Paul P. Mealing

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Sunday, 28 August 2016

The relationship between science and philosophy

I’ve written on this before, but recent reading has made me revisit it, because I think it’s a lot closer and interrelated than people think, especially among scientists. I’m referring to the fact that more than one ‘famous’ scientist has been dismissive of philosophy and its contribution to our knowledge. I’m thinking Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Peter Atkins and, of course, Richard Feynman, whom I particularly admire.

In the Western epistemic canon, if I can use that term, philosophy and science have a common origin, as we all know, with the Ancient Greeks. There was a time when they were inseparable, and certainly up to Newton’s time, science was considered, if not actually called, ‘natural philosophy’. In some circles, it still is. This is to distinguish it from metaphysics, and I think that division is still relevant, though some may argue that metaphysics has no relevance in the modern world.

Plato argued that ‘Metaphysics… holds that what exists lies beyond experience’ (my on-board computer dictionary definition) which in the Platonic tradition would include mathematics, oddly enough. But in the Kantian and Hume tradition: ‘…objects of experience constitute the only reality’ (from the same source).  I would suggest that this difference still exists in practice if not in theory. In other words, science is based on empirical evidence, though mathematics increasingly plays a role. Mathematics, by the way, does not constitute empirical evidence, but mathematics constitutes a source of ‘truth’ that can’t be ignored in any assessment of a scientific theory.

I find I’m already heading down a path I didn’t intend to follow, but maybe I can join it to the one I intended to follow further down the track. So let me backtrack and start again.

Most scientific theories start off in the realm of philosophy, though they may be informed by limited physical evidence. Think, for example, of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Both he and Alfred Wallace (independently) came to the same conclusion, when they traveled to little-known parts of the world and saw creatures that were not only exotic but strange and unexpected. Most significantly, they realised how geography and relative isolation drove species’ diversity. This led them both to develop an unpopular and unproven philosophy called evolution. Evidence came much later in the form of fossils, genetics and, eventually, DNA, which is the clincher. Evidence can turn philosophy into science and theories into facts.

As anyone, who has any exposure to American culture, knows, the philosophical side of this debate still rages. And, to some extent, this is the very reason that some scientists would argue that philosophy is irrelevant or, at the very least, subordinate to science. This point alone is worth elaborating on. There is a dialectic between science and philosophy and the dominant discipline, for want of a better term, is simply dependent on our level of knowledge, or, more importantly perhaps, our level of ignorance. By dialectic I mean a to-ing and fro-ing, so that one informs the other in a continual and constructive dialogue, which leads to an evolvement which we call a theory.

Going back to the example of the theory of evolution, which, after 150 years, is both more fraught with difficulties and more cemented in evidence than either Darwin or Wallace could have imagined. In other words, and this is true in every branch of science, the more we learn about something the more mysteries we uncover. For example, DNA reveals in extraordinary relief how every species is related and how all life on Earth had a common origin, yet the origin and evolution of DNA itself, whilst not doubted, poses mysteries of its own. And while mysteries will always exist, anti-science proponents will find a foothold to sow scepticism and disbelief.

But my point is that the philosophy of evolutionary biology is strengthened by science to the extent that it is considered a fact by everyone except those who argue that the Bible has more credibility than science. Again, I’m getting off-track, but it illustrates why scientists have a tendency to demote philosophy, when it is used to promote ignorance over what is already known and accepted in mainstream science.

On a completely different tack, it’s well known that Einstein held a deep scepticism about the validity and long-term scientific legacy of quantum mechanics. What is lesser known is his philosophical belief in determinism that led him to be so intractable in his dissent. Einstein’s special theory of relativity led to some counter-intuitive ideas about time. Specifically, that simultaneity is subjective, not objective, if events are spatially separated (refer my post on Now). Einstein came to the philosophical conclusion that the Universe is determinant, where space and time are no longer separate but intrinsically combined in space-time. Mathematically, this is resolved by treating time as a fourth dimension, and, in Einstein’s universe, the future is just as fixed as the past, in the same way that a spatial dimension is fixed. This is a philosophical viewpoint that arose from his special theory of relativity and thus informed his worldview to the point that it contradicted the inherent philosophy of quantum mechanics that tells us, at a fundamental level, everything is random.

And this brings me full circle, because it was reading about the current, increasingly popular, many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that led me to contemplate the metaphorically and unavoidably incestuous relationship between philosophy and science. In particular, adherents to this ‘theory’ have to contend with their belief that every action they do in this universe affects their counterparts in parallel universes. I’ve expressed my dissent for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it here. However, I would like to address this specific consequence of this specific philosophy. You have a stream of consciousness that is really the only thing you have that gives you a reality. So, even if there are an infinite and continual branching of your current universe into parallel universes, your stream of consciousness only follows one and axiomatically that’s the only reality you know.

And now, to rejoin the path that led me astray, let's talk about mathematics. Mathematics has followed its own historical path in Western thought alongside science and philosophy with its own origins in Plato’s Academy. In fact, Plato adopted the curriculum or quadrivium from Pythagoras’s best student, Archytas (after specifically seeking him out), which was arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Mathematics is obviously the common denominator in all these.

Mathematics also has philosophical ‘schools’ which I’ve written about elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on that here. Personally, I think mathematics contains truths that transcend humanity and the universe itself, but it’s the pervasive and seemingly ineluctable intrusion into science that has given it its special epistemological status. String Theory or M Theory is the latest, most popular contender for a so-called Theory of Everything (TOE) yet it’s more philosophy than scientific theory. It’s only mathematics that gives it epistemic status, and it’s arguably the best example of the dialect I was talking about. I’ve written in another post (based on Noson Yanofsky’s excellent book) that we will never know everything there is to know in both science and mathematics. This means that our endeavours in attempting to understand the Universe (or multiverse) will be never-ending, and thus the dialectic between science and philosophy will also be never-ending.