Science and Philosophy
March 12, 2011 3 Comments
Why do I like science? Because I want to learn something about the world and myself! Why do I like philosophy? Because I want to learn something about the world and myself! “All men by nature desire to know” is the first sentence in Aristotle’s legendary and influential “Metaphysics”! He didn’t start it like “Man seeks for survival and therefore needs to know something about his environment and himself” or “Man seeks for reproduction and therefore needs to know the means by which he can increase his chances to do so”. No, he starts by simply stating that man enjoys and finds happiness in seeking knowledge. He finds proof in this notion by notifying the enjoyment of pure sense data (“An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves”) but man doesn’t stop with senses, he goes on speculating, he tries to find patterns in nature and eventually, he comes up with ideas and hypotheses about the world that surrounds him. This is where everything starts and this is what the Western world shaped, we simply want to find out what is going on in this world!
So how do Science and philosophy differ? After all, according to what I just said, they don’t seem to have different goals, they both want to “know”. Well, I guess there was a time when philosophy was science and science was philosophy. Let’s not forget that Newton, for example, called his revolutionary work about gravitation “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, “The mathematical principles of natural philosophy”. Or take Kepler whose work was entitled “Harmonice mundis”. That doesn’t sound strictly scientific to me, it implies a notion of the world that is harmonic like a piece of music and indeed, Kepler was deeply fascinated by the thought that the world follows a music-like harmony, a thought which has first been brought up by the infamous mystic-philosophical circle of Pythagoreans. What does that tells us? That science is grounded in philosophy and since philosophy, in its origins, is built on highly speculative grounds which later became known as “metaphysics” that everything is grounded on speculation, even, and in particular, modern day science! That’s just natural, we have to start somewhere and the earliest philosophers -in the classical sense (I am talking about the ionic natural philosophers)- started their journey on grounds that were built upon mythological fundaments. They questioned these fundaments but you can never completely destroy them, otherwise you lose the grip. So, in general, the point at which a philosopher starts to question things is always grounded in normal life. He or she starts asking something like “How come that everything is in a process but that there’s still some stability?” or “What is it that makes one statement true and another false?” or “What is reality?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “What happens with me when I’m dead?” or “What acts are just?” or “Do I have a free will?” and so on! You can see, there are a broad range of questions. This is philosophy: Questioning things and being surprised and amazed! And what is science? Science is nothing else than giving a set of answers to particular questions that arose in the process of philosophical reasoning! But if you follow the line back to its origins, it all started in questioning normal day life. And all its underlying assumptions (the conditions that make science possible in the first place) are, eventually, speculative! Like what? For example, that nature can be grasped with reason due to its law-like behavior, that there are fundamental objects, that there is causality and so forth! These are all things that can easily be questioned! For instance: we can know a few things about nature by using our reasoning but nature itself is not reasonable at all! Why is it that we are born, live for a couple of years (in astronomical relations not even a milli-second), suffer, enjoy and eventually die? Is there a “reason” for that? Additionally, reason is a trait of our minds and projecting this trait into nature tastes dangerously like anthropomorphism. Further, what do we mean when we talk about objects or substances (by the way, the concept of “substances” was introduced by Aristotle)? Is an atom more substantial than an organic individual (is the concept “Mario”, for example, less real than the atoms he is made of)? Is there really causality or is it not that all we can detect is a mere process of events that follows a certain pattern and that’s it (famously brought into discussion by David Hume)? These questions remain unanswered within science and most of the time, we are not even aware that they are left unanswered! We just assume that objects do exist, that there is causality and that we can grasp the world with our reason! Undoubtedly, these assumptions have been very successful but success is not necessarily a sign for truth, if anything, it is a weak indication that we are on the right track. But simply following these assumptions without questioning them keeps us from seeing all the mysteries that remain! And this is where philosophy is helping us to look over the edges of our little black boxes (so, unlike what Stephen Hawking claims, philosophy is not dead, on the contrary, it’s alive and its very core and essence is to be alive amongst humans!) because this is what philosophy always does, it questions our fundaments and thereby opens our minds for the world’s wealth, variety, mystery and strangeness. This way, we will be able not only to produce and work on hypotheses to get a functional understanding of the world and ourselves (which is mainly what scientists do) but we will also be able to let the world come to us, to look at it with different eyes. After all, that’s what the greek word “theorià” means: “to look”!
So let me summarize: while science helps us to understand the world in a certain framework, philosophy helps us to see this framework, it therefore broadens our view of the world. It helps to destroy our conceptual limitations and, this way, not only conveys tolerance but understanding! Hopefully, we will then be able what Aristotle tried to achieve: to be happy simply by seeing!