a brief addendum to the limits of philosophy…

Revisiting the "if you believe in science, you're doing it wrong" debate with an epistemological bent.
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Usually I like to break up posts on the same topic, but personal guidelines, especially self-imposed ones, are just made to be broken once in a while. So in the spirit of ignoring the guidelines for the sake of continuing an interesting conversation in the comments of the previous post, I wanted to address a few points brought up by reader Matt P. regarding the potential limits of applying philosophy to hard science and concrete data.

I certainly agree with your detractors on this one. I think philosophy is an excellent way to exercise your ability to draw logical, rational conclusions from particular premises. Certainly, you might be working with incorrect premises, but to say [that] philosophy is useless because it makes use of incorrect premises seems a bit hasty (foolish) to me.

Someone siding with my detractors?! Why this is an outrage! Well, ok, not exactly. I actually feel like a big shot now, with detractors and everything. Though it would be important to point out that nowhere do I say that all of philosophy is useless. My argument is that there’s little need for philosophical paradoxes and furrowed brows over existential matters when a question can be answered with experiments, observation and analysis. I’m all for debate and pointed criticism, but let’s focus on what was actually said here. And that’s where Matt’s hits an important point that we should definitely ponder, as he frames epistemology in the context of an older post on the difference between science and belief, using my own words against me. Touché Matt, touché…

In your “if you believe in science, you’re doing it wrong” post you said something about accepting anthropogenic global warming because you’d reviewed all of the available sources and it seems the most likely conclusion to you. Forgive me for not taking the time to look up the actual quote.

Well, it was actually what I said about evolution, pointing out that I don’t “believe” that life evolved, but that after a good look at the available evidence for the theory, I felt confident that it was the best explanation for the state of our planet’s biosphere. Of course considering that I’ve rebuked global warming deniers plenty of times on this blog, and wrote that our planet is warming based on strong evidence to this effect, the point is valid.

Anyway, I will take your claim at face value and concede that you may have done just that. But have you done this for, say, the procedure of transplanting a human heart? Have you reviewed all the available peer reviewed literature concerning the proper combination of the materials required to produce the most effective vehicle tire? And yet you rely on such scientific research second-hand, at best. If I only accepted as scientific fact that which I have personally investigated, I would lead a very hamstrung life.

Instead I choose to believe what specialists in various fields say they have concluded (barring, of course, some indication that I NEED to investigate further). This is, of course, somewhat a leap of faith. I say that I “know” that the Earth is billions of years old, but really, I just believe what trusted scientific scholars have told me.

Yes, it’s true that it’s simply impossible for anyone to expertly review every bit of peer reviewed literature since all of us have inherent limits to how much we can learn in our lifetimes. More importantly, if we were to extend Matt’s point to where it seems to lead us, we could also say that not everyone is qualified to give an adequate review of scientific literature. I feel pretty at home reading about psychology, cognition, and computer science, since they’re my main topics of education and research. When it comes to the science behind transplanting a human heart, there’s only so much I’ll be able to understand before throwing in the towel. Just like Matt, I’d be trusting that the experts in these fields are doing their jobs and giving me accurate conclusions. But when I do that, am I really making that big of a leap of faith?

Let’s think about it. Doctors transplant human hearts quite a bit so we know that the methods they’ll describe in cardiology journals would seem to work. Geologists all agree that the planet is billions of years old and they include detailed information for how someone with the appropriate lab equipment could replicate their work. If we were really taking a leap of faith, we wouldn’t even need to know that all that data behind the work of those whose expertise lies outside our own realm of knowledge, is available. We would require no proof that say, a doctor was able to successfully transplant several human hearts this year. We’d just believe it. But instead, we judge experts by the results of their work and brand them as such only if they show proof for their claims. The idea of epistemology only plays a part here as a label to the asymmetry of how much there is to learn even in one sub-field, and the very short time each human has to obtain even a little in-depth insight into it.

# science // education / expertise / philosophy / scientific method


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