The articulation of science and philosophy
Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: seminar room Philosophy Section (unpublished text)
Date of publication: 1995
One of the main problems of today's culture is the lack of integration of the sciences and Humanities. This is an illness that can now be considered chronic. Indeed, it dates back to the very birth of modern experimental science in the seventeenth century, since the new science presented itself, from the very beginning, as an adversary of the previous natural philosophy, which it was intended to replace. Further progress in the sciences strengthened the conviction that at last there was a reliable knowledge goal which, at least in these respects, far surpassed the status of the multiple and constantly competing philosophical interpretations. For a long time, science and philosophy still coexisted in mutual respect and interest, but idealism at one extreme and positivism at the other expressed and favoured, in the last century, the fragmentation between two practically incommunicable worlds.
Today, the conditions seem to be right for a fruitful dialogue between the two perspectives. Both sides have become more aware of each other's competences and limits, and invitations to practice multidisciplinarity are heard everywhere, which is indispensable for a rigorous approach to the problems. However, this task is not easy, at least not if it is to achieve more than an amalgamation of disparate points of view. But the task is important and even urgent, especially for those who realise that the unity of knowledge is more than just the icing on the intellectual cake.
Nor is it a question of sharing the cake fairly, but of making it. To do this, the first precaution is to overcome the obstacles that would prevent any fruitful dialogue. I will refer briefly to an extreme position that claims for itself a monopoly of the cake: scientism.
Officially, scientism is dead and buried. The neo-positivist programme has failed. There is a clear awareness of the limits of science. Today's epistemology recognises the existence of historical, sociological and cultural components of scientific activity. However, scientism is rising from the ashes right now, right in front of our eyes.
The revival of scientism is sometimes virulent. Such is the case, for example, of Francis Crick, deservedly famous for his finding, together with James Watson, of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. In recent years, this award Nobel Prize winner has devoted himself to the study of the brain and consciousness, and has recently published a book entitled La búsqueda científica del alma (The Scientific Search for the Soul). * (1) He states his thesis, which he calls the revolutionary hypothesis, in these words: "The revolutionary hypothesis is that "you", your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your own sense of personal identity and your free will, are nothing more than the behaviour of a vast array of nerve cells and associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice would have put it: "You are nothing but a bunch of neurons". This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people today that it may well be called revolutionary. *(2)
Obviously, this is a reductionist thesis, as Dr. Crick himself warns. But he is not impressed by philosophical arguments to the contrary. Indeed, he states that "reductionism is the main theoretical method that has guided the development of physics, chemistry and molecular biology. It is primarily responsible for the spectacular developments in modern science. It is the only sensible way to proceed until (and unless) we are forced to confront incontrovertible experimental evidence that requires us to change our attitude. General philosophical arguments against reductionism are of no use here". * (3) In the face of this refusal, dialogue seems pointless, however serious the philosophical arguments may be. Moreover, Dr. Crick refers to philosophers in the following terms: "the study of consciousness is a scientific problem..... Philosophers have obtained such poor results over the last two thousand years that they would do better to show some modesty instead of the arrogant superiority they normally display.... they must learn to dispense with their pet theories when scientific evidence contradicts them, on pain of making fools of themselves".*(4)
This is an attitude that could be described as intellectual terrorism, which does nothing to benefit the dialogue between science and philosophy. We could overlook it, although it would be naïve not to attribute any importance to it, because its influence is felt both in public opinion and in the meetings of specialists who study these subjects today.
Scientism is also present today in a much more sophisticated version which, from entrance, does not have a combative character; rather, it presents itself as the new post-positivist paradigm in the philosophy of science. If one were to label this new paradigm, the most appropriate title would probably be naturalism.
It is not easy to describe naturalism in a few words, because there is a whole family of self-styled "naturalist" positions. However, their common denominator can be summarised in two theses: the continuist thesis and the physicalist thesis.
According to the continuist thesis, there is continuity without breaks or gaps, both in reality and in our knowledge of it. In the ontological sphere, continuity is affirmed between everything that exists in reality. At the methodological level, continuity is affirmed between the modalities of our knowledge of reality.
The physicalist thesis affirms the primacy of the fundamental physical level. At the ontological level, it asserts that reality consists primarily of physical systems, properties, processes or events, and that any other dimension of reality depends on this fundamental level. At the methodological level, it asserts that any level of reality can only be understood by analysing its relations to the basic physical level.
