The following essay was originally published on BernardoKastrup.com
It has become sadly common for science popularizers to dismiss philosophy as an empty, altogether useless discipline consisting of circular abstractions. Even scientist Stephen Hawking went as far as to declare philosophy dead. I believe this public dismissal of philosophy, rather than reaffirm science, brings harm to its integrity.
To substantiate this claim, I must first discuss the differences between science and philosophy. Of the many areas of philosophical investigation, two are particularly relevant to science: ontology—that is, the study of what things are in and of themselves—and epistemology—that is, the study of what we can know about them and how we can know it.
The scientific method rests fundamentally on empirical observation: we can theorize all we want, but it is by comparing our theories with observations of nature that we can confirm, discard or refine these theories. However, from an epistemic perspective, all we can know from observing nature is its appearance and behavior. Let me unpack this.
Observation, by definition, only gives us access to how things appear to us—through the mediation of measurement instrumentation, as the case may be—not to what they are in themselves, independently of observation. For instance, when you observe another person, her facial expressions may often seem to betray a range of emotions you’ve had before. But you cannot access her emotions in and of themselves, as she feels them, independently of your observation (unless, of course, you become the person).
Because it is fundamentally based on how nature presents itself to our observation, the scientific method provides no direct insight into what things are in themselves. Indeed, assuming that a thing’s appearance directly implies what it is in itself overlooks a host of possibilities and questions, as I shall discuss shortly.
Even when we use giant particle accelerators to smash matter down to its most basic building blocks, all we can access is how the resulting debris appear to us via our measurement instruments. Since we cannot become a quark, a lepton or a boson, the universe as it is in itself—insofar as it is constituted by quarks, leptons and bosons—remains fundamentally inaccessible through scientific investigation.
More specifically, science concerns itself exclusively with the behavior of nature as presented to observation. Scientific theories are predictive: given a sufficient characterization of a system, a good theory anticipates what the system will do next. For instance, if I know the relevant characteristics of a billiard table, balls and cue stick, I can predict what will happen after I strike the cue ball. But predicting what will happen is a foretelling of the system’s behavior, not a direct insight into what the system is.
Doing science consists in systematically observing and modeling the patterns and regularities of nature’s behavior, so it can next be predicted. It is this ability to predict how nature will behave that enables the development of technology: if one puts some materials together in a certain way, a certain useful effect can be reliably expected to follow.
Indeed, the key carriers of the value of science for our civilization—and perhaps the key reasons it has accumulated so much cultural currency—are the technologies that address pressing human needs and desires. Analogously to how one can play and win video games without any understanding of the underlying hardware or software, these technologies can be made to work even without insight into what nature is in itself.
But for there to be natural behavior as revealed through appearance, there has to be something that behaves and appears to begin with. In other words, there has to be nature-in-itself. The problem is that comparing behavioral predictions to empirical observations cannot reveal nature as it is in itself, for many different hypotheses regarding the latter are consistent with the same behaviors.
This is why crucial questions cannot be answered by science alone, such as: Are the fundamental subatomic particles merely abstract entities whose nature can be exhaustively characterized in purely quantitative terms? Or do they have intrinsic qualities, such as color, flavor and smell? Are the fundamental subatomic particles the external appearance of conscious inner life at a microscopic level, analogously to how your brain is the external appearance of your conscious inner life? Is all matter in the inanimate universe the external appearance of universal conscious inner life? Or are both matter and consciousness different aspects of a third, more fundamental category, which appears as matter or consciousness depending on perspective? No method of acquiring knowledge based on behavioral appearances can, on its own, tackle such questions of being.
That science gives us insight only into appearance and behavior is the conclusion of an epistemic analysis: an eminently skeptical, meta-cognitive critique of what can actually be known, so we don’t inadvertently take mere belief for knowledge. An attempt to investigate what nature is—as opposed to how it behaves—requires, in turn, the philosophical method of ontology, which is based on principles of internal logical consistency, empirical adequacy and categorical parsimony. This is how philosophy complements science, attempting to address issues that fall—fundamentally—beyond the scope of scientific investigation.
When science popularizers dismiss philosophy, they are making one or more of several mistakes, amongst which: (a) being unaware and uncritical of the intrinsic boundaries of their preferred method of knowledge acquisition; (b) taking one particular ontology—usually, mainstream physicalism—for the self-evident truth, thereby projecting an unexamined belief system onto nature; (c) extending the scope of science beyond what is justifiable by its method, thereby putting the integrity of science itself at risk. All these are errors that can easily be avoided with a minimum investment in self-education.
Just as science needs philosophy to address more fundamental questions about the nature of being and the boundaries of knowledge, philosophy also needs science: any viable ontology needs to be informed by, and accommodate, the patterns and regularities of nature’s behavior discerned through the scientific method. Any theory about the world-in-itself that contradicts—by implication—these observed patterns and regularities isn’t empirically adequate and, therefore, must be discarded.
There is thus a crucial bridge between science and philosophy. On one side of this bridge, there is a method based on observation, modeling and prediction of behavior; on the other side, a method based on explicit, clear, meta-cognitively-informed reasoning. The bridge allows for productive commerce between the two, which—when suitably leveraged—can lead to remarkable conclusions about the nature of reality, such as those discussed in my new book The Idea of the World and very briefly described in the video above. However, negating this bridge and attempting to tackle all questions with one method alone can only overextend and rob this method of its integrity.
Main image: Bust of Aristotle, second century AD.
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.