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Posted by on Sep 20, 2012 in Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Skepticism | 47 comments

Does Science Render Philosophy Useless?

A few years ago I asked this exact question on my Facebook page. At that point, I was almost convinced that the answer was yes. Now I’m no longer sure, so I wanted to get your input on the matter. But before philosophers and philosophy students get angry with me for even posing the question, let me explain what I’m not referring to. Obviously, the study of philosophy (and thus, its teaching) is useful, as it tells the story of human intellectual development over time. Second, I don’t believe that individual philosophies are useless; we all have them, and they are crucial to finding meaning in a potentially meaningless world. Finally, there are some philosophies that  either run parallel to science or fail to contradict it, and are thus important to explore; for instance, naturalism, nihilism, and existentialism. If you’re not interested in the latter two, it’s quite possible that your love of wisdom isn’t as strong as it could be. Alternatively, it may be that you’re too busy living life to think about things that are inconsequential to our existence, and that’s fine too. 

But here’s where I think that philosophy is, in fact, irrelevant:

1.  Morality and Ethics: Morals are not natural laws handed down by god. Morality is our personal (or cultural) sense of right and wrong, and as all things, it is driven by our desire to survive and reproduce. As social animals, it is easier for us to do so if we learn to live in peace, without harming others, and without being harmed ourselves. Science suggests that this is the governing principle behind human morality and ethics, rather than some nebulous form of higher wisdom. In other words, we’re no more moral than any other animal and no less, though we’re quite probably the most destructive. But if you look at this from a nihilistic perspective, why does it  matter?

2. Free will: The combination of nature and nurture leads me to the conclusion that our decisions are causally linked to and determined by prior events, which are, in turn, determined by earlier events, even if some of those events are, at some level, random.  Thus, I would argue, and compatibilists would disagree, that we have no true free will, even when we think we do. But for all practical purposes this is irrelevant. The only imaginable relevance has to do with punishment, in which case lack of free will indicates that rehabilitation, restitution, and restraint should be sufficient, without the useless component of revenge. Then again, revenge is not useless to the person or persons seeking it. And, in any case, the issue is moot because if free will does not exist, the decision is not ours to make.

3. Epistemological Issues: No philosophy major or pseudo-intellectual will live her life without having used this word, and as the latter of the two, I frequently succumb to the temptation. After all, as explained in the previous paragraph, I have no choice. However, I believe that questions about the nature of knowledge are best answered by science. How do our senses work? How is memory structured? To what extent does perception influence knowledge? What is certainty? Can we ever be certain of anything? At what point is empirical data sufficient to take something out of the realm of belief and place it the realm of knowledge? To date, science has been the best tool for answering these questions, and philosophy has shed no light on the issues. It has been suggested that philosophy is the driving force in the quest to know the answers, yet this is mere speculation. Who is to say that similar questions would not arise as a components of scientific inquiry, especially considering the fact that they have?

4. Metaphysical and Ontological Issues: What is matter? How do time and change affect matter? Is there a soul? What is the nature of existence? Even if you’ve never studied either philosophy or science, these questions probably sound familiar to you. Almost every curious human being has thought about them at one time or another. The best science fiction movies are rife with this stuff. And yet, philosophy provides no answers. To find answers, we must, yet again, look to science. And, at present, science can explain the nature of matter, and many, if not most, physicists and evolutionary biologists/psychologists/neurologists have rejected the notion of mind/body duality. To those who aren’t familiar with the science behind this, think of brain damage and its effect on a human being’s personality. Think of how the human body responds to psychoactive drugs. Think of what occurs when you’re unconscious or sedated before major surgery. Arguably, and, in my opinion, quite probably, science leaves no room for a soul, and absent new evidence, the concept of mind/body duality is no longer worthy of examination. As to the nature of existence?  Good question, but whether you’re a grand philosopher or a beggar living on the streets, your answer is no more or less valid than anyone else’s.

5.  Political Philosophy: In my opinion, politics are more important pragmatically than philosophically. As such, it is better to study what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. An empirical approach is best whenever possible, and, in my opinion, the goal should be to determine what is of greatest good to most. There are many competing political theories and they are all worthy of examination, if only because they are relevant to issues of ethics, morality, survival, and reproduction. But political theories do not exist in a vacuum, and must be analyzed not only as lofty ideas, but as pragmatic solutions to the everyday problems of living. While science may not be the only approach to such an analysis, certainly the processes and tools of science are important to the discussion. In other words, politics must be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thought.

6. Religious Philosophy: To the extent it contradicts science, religion is beyond the scope of modern philosophical relevance, even though it provides great insight into the nature of tribalism and human behavior. At some point, it overlaps with politics to form a particularly toxic brew. Personally, I don’t think we have the right to interfere with the religious beliefs of others unless those beliefs or the actions stemming from those beliefs are socially harmful. Unfortunately, “social harm” is not the easiest concept to define. But once again, this isn’t a philosophical concern, but a pragmatic one.

7. Aesthetics: Is there an objective standard to art? Is art an intellectual or representational endeavor? What is the relationship between art and math? What is the value of beauty? I find these questions fascinating, but no matter how long they’ve been asked, philosophy has not provided answers. On the other hand, math and science have. For instance, we find beauty in symmetry and repetition, and this is true for both visual art and music. Symmetry and repetition exist everywhere in nature, so it isn’t surprising that humans would find such attributes aesthetically pleasing. Further, we find value in creativity, a trait that surely has evolutionary advantages. These are indeed intriguing topics, and I could spend years discussing them, but without further research, I don’t think the answers to these questions can be found.

8. Solipsism: Only a solipsist would want to approach this.

I’m certain everyone will find plenty here to disagree with here, as well you should. Any thoughts?