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the death of socrates

Describing Reality: Philosophy vs. Science


The difference between scientific and philosophical explanations is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last couple of years. The popularity of authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is partially responsible, but I’m also interested in the limits of scientific and philosophic inquiry. Is it possible for neuroscience to tell us something about free will that philosophy can’t? Do the laws of physics tell us more about reality than the study of language or metaphysics?

To answer these questions, we might first ask what philosophical inquiry does that’s different from scientific inquiry. To that end, I’d like to point everyone to The Partially Examined Life—one of the best podcasts on the Internet and a great place to explore different philosophical ideas. Anyone that hasn’t checked it out should change that now.

About this time last year, Wes Alwan wrote a small essay called What Is a Philosophical Explanation? Sounds like a simple enough question, but appearances can be deceiving. Wes does a great job of distinguishing between philosophical explanation and scientific investigation, which is helpful if you’re wondering whether, for instance, physics can tell us more about human behavior than theology. His remarks about conceptual clarity are especially helpful:

In the case of the scientific model the phenomena are clear: Bohr’s atomic model, for instance, explains the frequencies of light produced by hydrogen gas after it has been heated and subsequently loses energy during cooling. The phenomena being explained are not themselves conceptually unclear: if we were unclear as working scientists about what “emissions spectrums” meant or looked like, we’d have to clear that up in order to do our work successfully…

Further: when we develop an atomic theory, we do not have to query atoms about what spectra they’re giving off and wait for them to report back to us; nor do we have to know what it’s like to be an atom or give off spectra. The situation is radically different for psychology and philosophy. My concept “light” does not implicate me in it to the same degree as my concept “sadness.” If I had to get another human being to understand the former, our joint attention to a few cases would be sufficient. But in the case of sadness, pointing to someone crying, or crying myself, would not in itself be a demonstration unless the person to whom I were demonstrating it a) had already experienced sadness and b) knew how to interpret the outward behaviors of others in terms of that experience (i.e., to empathize).

I’ve been meaning to link to this forever, but now that I’m thinking about the difference between science and philosophy, and specifically about the proper limits of the sciences, it is especially relevant. This idea of being “implicated in a concept” applies, I think, to the test I posted about a few days ago, in which scientists hope to discover whether or not the universe is in fact a simulation. Built into that question are all kinds of concepts—like consciousness, reality, and simulation—that may or may not be describable via mathematical means. And yet, I encounter this belief again and again, that science—especially math and physics—gets us closer to reality than, for instance, philosophy or religion. I don’t doubt the value of science, but I do wonder at its application and misuse.

I’ll be writing more about this, but I wanted to get these initial thoughts on the page, and to point everyone to one of my favorite websites. I encourage everyone to check it out.


Author: Laughter

I like music and philosophy. And baseball.

2 thoughts on “Describing Reality: Philosophy vs. Science

  1. Pingback: Nietzsche Contra Science, Part I « Laughter

  2. Pingback: The Scientific Jihad | Hebrew Hutong

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