A consequence of the union of these two theses is the negation of spiritualist metaphysics, which would imply the recognition of discontinuities that the naturalist considers unfounded and illegitimate.
Reductionist naturalism was associated with neopositivism and the philosophy of science that prevailed until the 1950s. Neopositivism advocated a unified science based on physicalism. All valid knowledge should be reduced to a physicalist language which, in turn, would be reduced to the language of sensible experience. It is well known that this programme failed, despite successive changes in the empiricist criterion of meaning. Even physics could not fit into the narrow moulds of reductionist physicalism. Nevertheless, the physicalist thesis exerted a wide influence and the scientism it implies has represented a heavy burden that has largely conditioned the development of contemporary epistemology.
The new naturalist paradigm is presented instead as a non-reductionist naturalism, which admits the existence of different levels in nature and science, and Withdrawal to reduce them to a basic level. This paradigm is widely spread, often under the title of non-reductionist physicalism. In a comprehensive anthology, recently published by MIT and offered as material for a wide range of philosophy of science courses, it is stated that, after the breakdown of the positivist-inspired paradigm consensus, "until recently no new consensus has emerged in the philosophy of science", and adds that "a new "post-positivist" consensus has emerged", and specifies that the new consensus does not refer to a particular philosophical conception, but rather to the problems to be explained by the philosophy of science and to the broad outlines of the relevant options. In his detailed explanation of the new paradigm, he notes that one of the concepts that appears most frequently is that of "naturalism".*(5)
In the new paradigm, the basic theses of naturalism are maintained, and an attempt is made to support them in a perspective that avoids the drawbacks of reductionism. The main field of study is anthropological; indeed, special attention is paid to the explanation of the human person and his activity in terms of his physical components. Naturalistic explanations are obviously closely related to evolutionism, since it is insistently claimed that the peculiar organisation of nature can be fully explained by the combination of random mutations and natural selection; and they also use the progress of the different branches of biology (genetics, neurophysiology, etc.), to show that naturalistic explanations do not require any complementary subject . Although more moderate in form, this new paradigm holds basically the same ideas as Dr. Crick.
Three positions can be adopted in the face of naturalism. The first consists of blaming science for the defects of scientism, confusing science with its naturalistic interpretations. The second leads to disengaging from science, considering it as a superficial knowledge incapable of providing important elements for philosophical reflection. It seems to me that, in both cases, one falls into the opposite extreme of scientism, that is, a kind of philosophism which, although it verbally manifests an interest in the sciences, in practice disregards them or interprets them in a too partial way. Nor does this path financial aid integrate science and philosophy: rather, it perpetuates misunderstandings and deprives itself of an important philosophical inspiration source , since the sciences currently provide us with a large part of what we know about the world and about ourselves.
A third attitude is possible: to respect the sciences, to be aware of their achievements, and to try to integrate them into rigorous philosophical reflection. We will probably agree with agreement that this is the right attitude. However, it is not easy to put it into practice, if only because of the difficulty of keeping knowledge up to date with scientific achievements, which are highly specialised and constantly evolving.
I do not intend to simplify these difficulties, which are real and could be further amplified by examining other aspects of the problem. I will confine myself in what follows to illustrating one way of approaching them, which I find interesting, fruitful and feasible. Due to time constraints, I will only illustrate it in a generic way, but it can be further developed by applying it to different problem areas.
For the sake of clarity, I will summarise my proposal in the following thesis: experimental science is based on philosophical assumptions that are retro-justified, expanded and refined by further scientific progress.
That science is based on assumptions that fall outside its own method and yet are indispensable for its existence is easily understood. It is admitted even by authors who adopt scientistic positions. However, it really means that scientism is untenable, because it points to the existence of a domain that science must admit even if it cannot study it thematically. Once this is admitted, if taken to its logical consequences, scientism falls at its base.
But what are these philosophical assumptions? Strangely enough, this important question has received little attention so far. Some answers, such as the Kantian one, rely too much on an approach that is too far removed from actual science. Moreover, the assumptions of science are often referred to in passing, without close examination. There are hardly any analyses that can serve as a reliable guide to such an examination. Personally, I have been engaged for several years with this topic, but I have only managed to see its importance and to note its basic outlines. I will now refer to them in what follows, in a necessarily succinct manner.
I will make it clear first of all that I will not consider the specific assumptions of particular disciplines and theories, which undoubtedly exist, are of great interest and deserve detailed study, but only the general assumptions of experimental science as a whole, which encompass each and every part of it.
