Is philosophy the queen of the sciences, with the job of synthesizing, interpreting and evaluating the results of the particular sciences?
Today's show addresses the question "What is science." Our guest, Peter Godfrey Smith, has already posted a very intresting blog that addresses that question better than I could. So I won't say anything here about the distinction between science and non-science. Instead, I want to focus a bit on the cultural and social impact of science, and a little bit on its relation to philosophy.
It seems to me that science is really the big kahuna, as they say in Hawaii, in our culture. It is humanity's most successful cognitive endeavor ever and by a pretty long shot. It has given us deep understanding into almost all constitutents of the material universe from the workings of the smallest micro-particles to the large scale organization of the cosmos at large. It has increased our understanding of life, of the dynamics of the fragile ecosystem of the lovely planet on which we live, of the human psyche, of the evolution of human culture and on and on and on. And it has all happened in the relative blink of an eye. Moreover, science has played an amazing role in increasing our power to manipulate the natural world, for good or ill, in ways that serve human needs and satisfy human ends.
If I sound gung-ho about science, that's because I am. It is a spectacularly successful human endeavor. Without it, human life would be much less grand than it is.
Still, there is no doubt, I think, that the progess of science has had its costs. The increased power over nature with which it has endowed us may outstrip our wisdom. Science has constantly given the lie to archaic beliefs and practices, beliefs and practices that sustained centuries old cultural formations. But if science sometimes leaves archaic cultural formations in tatters and shreds, with what does it replace them? For better or worse, where culture and social practices are concerned, science has mostly the power to destroy and little power to build. I won't go so far as to say that science has no positive role to play in cultural formation. If we are to achieve a more environmentally sustainable way of life, for example, then a more complete scientific understanding of the dynamics governing our fragile and precious eco-system seems essential to bringing a new way of life about. One could easily multiply examples of ways in which increased scientific understanding can be instrumental to the positive reconfiguration our cultural and social practices.
I have to admit that I mostly applaud the scientific overthrow of cultutral formations based on illusion, superstition, error, authority and the like. Still, I think that the "destructive" side of science is too often overlooked or greeted with a shrug by those like me who fully and completely endorse the canons of scientific rationality. It is not obvious to me that our ability to reform our culture and society can keep pace with the ability to undermine archaic forms. A century and a half after Darwin's theory of evolution swept away the rational foundations of religious belief, according to many, religion still persists as one of the dominant causes of strife, division, and illusion throughout human cultures.
Why is that? Because religion offers life-sustaining, hope-sustaining narratives to people. And the theory of natural selection offers no immediate replacement. It tells us how not to live. But it tells us nothing, and probably can tell us nothing, about how we ought to live. Even if the promise of religion is a false promise, it is still a promise. Are we better off "at sea" or better off moored in an illusory but safe-feeling harbor? The answer is not entirely obvious.
I am not suggesting that science's inability to directly and immediately replace the cultural formations it sometimes rationally undermines is any reason at all to slow the pace of science. Let science progress as fast as it can. Let the human mind be free to explore the deepest reaches of reality Let truth and reason be our only idols. Let the pursuit of truth sweep aside all illusion and error. Still, I do think it is important that we take the work of cultural reformation utterly seriously. It will do us no good to be cognitive masters of the universe if in the bargain we cannot build cultures that sustain and affirm human life.
I do not claim that it is impossible for us to have both no holds bar science and life affirming cultures. Indeed, I think one of the jobs of philosophy in particular and the humanities at large is to take the deliverances of science as inputs - though only one set of inputs among others -- and to churn out new cultural formations, or at least imaginings of new cultural formations. We humanists, philosophy included, are partly in the business of re-imagining human possibilities, ways of living, cultural forms, social practices. Some of that re-imagining can be a re-imagining in light of the deliverances of science, especially such deliverances as threaten to undermine archaic cultural formations.
So the bottom line, if we let science proceed apace, even in its cultural destroying mode, we must also let philosophy and the humanities proceed apace in their culture re-imagining mode. Some people have thought that the sciences and the humanities partake in or help define two distinct and competing cultures. But I think this is a mistake. Science and the humanities are best viewed as partners in the process of culture formation. Science more often plays the wrecking crew. And the humanities are more often the builders and re-imaginers. But even this dichotomy shouldn't be carried too far. Science can be a spur and can provide constructive input into the process of reconfiguration and re-imagination. And sometimes, it's the job of the humanities, especially philosophy, to deliver the message that certain archaic cultural formations simply have no on-going rational basis in light of the progress of science.