Monday, September 13, 2010

Science rocks; philosophy and theology suck

I've been thinking about thinking lately. More specifically, I've been thinking about epistemology. How do we know any fact? What are the tools we can use to know facts? And the point of this post: of the facts we know, what disciplines have been used to acquire that knowledge?

Let's start with a definition of "fact." What is a fact? "Facts are the world's data" as Stephen Jay Gould put it. They are things we know, at least as much as we can know something. As Gould put it,
In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent."

Now think about something we -- humanity -- know. Think of some bit of knowledge about the world that is so certain that it would be perverse to disbelieve it. How do we know this thing? It's a pretty good bet that we know it because of science.

Now think of 10 more facts that we know because of science. Go ahead, I'll wait. It shouldn't take long. Just look at 10 different parts of your body, or 10 objects in your room. Whatever facts we know about them, we know because of science.

Now think of 10 facts that we know because of philosophy. Too hard? OK, think of one fact that we know because of philosophy. Just one thing that we know with great certainty because of philosophy. Did you come up with anything? I couldn't, but maybe you could.

But kuri, you object, science is based on philosophy. It's chock full of philosophical concepts like logic, rationalism, empiricism, etc., and so on. And you're quite correct. Science is based on certain philosophical concepts. But in order for us to actually know anything, to discern any facts about the world, those concepts must be applied in the form of science.

Logic alone won't tell us why the sky looks blue, or why the sea looks blue, or why my eye looks blue, or why a sapphire looks blue. It won't tell us why a rock and a feather fall at the same speed in a vacuum. It won't tell us how old the earth is or what caused it to form.

That's not to say that philosophy is worthless. It gave us logic (which I'm trying to use in this post) and science (which rocks), after all. But what has it done for us lately? Well... there's um... and ... uh... yeah. (Are those crickets?)

I mean, philosophy is fun to talk about. It's interesting. It's complex and deeply nuanced. But then, so too is Klingon culture. And like deep discussions of Klingon culture, deep discussions of philosophy are interesting and enjoyable. Interesting and enjoyable but ultimately completely trivial. (BTW, is a bat'leth an edged weapon or a blunt-force weapon? They look like they have edges, but they never seem to cut anyone.)

Now try to think of 10 things we know because of theology. Now stop laughing. Why even bother? Theology has given us only a mass of confusion. A complex and deeply nuanced mass of confusion, but again, an ultimately trivial one. At least philosophy gave us logic and science. Has theology ever given us one fact about the world or one useful tool for discerning them?

And that's why philosophy and theology suck: they don't work. Not as ways of learning about our world. They work just fine as pastimes. If you enjoy them, more power to you. I enjoy them too. Just don't kid yourself that you'll ever arrive at any knowledge through them.

Science, on the other hand, rocks. It rocks because it works. Want to know about something? Use science.

Update: Here's a follow-up post.

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6 comments:

  1. First you say, "But kuri, you object, science is based on philosophy. It's chock full of philosophical concepts like logic, rationalism, empiricism, etc., and so on. And you're quite correct. Science is based on certain philosophical concepts."

    and then you say,

    "And like deep discussions of Klingon culture, deep discussions of philosophy are interesting and enjoyable. Interesting and enjoyable but ultimately completely trivial."

    You can't have it both ways, you have to fight for your empiricist rights which is why you'll need philosophy. The religious people aren't letting up so neither should you.

    Science as science has no way to defend itself.

    Also, psychology is a relatively young science and yet the questions they ask and answer have been explored by philosophy (and theology) for thousands of years. Somehow psychology seems to overlook a lot of that which is why so much psychology is shit.

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  2. "You can't have it both ways, you have to fight for your empiricist rights which is why you'll need philosophy. ...Science as science has no way to defend itself."

    OK, you've got me there. Philosophy does have its practical uses too. It definitely doesn't suck as much as theology. ;)

    "Also, psychology is a relatively young science and yet the questions they ask and answer have been explored by philosophy (and theology) for thousands of years."

    But that's where I'm deeply skeptical. Not about the questions, many of which are indeed meaningful as more than entertainment, but about the answers. I doubt the ability of philosophy to ever settle any empirical question.

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  3. "For this reason a higher culture must give to man a double-brain, as it were two brain ventricles, one for the perceptions of science, the other for those of non-science: lying beside one another, not confused together, separable, capable of being shut off; this is the demand of health. In one domain lies the power-source, in the other the regulator: it must be heated with illusions, onesidedness, passions, the evil and perilous consequences of overheating must be obviated with the aid of the knowledge furnished by science. – If this demand of higher culture is not met, then the future course of human evolution can be foretold almost with certainty: interest in truth will cease the less pleasure it gives: because they are associated with pleasure, illusion, error and fantasy will regain step by step the ground they formerly held: the ruination of science, a sinking back into barbarism, will be the immediate consequence; mankind will have to begin again at the weaving of its tapestry, after having, like Penelope, unwoven it at night." (Nietzsche, Human all too Human 251)

    What you're doing here is philosophy and you're doing it poorly.

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  4. Your Nietzsche quote is actually a good example of what I'm talking about. Whether something is "the demand of health" is ultimately a question (does health demand this?) that can (at least theoretically) be answered by science. I doubt that it can be answered by philosophy. If I'm right about philosophy, it can only argue about what the answer might be.

    "What you're doing here is philosophy and you're doing it poorly."

    I realize that if I talk about philosophy, I'm already "doing philosophy." I also realize that I'm "doing it poorly." That's at least partly intentional. I don't think most of it is worth the bother of "doing right." (And yes, I also realize that so thinking is still more philosophy.)

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  5. "And that's why philosophy and theology suck: they don't work. Not as ways of learning about our world. They work just fine as pastimes."

    Ridiculous false dichotomy. Your premise--that philosophy and theology are only valuable as compared to science if they do well what science does well--is a classic exercise of begging the question.

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  6. It's ridiculous only if this statement is false: "Science, philosophy, and theology are three means used to attempt to understand the world."

    If all three are means used to understand the world, then the argument that the inability of one (or more) of those means to provide valid understanding of the world equals the failure of that means is a valid one.

    That's certainly not to say that I proved the argument correct in a slightly tongue-in-cheek 600-word blog post. Obviously I didn't. I'm quite aware of the failure of my slightly tongue-in-cheek 600-word blog post to completely demolish schools of thought dating back millennia, thank you. But the argument itself isn't necessarily invalid.

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What do you think?