These general assumptions are of three types, because they refer to three levels of science: scientific activity as a human activity that sets itself certain goals, the methods used to reach those goals, and the results obtained by applying those methods. The assumptions of the first level can be called anthropological, those of the second epistemological, and those of the third ontological. Of course, the three levels of science are not only related, but interpenetrated, and something similar happens with their respective assumptions: to such an extent that one of the greatest difficulties in studying them consists in determining the order in which we consider them, since each level brings the other two levels into play in some way and is hardly comprehensible without them. In these circumstances, I will follow the order that seems to me the most intelligible: I will begin with the epistemological level, because what we know best about science is its method, to consider secondly the ontological level and, finally, the anthropological level.
At the epistemological level, the scientific method comprises two distinct moments: the construction of laws or theories, and the testing of their validity (often referred to as the "context of finding" and the "context of justification"). I will not discuss the relevance of the first level (it seems to me that its importance is often underestimated). What is important to underline here is that this level presupposes, as a condition of possibility, the existence of a rationality which, on the one hand, allows the use of the logical and gnoseological resources typical of human knowledge in general, and on the other hand, adds specific procedures which in many cases are enormously sophisticated. Not only, as in any other field, is there recourse to argumentative capacity with all that this implies; there is also recourse to the construction of models which usually refer to aspects of reality which are far removed from experience, and to very complex and yet reliable methods which allow the validity of these models to be checked. One need only look at moderately serious reports on the work of science today to see that scientific rationality is, today, an impressive manifestation of our cognitive capacities, involving, in many cases, the invention of very sophisticated methods that allow us to approach the rigorous study of very complex problems. Therefore, scientific progress impacts back on the epistemological assumption (rationality), showing that its scope is much greater than previously assumed.
At the ontological level, the results of science now allow us, for the first time in history, to formulate a scientific world view which, without being exhaustive, can nevertheless be considered complete, because it encompasses all levels of nature, from the microphysical to the astrophysical, including the living, and also makes it possible to relate all levels to each other in a unitary and coherent picture. When it is said that today's science is disoriented, because it fails to clearly represent the microphysical world, or because (as those who speak of a "postmodern science" say) it has given up hope for certain conclusions, one does not really know what is being said. Today, science is achieving results that are not only remarkable in themselves: they allow us for the first time, I repeat, to elaborate a complete and unitary representation of nature. At this level, the condition of possibility is the existence of a natural order that can be rationally investigated. Here, too, scientific progress is acting on this assumption, and in a way B: in fact, we know today the organisation of nature, starting from the microphysical level. Nature has multiple levels on each of which a dynamism of its own unfolds, intertwined with spatio-temporal patterns, through an enormous number of modelling processes. The functioning of nature sample the cooperation of the different levels, which brings into play multiple modalities of information that is stored, unfolded and integrated.
At the anthropological level, science is a human activity directed towards obtaining a knowledge of nature that can be subjected to experimental control. It falls within the two great modalities of our activity: the theoretical search for knowledge and the controlled mastery of the circumstances of our lives. It combines both aspects in a peculiar synthesis that constitutes one of the most remarkable advances in human history. At this level, the condition of possibility is the existence of a subject with capacities and interests such as those at stake in science. And once again, progress acts on this assumption: in effect, sample in a very remarkable Degree the human potentialities and the results that its exercise makes it possible to achieve. Scientific progress is today one of the most obvious manifestations of human uniqueness.
As I have already noted, it would be possible and desirable to make more explicit the assumptions and implications to which I have just alluded. But what has been said suffices to draw some consequences about naturalism and the relations between science and philosophy.
With respect to naturalism, it can be noted that its anti-metaphysical meaning comes, as I have already pointed out, from the combination of the continuist thesis with the physicalist thesis. The reflections I have set out allow us to save the former and to show the falsity of the latter. Indeed, the continuist thesis, which is what gives naturalism its plausibility, responds to a genuine rational requirement; but the physicalist interpretation adds a component that distorts the scope of this requirement. Even if reductionism is verbally denied, it is accepted that nature is nothing more than what is physical, or material, or what can be scientifically verified, or what can be studied agreement with the scientific method. A position of this subject is always a nadamaschism (in English, from "nothing but", it would be a "nothingbutism").
But can it be seriously argued today that there is more to physical, chemical or biological reality than physical, chemical or biological dimensions, are we going back to the hidden qualities that were discarded centuries ago, or are we going to introduce new ones with an updated façade?
