Someone recently pointed me to Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life? (The Observer, 9 Sept 2012), a conversation between Julian Baggini, philosopher, and Lawrence Krauss, physicist, both well known for accessible writing on complex topics.
As philosophy’s champion, Baggini concedes far too much ground. His basic position is that “it is an ineliminable feature of human life that we are confronted with many issues that are not scientifically tractable, but we can grapple with them, understand them as best we can and we can do this with some rigour and seriousness of mind.” I agree, but I would change the emphasis: the grounds, aims and conduct of science are among those issues that empirical knowledge can’t satisfy.
When the two express surprise at how much they agree with each other, it’s not that surprising: they share an astonishingly optimistic and uncritical view of science which tends to flatten and impoverish our understanding of our lives.
Are the achievements of science really “clear and indisputable”, as Baggini suggests? (Is that Thomas Kuhn spinning in his grave?) And if they were, would it really be “wonderful” if philosophy’s answers were equally so? Mightn’t we be better off trying to find some significance – and humility – in the uncertainty of our knowledge?
Baggini suggests that psychology has quite properly taken over important questions that were once seen as philosophy’s domain. He seems to mean the scientific trends of neuro- and evolutionary psychology, as if their answers to questions of human behaviour are also decisive, clear and indisputable. They are not. As a scientist friend commented, “We don’t really have much of a clue about simple things like how particular wavelengths of light being absorbed on the retina give rise to the perception of red, let alone something as elusive and multifaceted as love.”
Krauss says that “science provides the basis for moral decisions, which are sensible only if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence”. Well, sensible decisions and moral ones may overlap but they are different. The good may transcend what is sensible.
Krauss says that evolutionary biology allows us to understand sacrifice and altruism as driven by gene propagation. I don’t see how that could be validated with much scientific rigour – or say anything meaningful about the ways we experience and value selfless concern for others.
Then he says, “It is not a large leap of the imagination to expect that we will one day be able to break down those social actions… to biological reactions”. That’s one scary ambition.
There’s an old story of a man looking for his keys under a streetlight on a dark night. A stranger stops to help. “Where did you drop them?” “Over there,” replies the man, “but the light is much better here!”
Over this prevailing and futile compulsion to bring everything to light, philosophy still regards the wisdom “over there”.