Science and Philosophy: At Odds?

Bill Nye gave his opinion on philosophy at Big Think. Like the physicist Michio Kau offering a garbled opinion on the evolution of humans, one begins to suspect that these kinds of interviews promote slow-motion verbal car crashes. Understandably, philosophers are upset with Bill Nye’s (The Science Guy’s) low opinion of their field. Is science and philosophy at such odds with each other?

I was first inspired by philosophy and I am sure that many who went on to have science-related careers also were. Reading Plato’s dialogues opened up a new and fascinating world which was not available in the school curriculum. In this world, there were questions but no certain answers. There are certainly wrong answers though. Fast forward to my first year at university and I came across Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. Sagan mentioned the philosophy of science, a concept I was ignorant of. You see, the way science is taught gives a misleading impression of what its goals are and how it achieves them. The whole learning process for science is an argument from authority; the content is correct because some smart people in lab coats tell us it is. Ok, maybe I am exaggerating a bit.

The point is that science is based on its own philosophy, where we live in a material world and we can discover answers through experiments. It is the receiving of an answer (even if it may be premature and fleeting) that compels many to drift away from pure philosophy to science. Perhaps when one does a series of experiments on a project they tend to lose sight of the fact that we operate on sinking sand (to borrow an analogy from Karl Popper). It is not comfortable to live with knowledge that your work may sink with others that are ultimately proved wrong in some unknown future. That is how science progresses, from one mistake to the next. Likewise, philosophy can sometimes seem esoteric and out of touch with reality (perhaps an intended pun?). When there is no external validation from nature, ideas can tend towards solipsism where we are all brains in vats.

Science and philosophy are not at odds with each other. In fact, it is wise and useful to teach about the philosophy of science in undergraduate and graduate studies. Then students will appreciate that science is not about the dissemination of unquestionable truths; it is not a theology, but makes small and tentative steps towards better understanding, even if the path is not a straightforward one.


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