On Philosophy

November 14, 2006

Why Science Is More Successful Than Philosophy

Filed under: Metaphilosophy — Peter @ 1:53 am

I enjoy philosophy, but in many ways philosophy has fallen behind the sciences. The sciences have made great progress within the last hundred years, and, while philosophy has definitely made some progress, it has been overshadowed by the accomplishments of science. I don’t think this is because the questions tackled by philosophy don’t have answers, or that the answers can’t be known. If I thought that I would simply give up and do something else. Nor do I think that the problems of philosophy are more difficult than the problems of science. Certainly quantum physics is harder to understand than justice (if you think quantum physics is easier then you must not understand quantum physics). Nor do I think that philosophers are less intelligent than scientists, although they are perhaps less mathematically inclined, a fact that I am certain of because scientists often make fools of themselves when dealing with philosophical questions.

I think that the reason philosophy has fallen behind science is twofold, it lacks a unified and formal method, and philosophers are not as focused as scientists on making progress. The lack of a “philosophic method” is something that may seem trivial, but ultimately it is the scientific method is responsible for much of the progress of science. Specifically the scientific method says that a scientific theory should be judged by how well the predictions it makes fit the evidence. This means that given two conflicting scientific theories we have a quick, and objective, way of deciding which of them is better. And this paves the way for progress because new and better theories can overturn older theories no matter how well liked the old theories are. Philosophy, however, has no quick and objective way of deciding between two theories. Even if one position is better supported by reason, and the other position is shown to have defects, it is unlikely for one to be abandoned for the other. Instead much effort will be made to improve both positions, and to poke holes in them. And such efforts make sense, because sometimes the position that appears weaker will turn out to be better when more attention is given to the problem. But because of this a philosophical theory can only be considered successful when the majority of philosophers come to accept it. And not only does this take a long time, but the majority is not always right. For example, externalism about mental content seems to be a majority position at the moment, one which I have good reasons, I hope, to think is wrong. But to present those reasons in the best possible way, and to convince others of their value, and to show how the arguments against internalism are flawed, could easily take my entire career. The fact that we can’t just settle the matter once and for all within a few decades is a bad sign for progress in philosophy.

The other problem that I mentioned was that philosophers aren’t as focused on progress, in general, as scientists (of course the big name philosophers that one tends to hear about generally were, that is why we hear about them). Partly this stems from the problem addressed above, that to make progress it is necessary to revisit old arguments for and against a position and to show how either one side or the other is flawed. And while this does contribute to the overall progress of philosophy, either by lending support to a new idea with potential or by illuminating how a new idea is flawed and deserves no further consideration, it is not itself progress. But some of the lack of focus on progress comes from philosophy’s ties to the literary tradition. There are many philosophical books and papers published examining the positions of other philosophers, either in an attempt to clarify them or reinterpret them. And certainly some commentary of this sort is valuable, because not all philosophers are easy to understand. But such work rarely yields new and interesting results, and thus doesn’t contribute significantly to the progress of philosophy as a whole (although it does help some philosophers get tenure). People are still publishing papers detailing new interpretations of Aristotle. And while it is good to read Aristotle I wouldn’t expect new ideas to come from his works. After all we have already read Aristotle and been influenced by his ideas; presenting slight variations on those same ideas is not progress. Of course developing a new interpretation of Aristotle (or Kant or Hegel …) might be a rewarding project in its own right, but I think it is best thought of as a literary enterprise and not a philosophical one. When we contrast this to the sciences, in which one must have some new results, new data, a new theory, or a problem for a current theory in order to get published we can see why progress in philosophy lags behind progress in science.

The fact that philosophy is lagging behind science doesn’t make me want to abandon it. In some ways it makes the field more attractive, since the more advanced a field is the harder it becomes to make new discoveries. And of course the fact that philosophy suffers from some methodological problems simply means that one might be able to make a name for themselves fixing them.

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