Modern science has made astounding progress in our understanding of ourselves and the universe.
As someone who makes her living as a philosopher, it’s probably already obvious that I don’t think science has (or could) replace philosophy. While both aim at the truth, they clearly have different methods and tackle different problems.
Yet the question whether science has replaced philosophy raises a number of interesting issues, so it’s worth giving it some thought. Moreover, in the last few years a number of scientists, like Stephen Hawking, have been very vocal in pronouncing the death of philosophy. They seem to think that science can or will answer all the important questions there are. If there are any questions that science can’t answer, then they’re just pseudo problems, not worth thinking about.
You might wonder what kind of empirical evidence Hawking and these other scientists have offered for such a radical claim. Perhaps they’ve done some experiments to prove this hypothesis? Or, they’ve shown that the claim can be derived from, say, quantum mechanics? The truth is, the claim that philosophical problems are just pseudo problems, not settled by empirical facts, is itself a philosophical position that is not settled by empirical facts, which is sort of ironic, if you think about it.
Philosophers call this view that Hawking and others espouse positivism—the view that any claim that can’t be verified or falsified scientifically is just nonsense. Positivism was popular in the early twentieth century, but was fairly unanimously rejected—in philosophy, at least—because it obviously fails its own test, which makes it an incoherent position. How wonderful of Hawking to resurrect this long-since abandoned view! He’s obviously given it a great deal of thought. And they say philosophy doesn’t make progress…
Speaking of progress, I think a big part of the dispute between some philosophers and scientists stems from a difference in opinion on whether philosophy has actually made any progress in its over two thousand years. Indeed, philosophers themselves can’t seem to agree on the question. The answer depends, of course, on what counts as progress and how we would measure something like that.
In science, progress might be thought of as convergence on the truth. We know a lot more now about the world we live in than people did two thousand years ago; each successive theory scientists agree upon comes closer and closer to the truth, so we are making progress. That’s certainly one way to tell the story. Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, tells a different story, where one scientific paradigm is displaced by another, incommensurable paradigm. As there is no theory-neutral (or paradigm-neutral) way to say what is true, the idea that science progresses by converging on the truth becomes untenable. If Kuhn is right, then we have to come up with a different conception of progress in science, one that doesn’t assume the naïve realist position that our theories are getting closer and closer to The Truth.
But let’s leave aside these philosophical worries about science for now. Let’s just assume that science does indeed make progress. The question, then, is whether philosophy makes similar progress, whether it gets any closer to the truth. Or are we philosophers just engaging in a game of mental acrobatics?
On the one hand, the suggestion that philosophy has made no progress seems quite implausible. Philosophy has played an important role in the birth of science, from mathematics in ancient times to physics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to psychology in more recent times. It’s only in the last few hundred years that science has even been considered a separate discipline from philosophy. What we now call science was for centuries called “natural philosophy” and all the major thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes were just as much scientists as they were philosophers. Descartes, for example, did a lot of important work on optics. Physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, mathematics, linguistics, computer science— all of these disciplines were once under the larger umbrella of philosophy. So, if any of these disciplines have made progress, if any of them have gotten closer to the truth, then ipso facto so has philosophy. Just because we don’t call these modes of enquiry “philosophy” anymore doesn’t mean that no progress has occurred in the last two thousand years.
On the other hand, if the measure of progress in philosophy is that it has developed sciences that do better at answering our old problems, then maybe scientists like Hawking have a point. How much progress has philosophy made on distinctly philosophical problems, like the existence of God, or free-will, or the nature of right and wrong? And is there a way to make progress within philosophy, or is all progress ultimately a move away from philosophy?
That’s a big question that I’m not going to attempt to answer right now. But I do want to say that I think it’s a mistake to assume that philosophy ought make progress in the exactly the same way that science does (however that is). Sometimes progress comes, not by solving problems, but by reformulating the questions. We may get clearer about issues as time goes on, even if we don’t come up with final and agreed upon answers.
Some scientists may see that lack of consensus in philosophy as indicating that there’s something wrong with the kind of questions we’re asking. But is that the right way to think about our disagreements? Well, philosophical questions are difficult! And they’re not simply settled by empirical facts, which is part of the reason why there’s not more agreement in philosophy. Take moral questions for example. You could have all the facts in about how a particular act might affect everyone concerned, but that still wouldn’t tell you if it’s the right thing to do or not. And even if we agreed on what the right thing to do was, we may still disagree on why it’s the right thing.
Even if we had a complete science, if we knew all the facts, we still wouldn’t have answers to our philosophical problems. That’s not to say that empirical facts don’t inform philosophical theories. But they can’t provide the answers to the big questions in life.