There’s been some very public dig-taking between the science and philosophy camps lately. Lawrence Krauss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Stephen 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.
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.
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.
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.
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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 http://www.rebeccagoldstein.com/publications/plato-googleplex-why-philosophy-…
February 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/Stott, 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