It can be seriously argued today that there is more to physical, chemical or biological reality than physical, chemical or biological dimensions. There is, precisely, reality. I have stated that the sciences are based on ontological assumptions, and among them I have emphasised the existence of a natural order that can be rationally investigated. We probably focus mainly on "order", organisation, rationality. But it is above all about a nature that really exists. We could not do physics, chemistry or biology without this nature, which existed and functioned billions of years before our science existed. Moreover: the laws, which form the backbone of science, do not exist outside our minds and science books. What really exist are entities that possess a dynamism, and that deploy their virtualities according to concrete circumstances (i.e. the presence of other entities with their respective modes of being and dynamisms): from there, we formulate laws that summary those behaviours for specific circumstances. What is an abstraction is our science. Under these conditions, to ask whether there is anything other than what is described by science is grotesque. Something similar to what I am saying has been expressed by Stephen Hawking when, in a moment of philosophical lucidity, he asks: what is it that breathes fire into the equations? In reality, that "fire" is anterior, and the equations, which for Hawking seem to possess the virtualities of Aladdin's lamp, have been invented by us and depend on our way of knowing.
In short: science assumes an ontology. We probably already knew this, but this detour is not superfluous, since it allows us to clarify what this assumption means, and to conclude that physicalism is untenable. In other words, physical, chemical or biological reality is not reducible to physics, chemistry or biology: it is, above all, a reality and, therefore, something that possesses a being and one (or many) modes of being. From there, we can develop an ontology that reflects on the dimensions of reality that the sciences assume but do not study thematically. Such reflection will not add anything to the sciences at their own level, but it will provide the framework where philosophical problems can be rigorously posed, avoiding scientistic camouflage.
These considerations allow us to formulate three consequences that are of interest for the general articulation of science and philosophy.
The first consequence is that experimental science does not oppose the capabilities of the ordinaryknowledge or the results obtained by means of them: rather, it assumes them, extends them and, eventually, makes them more precise. Although this conclusion may seem obvious, it is of great interest. Indeed, the ordinary knowledge constitutes the main basis of philosophical reflection, and it is often called into question by arguing that science would lead to a kind of ontology of the second Degree which could not be judged by ordinary canons and which would be capable of opposing any pre-scientific conclusion, however obvious it might be. Hence the undervaluing of metaphysics, which is widespread today. Our reflections show how unfounded such a position is, and provide important reinforcements for the metaphysical approach .
The second consequence refers to the autonomy of science, which is situated in its real dimensions: it means that only its specific methods make it possible to achieve the objectives of scientific activity, and that the validity of the results of science can only be judged directly from agreement with its own canons; but this scientific activity implicitly uses assumptions that have a clear philosophical charge. Therefore, just as it would be wrong to attempt to fill in science on its own ground by means of philosophical considerations, philosophical reflection can, on the other hand, reveal the inadequacy of some interpretations that sometimes present themselves as scientific but in reality go beyond the limits of science.
The third consequence is that science, although it can do without philosophy at its own thematic level, has philosophical assumptions without which its existence would not be possible, and furthermore its progress raises philosophical implications of the greatest interest. Therefore, the attitude of the philosopher who systematically ignores the achievements of science or limits himself to an episodic and anecdotal collection of some of them, prevents philosophy from posing important problems or, at least, from posing them in the context and with the data that the current state of scientific knowledge allows.
This last consideration brings us to a problem that is of great interest to the philosopher. Indeed, it is not easy nowadays to have an up-to-date knowledge of scientific progress at a specialised level. Even physicists working in a particular area do not find it easy, for example, to keep up to date with the work of their physicist colleagues in other areas, not to mention those working in other sciences such as chemistry or biology. Nor does it seem logical that philosophical reflections should depend on instructions which, however reliable they may be, are constantly evolving. In conclusion, I will refer to these two difficulties.
The first difficulty relates to a practical problem. The knowledge of the sciences undoubtedly requires additional work. It is impossible to keep up with scientific progress without an effort in addition to the work in one's own field. However, the philosopher often makes similar efforts when entering a new field such as business, modal logic or simply the study of a new author or works written in a new language. On the other hand, one does not need to be up to date on every detail, unless one is researching very specialised areas. And nowadays there are excellent works that provide the necessary data, in an affordable way, even if it always requires some effort as with any other research subject .
