When it comes to scientists, I tend to be wary. I’ve been burned before; at the opening of my mouth I’ve mocked, derided, shut down, and dismissed too many times. When I posit possibilities, theories, or note information from any of the social sciences or humanities, they demand one thing only above all else: hard data.
When provided hard data (or soft data because to them psychology needs air quotes) they counter it. Now, that could be healthy if it wasn’t for the facts that A.) not everything is quantifiable, B.) most studies have opposing studies, and C.) the stance that an absence of “concrete” evidence proves something false is a fallacy (specifically the appeal to ignorance fallacy, a.k.a. argument from ignorance). It creates a false dichotomy implying that something without definitives has no value (hell, even moving beyond no definitives, being definitively wrong has value). The issue here is not only that that is inherently wrong, but that scientists themselves wander around in the vastness of the unknown all the time (I’m looking at you, physicists). There is far more unknown than there is known.
And this’s a good thing. Without the unknown what would we ask? How would we grow? What would be the point of questions, let alone those I just asked (seriously, this blog is like 90% questions; I’d be screwed)? Sometimes asking at all is answer enough. That’s why in today’s blog I’m asking why science is opposed to its softer side: the humanities in general, to be sure, but more specifically here, philosophy.
While I confess this is a topic that regularly inspires hand-wringing from me, whether sourced from the decline of medical bedside manner, the struggle of engineers to communicate because it’s not requisite to their degrees, or the systematic removal and/or disparaging of humanity courses in non-liberal arts degrees, I am drawn to it today by the veritable fall of a childhood hero.
I’m being hyperbolic; he stumbled. The “he” I’m talking about is Bill Nye and his minimizing stance on philosophy. In the video he not only misrepresents philosophical concepts, but he downgrades the importance of asking the questions, and more to the point, questioning the questions and the presumed answers. He tauts sensory and measurable experiences as definitive and ultimately more important than potential but unsubstantiated possibilities. Here’s the problem with that.
We know reality is subjective. Variations of experience occur with everything from memory to sensory perceptions (some people can’t feel pain, some feel too much, and others will freak out and flail like muppets if they see a spider because they’ll suddenly feel it crawling on them even though it’s across the room). But even putting subjectivity aside, if asking questions about experiences or the potential experiences of the self, the other, or even that rock over yonder is mostly empty, then why are Einstein’s thought experiments considered some of the most revolutionary feats of science to have occurred in the past two hundred years?
You could argue that they aren’t philosophical because he quantified everything that he could, but the fact of the matter is that he could not tangibly produce the experiments in the more notable cases. What’s more, the experiments began with questions, which are the inherent and original stomping ground of philosophy. If anything, these thought experiments are the perfect marriage between science and philosophy and illustrate clearly the interwining of the two and its necessity.
Without one, the other is limited. If you remove science from philosophy, you lose the ability to have any certainty, even it’s if certainty with an asterisk (re: if I exist as I think I do, then…). If you remove the philosophy from science you not only lose morality (are we doing this because we can or because we should? what are the implications of creating this? why does it matter if we know this?), but you lose progression. Philosophy pumps necessity and possibility into science and without it, science will stagnate: a possibility some already suspect may be occurring in certain fields of physics .
For scientists to disavow philosophy is akin to orators disavowing the tongue. Science was born of a need to know, of questions we couldn’t help but ask for desparate need of an answer, and in asking these questions, eventually we formed philosophy. As our ability to ask evolved, we created methods for finding the answers, and thus science was born. However, there are questions it can’t answer yet, though the questions that still have value. Those questions are addressed and considered by philosophy, which, in the process of puzzling over them, creates new questions for scientists to answer. Sometimes asking is the answer. But many don’t see it that way. They’re only concerned with the end result, and if they can duplicate it. The only part of the method that matters is replication and accuracy.
This overly methodical and myopic view misses the connection and artistry inherent in the process. Did you not learn something merely by asking and thinking on the question? There is science in the asking and art to interpreting the answers. Neither the humanities nor philosophy are derivatives; they are not outdated remainders or lessers to science, and presuming them such is a tragedy. I grieve such assumptions. So scientists, Mr. Nye, consider this an open letter born of that grief. I’m asking you to reconsider your stance.
Philosophy and science were once the same thing. They were happy then, equally respected, like a couple with a posh surname. Things have gotten rocky since then. There have been insults and lamps thrown, the Internet Accuracy Police came to call too many times, charges were nearly pressed. But even so, I truly believe this marriage can work. I believe we can fix it. Please, Science, Philosophy, and all you little scientists and philosophers bickering about, don’t turn your back on each other. This is a family, and there’s one unifying element that can keep everyone together: We all want to know, thus we all need to ask. And at the end of the day, isn’t that enough?
This blog was originally inspired by another, so share the love and read it, though maybe forgive the title: Why So Many Scientists Are Ignorant