When you write a blog that’s actually read by more than a few people, you get to hear plenty of criticisms and complaints, and one of the most frequent criticisms yours truly gets when it comes to posts which discuss the scientific method’s strengths and how we form scientific conclusions, is my frequent lack of any philosophical sophistication. While I may have sampled some classic works, I’d be the last person to claim that I’m really all that fluent in the world of scholarly pontificators and won’t hesitate to crack jokes about philosophers when given the chance to do so. However, the critics tell me, what I’m missing are the contributions of thinkers who spend their lifetimes trying to formulate general schemas for how we perceive the world around us and define the limits of knowledge in its most abstract form. But is philosophy really all it’s so often made out to be? Is a factually and numerically-minded philosophical philistine like myself really missing that much? I’d argue not.
Now, I admit that just like there’s a time and a place for everything, there’s a time for philosophy. Say that we’re dealing with a concept in which there’s no right answer, like your favorite style of art, or favorite color, or a taste in music, or as some might groundlessly say, lack thereof. There’s no formal basis on which to declare that a cubist’s work has more merit than that of an impressionist, or a surrealist. There’s no objective way to call the color yellow better than a shade of blue. Do we take a vote and judge on the basis of popularity? Sure we can, but we would just be falling for a bandwagon fallacy and we know that not everything the public at large finds a hit today will be just as popular tomorrow, and even if something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good. Individual opinions should count as well since we have no rational reason to assume that the public is always right. So in this case, a philosopher could outline what we mean by artistic merit in a generally fickle culture. But would we need to keep our hypothetical philosopher around to find out why something is popular and how we pick a favorite color, or a favorite style of music? I’d say no and call a psychologist instead. Here’s why.
Psychologists will ask questions, set up experiments, try to replicate their findings and in general, could come to some very interesting conclusions backed by hard evidence. Do people pick their favorites based on social surroundings? Do they really like what they say they like, or are they just throwing out something they think will impress those around them, and if it’s the latter, what motivates them to do this? So while we’ll leave the merit of art, culture and the value we place in them in the realm of philosophical debate, we’ll come up with concrete answers to relevant questions and hopefully, provide something for philosophers to consider. You see, when we’re talking about measurable, quantifiable things and questions which have good answers based on plenty of data, there’s not really much room for philosophy to contribute. Even worse, trying to construct an elaborate paradox or seemingly logical philosophical proposition about something in the scientific realm could result in completely invalid assumptions, as with Xeno’s arrow, which tried to argue that time and motion simply can’t exist while clearly lacking even the most rudimentary grounding in physics. So if you want to use philosophy to address science, be aware that you might find yourself barking up the wrong tree if you’re not careful…
[ illustration from Exorcising Laplace’s Demon by Aaron Diaz ]