of actual, living human beings, as members of a society as well as individuals? I agree with Shermer that it should. But I also think that facts about the world aren’t enough, on their own, to fully determine what we ought to do. In fact, these facts can’t be enough, all on their own. That’s because, for one thing, there are so many ‘is’s’ to consider, many of which indicate an opposite course of action would be best. To return to one of the many problems with eugenics: its promoters considered the ‘is’ of natural selection against ‘unfit’ members as the most important fact to consider in deciding which lives society ‘ought’ to consider worth living. After all, it’s selection against weak and ecologically ‘unfit’ individuals which made their surviving descendants ‘superior’. But there are other ‘is’s’: human beings are naturally disposed to empathize with those who are suffering to help them out, even if they are sickly, disabled, or otherwise more susceptible to an early death. This disposition, this instinct, is itself an evolved trait. It’s also a fact that the same cooperative set of instincts that compel us help the ‘unfit’ survive is the same that drives us, as a species, to help each other live happier, healthier, wealthier, and therefore ‘fitter’ lives in the long run, as individuals as well as members of society.
Shermer considers the well-being of individuals the primary goal of ethics, and for scientific reasons. He explains: ‘The singular and separate organism is to biology and society what the atom is to physics—a fundamental unit of nature. The first principle of the survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that it is the discrete organism that is the main target of natural selection and social evolution, not the group. We are a social species, but we are first and foremost individuals within social groups and therefore ought not to be subservient to the collective.’ It’s clear that he, like all rational, well informed thinkers, doesn’t ascribe to the principles of eugenics, now considered not science, but pseudoscience. But it’s not so clear how he’s justified, based on scientifically confirmed facts alone, in saying that because natural selection works on the individual, it’s the individual whose interests should be protected first, and society second. After all, natural selection also works against individuals, culling some for the benefit of the group. So, one could just as well argue that the evidence shows it’s better for individuals, as well as for society, if those who are sickly or more likely to pass on disease and disability to others, should at least be allowed to die off as nature, without our intervention, would have it. Shermer needs more than just an array of facts to show why some, and not others, should inform ethics.
It’s true that, historically, far too much death and destruction have been wrought on individuals when they are perceived as ‘subservient’ to the group. In this, Shermer has much evidence on his side. But it’s also true that much harm results from placing too much emphasis on the rights of individuals over the wellbeing of society. Lax gun regulations make it easy on gun enthusiasts to enjoy their hobby while also making it easy for the murderously criminal and mentally ill to obtain guns too; lax labor laws make is easy for employers to exploit and abuse their workers to the point of disabling injury and death; lax financial regulation allow a few speculators plunge economies into ruin and populations into a state of want; ‘personal belief’ exemptions allow parents not to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of disease and even death; the list goes on and on. Great harm, generally, comes from the attempt to separate individuals and society into two competing camps, or to, as Margaret Thatcher would have it, from acting on the belief that the group, or ‘society’, doesn’t really exist at all.

In our intensely social, emotive, thinking human species, the incredible degree of individualness that individuals can achieve is due at least as much to the contributions of the group, over time, as to the individual’s own efforts. Human beings make art, tell stories, travel, enjoy romance and friendship, build buildings and erect monuments, and create such rich and complex products of thought as history, myth, religion, politics, literature, science, and to my mind the greatest, philosophy (since it overarches and unifies all other systems of thought), precisely because of the level of sociability we have evolved. The rugged, self-reliant individual of American mythology, for example, is precisely that: a myth. No human being could get very far if they didn’t have a society, to help feed, clothe, and equip them with the tools and technology they need to perform their wonderful individual feats, and to restore them to health and pass on their story afterwards. Humans flourish when individuals efforts are promoted and when they’re not allowed to infringe too much on the interests of the group.

The human species, as a whole, flourishes so well because of this two-way dependence between the individual and the group: you can’t have one without the other. The incredible diversity of its individual members should be encouraged and protected because they make our species among the most adaptable, and therefore among the most resilient on earth. When we oppress individuals, when we seek to crush expression of personality, or system of belief, or ability to pursue personal goals and professions, we wrong both the individual and the human species, by undermining individual potential while making the species that much less diverse and therefore, less adaptable. When we undermine the flourishing of society by allowing individuals to pursue purely self-interested whims and goals to the detriment of all, we wrong the individual too. Short-sighted, self-centric market choices leading to mass pollution and climate change, widespread cell phone use while driving, ideologues who keep their children out of the public schools to indoctrinate them in one world view, and one only… when the individual is allowed, by the group, to pursue their own myopic interests to the detriment of all, individuals suffer too.

