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Posts Tagged ‘epistemology’

I’m not sure how I missed it, but I only just now read about the book “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, that’s been out for some time. In it, they make the claim that analytical philosophy is dead, because it has failed to keep up with what science can tell us. Instead, we must turn to science to understand our origins and meaning.

I find that kind of funny, because I was talking just yesterday with someone about how dogmatically rigid science can often be. This is increasingly true lately, when funding is (again) driven primarily by corporate or other entrenched interests who benefit from squashing challenging viewpoints before they can even obtain credentials. It’s human nature to try to protect the world one believes one knows to be true, and to feel personally threatened when attacked by competing views.

Good philosophers know this. Not to say that it’s always easy to remember, of course. Philosophy, like any other field, has had its own tendencies to fall into a “defensive phalanx” of what’s considered Serious & Proper. This means it sometimes gets stuck in an echo-chamber rut that doesn’t exactly keep in touch with the humanity it is supposed to explore. You know, like any other field.

And that brings us back to science.

Science, at its purest essence, is expanding the sphere of the observable, and refining the ways in which we record those observations. The way they’re recorded have a direct impact on the way they’re utilized, and the consequences they wreak on human experience. Because of this, it is vital that scientists become acutely aware of the schema they are holding in their minds while making and interpreting these observations. When “doing science”, we must continually be questioning not only the data, but ourselves, and the ways our own histories and expectations are shaping what is being observed. Yet I have found this level of self-awareness to be in the minority far too often.

Spend any amount of time reading scientific studies and journals and the backstories of how data is included, omitted, misrepresented… soon you will see how very human science is, and how heavily discouraged is the practice of questioning predominant assumptions. This is so frustrating because of the truly talented scientists I’ve been around who are also well-read philosophers, and really should know better. But still, they put their dogmatic faith into “the purity of science”, as though the data and developments they were working on were etched into stone tablets without the taint of human error. Not all scientists fall into this trap, certainly, but this kind of arrogance is too often encouraged, endangering the effects of scientific work.

What really boggles me is the idea that “science” and “philosophy” are again considered separable. How did that happen? The very foundations of science are from curious and patient philosophers who stayed with the workings of their minds long enough to find new ways to observe things about how our world works. The best developments in philosophy have been from those who have turned to the world and used those observations to refine the ways the mind perceives. Both are really just ways to find out details and make sense of them, using very slightly different methodologies. They’re not even “two sides of the same coin”, they are a marble: a single sphere with occlusions that play shapes within the clarity depending on the angle. You can hold it up to the light to see the patterns, or flip it against the ground to see how it bounces, but it’s all the same game (unless you lose it).

Not to say that trying to put a hard division between “study of things” and “study of people” is just a modern thing. Socrates would have a lot to say about that, and the editors at Wikipedia summarized this better than I could:

A major turning point in the history of early philosophical science was the controversial but successful attempt by Socrates to apply philosophy to the study of human things, including human nature, the nature of political communities, and human knowledge itself. He criticized the older type of study of physics as too purely speculative, and lacking in self-criticism. He was particularly concerned that some of the early physicists treated nature as if it could be assumed that it had no intelligent order, explaining things merely in terms of motion and matter.

The study of human things had been the realm of mythology and tradition, and Socrates was executed.

Science, “Philosophical turn to human things” subsection in Wikipedia

Studying things can be hard. Studying oneself is harder. This is why it is so very important we not let ourselves off the hook of continually examining our conclusions just because we have numbers and data. This makes it equally important for the study of the mind to keep up with to the conclusions that are now being made in the rapid churn of modern life.

As a field, philosophy must certainly study what is being observed about our world, from scientific and political and religious and every other way the mind plays with experiencing. We must remain aware of what has led us to these points, and the assumptions we’re bringing with us. This is especially true in the field of science, where we are finding brilliantly refined measures of the physical that don’t bring their context with them. We provide the context, we interpret what it means. And we do so from the foundation of the assumptions we’re holding, and how we react when they are challenged.

If science is to continue providing meaningful guidance in understanding and shaping our world, it must maintain a firm grounding in the insights found in mental, social and emotional study. If philosophy is to serve as a lighthouse in understanding and shaping our work and our lives, it must be continually incorporating what we are learning about the physical. All types of knowledge, all observations are integral to one another, and must be woven together for us to understand the picture before us.

Call it science, philosophy, literature or religion. It all comes down to the same thing, and each of us are doing it every day. We’re all playing the game of experiencing life; it’s long past time to stop considering different fields of study as opposing teams.

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