Sunday, 1 June 2014

Science’s Communal Spirit & Philosophy

An essential part of scientific belief and the scientific method is its “community spirit”. Truths aren't discovered intuitively or in isolation; or through Cartesian meditation. Scientists don’t pluck out truths from the invisible metaphysical realm. As Bertrand Russell 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.” (Problems of Philosophy, 140)
Perhaps the prime distinction between science and philosophy in this context, at least traditionally, is that scientists deal in ‘probable opinions’; whereas philosophers deal with truths. In that sense, an individual scientist wouldn't think that he has the truth in a situation of splendid isolation. However, if there were a general consensus within the scientific community on his ‘probable opinion’, then perhaps the honorific ‘truth’ could be applied to his opinion.
Just as a philosophical coherentist compares an individual belief with all the other beliefs within his system, so the scientist needs to place his ‘probable opinion’ amongst the other probable opinions of his scientific community. And just as the individual scientist relies on his scientific community, then so too does a particular scientific community rely on other scientific communities that may be focussing on slightly different areas of research and investigation.
What Wittgenstein said about ‘individual knowledge’ can 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 scientists actually work. There can't be genuinely lone scientists, just as Wittgenstein argued that there couldn’t really be lone epistemologists.
The scientific approach is the antithesis of the philosophical approach. In many instances philosophers, unlike scientists, worked in complete isolation. Indeed there is a sense that because of the nature of philosophy, its a priori method as it were, then clearly philosophers don't need to co-operate in the way that scientists co-operate. Of course this solipsistic attitude was challenged in the 19th century. For example, C.S. Pierce, because of his penchant for science and his many years in the laboratory, believed that philosophers should learn as much as they can from scientists. He even thought that they should actually use scientific methods. The idea that a single individual could arrive at the truth is a complete mistake, according to Peirce. So although philosophers obviously read and analyse the works of other philosophers, they are still doing so, in a sense, in the context of their own intellectual autonomy.
However, it is said that the “analytic tradition” of philosophy has to some extent been a co-operative endeavour in which philosophers not only learn from each other, but, in many instances, actually work with each other. Think here of the Vienna Circle or Quine writing a paper alongside Nelson Goodman. Of course what really makes analytic philosophy a co-operative effort is the shared vocabulary – i.e., the shared philosophical and logical tools that are utilised in all areas of philosophy and philosophical research. Because of this, both realists and anti-realists, dualists and anti-dualists, use the same tools and belong to the same tradition. Of course there will be peripheral disputes on terms and definitions, but such disputes still occur within the context of a generally co-operative 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 talking at cross-purposes, which is what actually happens when, say, a logical empiricist debates with a Parisian deconstructor.


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