Does science always have the last word about reality? Is scientific knowledge the only “real” knowledge we have about life and the vast phenomenon? This is the question that Professor Austin L. Hughes takes up in a New Atlantis piece called The Folly of Scientism.
Scientism is the belief that the only real and reliable knowledge about the world is derived from science. Any knowledge derived from outside the realm of science, specifically philosophical knowledge or any other non-science, is mere opinion, belief, delusion, neurosis or whatever else but it’s not real knowledge. I’m being a bit facetious but you get my meaning. Now, being both a scientific guy, in the sense that I respect and admire the power of scientific inquiry and the facts gained from it, and also being a humanistic guy, believing that knowledge is more than mere physics, I can see both sides of this argument.
Science is impressive. Modernity is in large part about the rise of modern natural science. There is so much we understand now and can accurately predict about nature and the phenomenon because of the advances of modern natural science. Our lives have been improved beyond the imagination of those living within just that past 60 years. Science is an enormously powerful tool for reading the book of nature. We need to be careful and circumspect when challenging the results of scientific research. Believe me when I say that most of the time it’s a mistake (dangerous and irresponsible at times) to discount the validity of scientific explanations. If we’re not careful we fall into delusionism.
And yet to believe that science is the only domain of real knowledge is simply mistaken. Let’s start with the statement that all real knowledge is, indeed, physics (science). Well, there is no scientific, falsifiable way to prove the validity of this statement. It is, ironically, a philosophical precept. You can’t run an experiment that proves the statement “that all knowledge is physics.” You have to, well, take it as true…philosophically.
Second, there is the big problem with ultimate or original causes. To explain: We can discover, detect, and explain physical laws and how they operate in the universe, but as we keep pulling back the layers and layers of the causal onion, we realize we can’t explain the meta-laws (the ultimate laws) of the universe. In simpler terms, our current science can’t tell us why there is a universe (galaxies, etc) in the first place. “Why,” as the philosophical challenge goes, “is there something instead of nothing?”
And then there is the problem of judgement and values. Science can provide us with facts and important data, but science can’t resolve questions of value. For example, science does not help us decide whether we will or will not allow stem-cell research. This argument is sometimes confused as a science versus religion debate. But it’s really not. This is a philosophical debate not a scientific one. Science provides context, but it can’t give us the knowledge we seek — about what’s the right thing to do. This is a decision of ethics, of philosophy.
And then, I believe, there’s the knowledge of human intentionality. Basically we all have the same range of emotions in greater or lesser degree. We feel love, hate, lust, rage and fear and so on. But how do we truly learn about these emotions? Certainly emotional intelligence is real knowledge. Science can tell us about the chemical makeup of these emotions and suggest how to handle, understand or cope with them. But how do we really gain emotional insight? Science just can’t give us this knowledge. We learn about these things through art, literature, religion, philosophy, history, experience and so on. You learn them, in the broadest sense, through the humanities. As Will Durant muses: “To observe processes and construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy.”
Lastly, there are the other Big Questions about life itself and the miracle of human consciousness, both of which are still mysteries beyond the reach of science. Science can give us a lot, but it can’t provide us with meaning or purpose or even “why” science itself is so important and worth our time and effort. These are all philosophical questions.
Let me conclude by letting Will Durant provide my favorite summary of the relationship between philosophy and science:
But is philosophy stagnant? Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science –problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death. As soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation, it is called science.
Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.
Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.
The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.
Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from despair.