In all other areas of biological science, it’s essential to understand a species as a whole if you want to fully understand any individual. When you look at an individual being, you see a set of characteristics that could just as well be quirks as traits; when you look at the species as a whole, you recognize which of those characteristics all have in common, and which are necessary for all members of a given species to survive and flourish. Even when it comes to solitary animals, most cats, for example, we consider each one as members of the species cat as well as a particular furry, comfort-loving, furniture-ravaging, mouse-chasing, charmingly mischievous, producer-of-the-cutest-offspring-on-earth-namely-kittens animal. If we didn’t perceive them dualistically in this way, we wouldn’t understand much about any one cat, let alone all cats. If we were to encounter an individual animal with all those traits, and had never encountered or learned about others, we wouldn’t know what to feed them, how we might need to protect the furniture, or why we should keep a video camera handy when they’re around. If we need this dualistic perception of cat as one furry animal and one of many cats in order to understand it, how much more so for a highly social species, such as humans, whose interests and fates are so intertwined. I see no reason, scientific or otherwise, to look at the human species any differently in this regard.
This cat example might seem so illustrate such an obvious point as to be silly, but I think we need to remind ourselves of it every time an intellectual tries to divorce fields of inquiry from one another in the general human project of truth-seeking, or an ethicist, politician, or anyone else tries to completely separate the interests of the individual from that of the group. I think both are mistakes that Shermer comes too close to making in this article.
This whole discussion of how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions from scientific evidence can also serve to buttress Shermer’s initial point about ethics, even if it doesn’t support his overemphasis on the divide between the individual and the group. I agree that scientifically verifiable facts about human beings should inform our ethics; the best system of ethics, to my mind, is a naturalistic system. Here’s where we arrive at what Shermer mostly gets right. Looking outwards at the world provides the raw material for any system of thought, as his title ‘A Moral Starting Point’ more than suggests. After all, all knowledge begins with the information we receive through our senses, as Aristotle, Hume, and the other empiricist philosophers point out. There is no reason to think we could think at all if we have never heard, seen, felt, tasted, or smelled anything to think about. And it’s thinking that gets us to do more than just sensing the world as a microbe, a plant, or a clam does, reacting without reflection. Philosophy is the human species’ way of taking the art of thinking as far as it can go: we examine what the information we receive might mean in a larger context. We question, we look for answers restlessly not only because we want to solve problems: we love to do so. Philosophy, after all, literally means ‘love of knowledge/wisdom’, translated from the Greek. And as we ask and as we look, in the interplay between the input of our senses and the organization of information through thought, science affords reality the opportunity ‘to answer us back’, as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein so puts it so well (Plato, p. 34).Philosophy not only provides the impetus and the direction for the inquiry of science: once we find out the facts, it helps us figure out what to make of them. In every step of the way, the formulation of scientific theories relies heavily on philosophy, from the application of the rules of logic to the justification of why we should value or emphasize one set of facts over another. In fact, until very recently, science was a branch of philosophy (natural philosophy) until that general branch of inquiry about the natural world became so large it specialized and branched off, then branched off again into physics, biology, chemistry, and so forth. Those areas of philosophy that didn’t branch off into the sciences and into theology, came to be identified with the arcane varieties of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and so on, pursued largely behind the walls of academia today.

