Science needs philosophy
The fad for using science to explain everything is misguided and dangerous, says Massimo Pigliucci
A recent New York Times article has noted a new trend in secular writings, what the author, James Atlas, termed “Can’t-Help-Yourself books”. This trend includes writings by prominent scientists and secularists that are characterised by two fundamental – and equally misguided – ideas: an over-enthusiastic embrace of science, and the dismissal of much of human experience under the generic label of “illusion”.
The culprits are many and influential. Physicists Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss, along with biologist EO Wilson, dismiss philosophy (and much of the humanities) as a leftover from pre-scientific thought, to be replaced by the objective and empirical truth arrived at by modern science, especially fundamental physics. Never mind that, as Daniel Dennett aptly put it a while ago, there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, but only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board unexamined.
And then there are the likes of Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Alex Rosenberg and Jerry Coyne, who claim that science can provide answers to philosophical questions, and that moreover antiquated concepts like free will, consciousness and morality are just illusions, tricks played on us by our Pleistocene-evolved brains. We are not really in control of what we do and think, it’s all done automatically by an inner zombie whose actions were determined since the Big Bang. This despite the fact that serious neuroscientists like Michael Gazzaniga and Antonio Damasio are actually much more careful about what exactly their discipline brings to our understanding of the human mind.
I think this is a misguided and dangerous trend, which might backfire on the entire secular movement. First of all, many of the grand conclusions espoused by these authors as established, even trivial, truths, are anything but. For instance, Harris states that science can answer moral questions, because moral judgments are facts. Haidt, for his part, claims that liberals are deficient in their understanding of morality because they do not include in their moral compass certain values (like religious purity, or obedience to authority) that conservatives think of as moral pillars. Both of these are egregious examples of naturalistic fallacies, the idea that there is no simple connection between empirical facts and moral values. But you would have to have read a bit of philosophy to appreciate that, and Harris for one is proud of his contempt for anything philosophical.
Or take Rosenberg’s and (again) Harris’s categorical statement that in a deterministic world there is no such thing as consciousness or free will, and consequently no morality. As it turns out, reductive determinism is a metaphysical position about which it is best to be agnostic, since there is no empirical evidence that can speak in favour of or against it. Moreover, to deny the existence of consciousness amounts to simply negating the data, rather than explaining them. Yes, so-called split-brain patients do show that the feeling of unitary consciousness that most of us have may, under certain circumstances, be broken down into separate modules. But how does that make consciousness an “illusion”? It would be like arguing that your ability to steer your car is an illusion, because it is really the result of the coordinated action of two functional wheels. While stating a factual truth about how a car works, you’d also be spectacularly missing the point.
This kind of intellectual hubris is known as scientism, the idea that science is the ultimate arbiter of any question, or indeed even of what counts as a meaningful question. Taken to its logical extreme, scientism leads to nihilism, and as such is both scientifically untenable (nihilism is a philosophical position, not an empirical one) and philosophically sterile. And if there is one thing that secular humanists do not want , it is to be associated with nihilism, both because it is intellectually uninteresting and because it plays into the worst stereotype of the “godless atheist” that most people still unfortunately hold.
On the contrary, humanism is about taking seriously the complexity of the human condition and the limits of human knowledge. Science is a marvellous thing that has brought us computers, airplanes and modern medicine. But it has also brought us the atomic bomb, eugenics and biological warfare. It is a wonderful experience to think like a scientist – believe me, I’ve done it for decades. But that is only one mode of human thinking. Our arsenal is vast, including the ability to critically reflect on what we do and why (philosophy) and to communicate our emotions and perspectives about the world to other human beings (art and literature).
To be sure, all our modes of thinking are interconnected and are capable of cross-fertilisation. The philosopher’s musings ought to be informed by the scientist’s findings. But just as much the scientist needs philosophy’s critique of his values and priorities in order to contribute to the bettering of humankind. Humanism is a vital alternative to religion precisely because it isn’t based on an all-encompassing, totalising doctrine, but instead seeks to harmonise the many wonderful facets of the human experience. Let us not lose sight of that spirit, lest we become yet another dangerously sterile ideology that hampers rather than helps.