Sunday, 1 June 2014

Science’s Communal Spirit & Philosophy

An essential part of science is what various commentators have called its “community spirit”. That is, scientific truths aren’t confirmed, justified or accepted (rather than simply “discovered”) intuitively, in isolation or through meditation. (This isn’t to discount independent scientific theories, original speculations and the reality of scientific genius.) Scientists don’t pluck out truths from the air above their heads. (One can philosophically dispute the use of the word “truth” in science; though this isn’t the place to do so.) As Bertrand Russell once put it:
“A body of individually probable opinions, if they are mutually coherent, become more probable than any one of them would be individually. It is in this way that many scientific hypotheses acquire their probability. They first fit into a coherent system of probable opinions, and thus become more probable than they would be in isolation.” 
Perhaps the prime distinction (at least traditionally)between science and both philosophy and religion is that scientists deal with what’s called “probable opinions”; whereas philosophers and religious thinkers/leaders deal with truths. In that sense, an individual scientist wouldn’t think that he has found a/the truth in a situation of “splendid isolation”. However, if there were a general consensus within the/a scientific community on his probable opinion, then perhaps the honorific “truth” could then be applied to his opinion.

And just as a philosophical coherentist compares an individual belief with all the other beliefs within the given system it is part of, so a scientist needs to place his probable opinion within his own scientific community. In addition, just as the individual scientist relies on his own scientific community, so too does a particular scientific community rely on other scientific communities (i.e., those which may be focussing on different areas of research or investigation).

And what Ludwig Wittgenstein argued about “private knowledge” can now be applied to the situation of the lone scientist. Indeed the term “lone scientist” is almost a misnomer when taking into account the history of science and how science is actually practiced. That is, there can’t really be genuinely lone scientists; just as Wittgenstein argued that there couldn’t really be lone epistemologists or people with private truths of private knowledge. Sure, there have been many highly original and sometimes unacknowledged scientists. However, their work only became acceptable science when legitimated by the scientific community (or communities in the plural) as a whole. (A good contemporary example of this is the physicist Julian Barbour who works outside the academic system of physics and who yet still influences that system.)

The scientific approach is antithetical to the philosophical or religious/spiritual approach. In many instances philosophers and religious thinkers/leaders worked in complete isolation. Indeed there’s a sense that because of the nature of philosophy (loosely, its — as it were — a priori method), then clearly philosophers don’t need to cooperate in the way that scientists cooperate. Indeed that almost solipsistic attitude was challenged — by a philosopher — in the 19th century. 

Take the 19th century American philosopher C.S. PeirceHe believed that philosophers should learn as much as they can from science and scientists. (This was primarily because of Peirce’s penchant for science and his many years in the laboratory.) He even thought that philosophers should actually use scientific methods. (Peirce also believed that philosophers and even logicians should study the way scientists reason.) According to Peirce, the idea that a single individual could arrive at the truth entirely on his own is a complete mistake. Yet although philosophers obviously read and analyse the works of other philosophers, they’re still doing so (arguably) within the context of their own intellectual autonomy.

Having said all that, it’s nonetheless argued that the “analytic tradition” of philosophy has (to some extent at least) been a cooperative endeavour in which philosophers not only learn from each other; but, in many instances, they actually work with each other too. (Think here of the Vienna Circle or W.V.O. Quine writing a paper alongside Nelson Goodman —see here.) Of course what really makes analytic philosophy a cooperative effort is the shared vocabulary and set of technical tools/terms — i.e., the shared philosophical and logical toolsterms that are utilised in all areas of analytic philosophy and research. And because of that, both analytic realists and analytic anti-realists, analytic dualists and analytic anti-dualists, for example, use the same tools and belong to the same philosophical tradition. Of course there will be peripheral disputes on terms and definitions (as well as on the reality of that tradition); though such disputes usually still occur within the context of a generally cooperative environment.

Perhaps we could say here that if philosophers don’t even share a vocabulary, then the conversation couldn’t even get started. Philosophers would be debating at cross-purposes. Indeed isn’t that what actually happens when, say, a analytical logical empiricist debates with a Parisian deconstructor? And that is a lesson that philosophers should (or must) learn from science.

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