Interview with a Philosopher

After having discussed the possible relationship between Science and Philosophy in the last blog entry, we asked a professional philosopher about his opinion. Prof. Peter Kuegler teaches at the Leopold-Franzens-University in Innsbruck, Austria. He is specialized in epistemology, logics, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind and philosophy of science. Prof. Kuegler is author of a number of books and very much appreciated as a teacher who can convey difficult problems in a clear and comprehensible way.

Prof. Kuegler, how do you see the relationship between science and philosophy these days, both as it is and as it should be?

Today many philosophers try to stay very close to science. They give interpretations of scientific research and apply scientific results to philosophical problems. This holds, for example, for the philosophy of mind and brain science, where some philosophers even engage in empirical research projects. On the other hand, there are philosophers who do not notice science at all; some deal with it only superficially or, even worse, in an incompetent way. Science has a very bad standing in some philosophical schools. There are those who think that science is wrong or incomplete, because it does not acknowledge God and the soul; others think that science is just one way of seeing the world among others, on a par with, say, art, astrology and religion. Of course, it also depends on which branch of philosophy you are working in. As a political philosopher you need not know much about brain science, but you will be expected to have knowledge of the social sciences. I think more work should be done in the field between the two extremes of blind adoration and equally blind ignorance or rejection of science. Philosophy certainly goes beyond science, but it cannot dispense with it completely. For me, there is no doubt that science can give us more, and more reliable, knowledge about the world, including human beings, than any other branch of culture.

Can philosophy, in your opinion, complement science beyond mere methodological considerations?

Yes, this is one of its principal duties. However, I don´t think that philosophy can complement science in such a way that it provides definite answers to questions that cannot be answered by science. Philosophy must deal with those questions, of course, but the best it can do is sketch possible answers. This is why Bertrand Russell called philosophy “the science of the possible”. He thought that a question that is conclusively answered is no philosophical question anymore; it turns into a scientific one. For example, philosophers of previous centuries wondered how human memory works; they asked whether the mind is like an empty sheet of paper at birth, or whether it contains “innate ideas”. Modern biology and brain science tell us much more about these problems than any philosophy of the past. In another, non-Russellian sense, philosophy is the science of the possible because it envisages possible ways of living. For example, philosophers analyze the concept of justice and make suggestions as to how a just society would look like and how it could be brought about. They ponder the place of science and technology in society and how their harmful consequences could be diminished in the future. Ethics helps to shape our decisions about values and matters of life and death. Here, again, we face a cooperation of science and philosophy. Biology describes the life of the embryo, how it develops and what properties it has at which stages. But whether an embryo at a particular stage is a being that has the right not to be aborted is a different question that belongs to ethics. Philosophers tell the public how concepts like “person” could be understood, what it means that an embryo has a certain “right”, and so on. It is not up to them to decide these issues, but what philosophers can say about the good and the bad is usually better founded than the statements coming from religion or politics.

Is there such as thing as progress in philosophy, as this is clearly the case in science?

Well, some philosophers doubt that this is “clearly” the case in science; but I am with you. As to philosophy, that depends on how you measure progress. I think you can look at the issue from three sides. First, history shows that philosophy discusses the same problems over and over again without coming to a definite conclusion. The way the problems are posed changes as the cultural conditions change; there are shifts in terminology, rhetorical style and theoretical fashion, but the continuity between philosophical problems of different historical periods is quite obvious. Philosophers of the 17th century had strange ideas about how the soul as the bearer of consciousness is related to the body. Today the soul is out of fashion, we know that consciousness is produced by brain processes – but how? Something seems to be missing still, and again there are some strange theories. Second, as I have indicated before, philosophical problems tend to become scientific problems; entire fields of philosophy, like cosmology and psychology, have turned into empirical science. We could measure the amount of progress in philosophy by its role as a medium in which new problems, concepts and scientific research fields grow. Third, although it is true that the philosophy of today is haunted by age-old problems, we learn more and more about these problems, and we are able to state our theories in more sophisticated ways. There is still a lot of disagreement; for any philosophical issue you will find at least two eminent philosophers with different opinions. But we know more about our disagreements; we know why we disagree and how we  disagree, and that it is possible to look at any issue from more angles than philosophers of the past have expected. This is particularly obvious in ethics. This creation of plurality is also a kind of progress. I should add a fourth point: philosophy is the only rational enterprise that deals with things that we cannot know or cannot even talk about. What I like most of philosophy is that it delineates the limits of understanding.

Prof. Kuegler, thank you very much for this interview!



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