But philosophy is not limited to an arcane, highly abstract field of inquiry, as fascinating and valuable as that can be. It’s that approach to life as a perceiving, emoting, responding, loving, feeling, suffering, and thinking being, that every person partakes in, to one level or another. Philosophy, from its very beginnings, originates in the public square. It’s welcoming into ones’ self the whole world of things to sense and to imagine with a curious, critical, and interdisciplinary approach, and engaging in that way of thinking with others. I want to know why, and how, and who, and so on, and not only to know what is, but why I care about it and why others should too. Science is a big part of this. Yet philosophy is prior to, and necessary for, the former. In fact, it was my love of philosophy that led to my fascination with science, to question and replace some of the ideas I was taught in my youth (creationism, the doctrine of original sin, the sacralization of virginity, and so on) with a more naturalist system of inquiry. To separate philosophy from science is as unhelpful as divorcing the individual from the species: one does not function without the other.When it comes to understanding the universe, in fact, there is no such thing as ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’ of thought (as Steven Jay Gould put it when he tries, to my mind unsuccessfully, to justify the separation of theology and science). I think it’s a mistake to engage in the kind of intellectual turf war that science, philosophy, and other fields of inquiry are sometimes engaged in, not only because it sets up mental road blocks to incorporating the full range of evidence and ideas available, it sets a bad example for critical thinking. Shermer does well to remind philosophers, many of whom are sadly remiss in this, that they need science to keep them honest, so that subtle errors in logic, mistakes in self-justification, or over-weddedness to a particular tradition of thought can’t lead them too far astray.

But ‘philosophy-jeerers’, as Newberger Goldstein calls them, make a mistake when forgetting how much science owes philosophy, and how heavily they actually depend on it. For example, at the beginning of the article, Shermer refers to rights theory in philosophy as a popular source of ethics, as a contrast to a scientific view. Yet later on in the same piece, he refers to ‘natural rights’ as a scientific ethical principle. Yet rights theory has always been derived, even if indirectly at times, from the application of reason to observed facts about human beings: that they are rational and feeling creatures, that they are capable of autonomous will, that they seek to live ‘the good life’, and so on. To intimate that rights theory is, or has ever been, an alternative to an empirical view of ethics is either to ignore or to misunderstand what rights theory is and always has been.
Darwin's Ghost be Rebecca Stott, Photo Credit: Goodreads
Remember Aristotle, philosopher extraordinaire, one of the earliest and most famous founders of two (among many) of the most influential fields of philosophy: ethics and natural philosophy (better known today as science). As so delightfully described in Rebecca Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts, Aristotle didn’t remain in his armchair (did they have armchairs in ancient Greece?), spinning abstract theories straight out of his head, arguing tedious points of logic with his fellow philosophers. He looked to the world to provide the raw material with which to craft his theories on the origins and nature of life, diving for specimens of sea flora and fauna, following animals around and recording their behavior. It was his philosophical mind that drove him to ask the questions and look for answers, and it was nature that provided the predicates, the subjects, of his reasoning.

In the words of Humphrey Bogart, we can see, from accounts of her birth, ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’ between Science and her parent, Philosophy. The most intimate kind of friendship, where the dialogue is open and honest and each supports the other, guiding one another away from the pitfalls and wrong turns the other doesn’t see.

So from the very beginning, philosophy has always been there to keep science honest, supplying the discipline of logic and helping it avoid methodological errors. It makes it clear to why there are relatively few direct or easy links from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’ when formulating principles of ethics. It shows science that finding out how things work doesn’t readily indicate how we should apply that information in our daily lives, that even the best scientist is prone to bias, misunderstanding, and underestimation of that which we don’t yet know, and how science can be used to help and not harm.

There is no honest philosophy without science, and there is no science at all without philosophy.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes
* A version of this piece is published in Philosophy Now
*Also published in Darrow

Sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Ross. ‘Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?’ The Atlantic. Apr 23, 2012

Burnett, Thomas. ‘What is Scientism?’ American Association for the Advancement of Science website.

‘Cesare Lombroso.’ In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Fagan, Andrew. ‘Human Rights’. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gould, Stephen Jay. “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III: Of Morals. 1739.
Nerdist Podcast: ‘Neil Degrasse Tyson Returns Again’. March 17th, 2014

Newberger Goldstein, Rebecca: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. 
New York, 2014

Shermer, Michael: ‘A Moral Starting Point: How Science Can Inform Ethics.’ Scientific American, 
February 2015., Rebecca. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution. Random House, New York 2012.

Thatcher, Margaret. Quote from interview with Women’s Own magazine, Oct 31st 1987.

Warman, Matt. ‘Stephen Hawking Tells Google “Philosophy is Dead”‘. The Telegraph, May 17th, 2011

3 thoughts on “Science and Philosophy, a Beautiful Friendship: A Response to Michael Shermer

  1. Thanks for reading and for your comment! Shermer is well informed and an excellent science communicator, I expect his book to be a good read; I hope to get to read it myself before too long.


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