The second difficulty points to a problem that is not exclusive to science. Indeed, in any philosophical problem we can distinguish a core that is perennial or at least long-lasting, and contingent circumstances that condition the concrete approaches and solutions.
It does not seem risky to me to maintain that there is a set of philosophical problems that have a perennial character, so that they will always have to be considered, formulated and resolved, without it being possible to exhaust them or consider them definitively settled. It can even be said, although I am not very fond of talking about laws of history, that the solutions that these problems receive in different epochs oscillate as if it were a pendular movement that goes from one extreme to another, always passing through the centre (and, in our case, also passing through epochs of despair or scepticism).
The problems arise in each period of agreement with the sociological and cultural circumstances, which really influence the very formulation of the problems and their possible solutions, because we cannot ignore individual and collective history. The development of history even leads to the emergence of genuinely new problems or, at least, circumstances that decisively affect the formulation of problems. One need only think, for example, of the philosophy of science and the problems of the philosophy of nature that depend on it, which are practically all of them. It would be illusory to attempt to approach these problems by resorting exclusively to ancient concepts, without taking into account that modern experimental science was not systematically born until the 17th century, and that its development brings into play virtualities that were previously practically unknown. It would also be unrealistic to pose these problems, and their corresponding metaphysical extensions, without taking into account the worldview that the sciences make it possible to formulate: for example, I have already mentioned that today, for the first time, we have a scientific worldview that extends, in a rigorous and coherent way, to all levels of nature, and this fact must be taken into account.
Consider, for example (and this is my final thought, which concerns an important aspect of current discussions), the explanation of evolution by a combination of random variation and natural selection, and the denial of the teleology that often accompanies it. I see no reason to deny evolution, nor to undervalue the role of chance and natural selection. It seems to me that these are aspects that need to be taken into account in rigorous philosophical reflection today. However, it also seems to me that this does not authorise us to dispense with purpose in the study of nature.
Indeed, many authors, even anti-finalists or simply those not interested in the thematic study of metaphysics, affirm a natural finality which they call teleonomy (Jacques Monod), weak teleology, or in similar ways. It is a matter of taking up something that is nowadays a fact, namely that the organisation and functioning of the living includes many strictly finalistic, directional aspects, and furthermore that these aspects possess a Degree B of rationality. Under these conditions, it can be said that the existence of natural finality is, at present, a fact, if we limit ourselves to considering the organisation and functioning of living organisms.
Biologists often insist on anti-finalist views because they wish to emphasise that evolution is not a process that tends towards a predetermined goal . It is often assumed that the existence of a plan would imply a determinism incompatible with the existence of chance and unpredictable creativity in nature. However, it is often forgotten that if one speaks of a divine plan presiding over the entire evolutionary process, there is no reason to identify that plan with scientific determinism. Thomas Aquinas stresses on several occasions that divine providence is not only compatible with contingency, but that contingency is somehow demanded by the total perfection of the universe. From today's point of view, it can be affirmed that man's existence is contingent, that he is not the inevitable result of natural processes, and at the same time, that he is a goal foreseen by the divine plan. The alternative between "man is the result of Monte Carlo roulette" (Monod) and "God does not play dice" (Einstein) is not complete. It is reasonable to admit that "God plays dice, because he is sure to win" (de Duve): being the First Cause that gives being (and therefore acting), he can respect the causality proper to the natural and at the same time bring about the foreseen results.
Life as we know it is a highly specific and enormously sophisticated phenomenon. Evolution assumes a very specific primitive state, in which there are some potentialities which, if actualised, lead to a new situation in which new potentialities open up, whose actualisation in turn leads to a new situation, and so on for billions of years, from the subatomic particles to the first living cell and then to the present living beings. The successive potentialities must be virtually contained in the initial state. The successive actualisations depend on the contingent coincidence of conditions that might not have occurred. Thus, there is a very sophisticated combination of specific initial conditions and successive coincidences of conditions that make successive morphogenesis possible. Evolutionary explanation, in its present state, only deals with some aspects of this extraordinary process.
In fact, the existence of genetic blueprints to explain ontogenesis is becoming increasingly well known and will also provide a better understanding of the evolutionary process. Only recently have we begun to know something about the regulatory genes that direct ontogenesis, or the formation of new individuals. This subject of knowledge could have important implications for evolutionary explanations, and it seems likely that new explanations will be developed in which directionality will play a greater role. Certainly, it is a directionality that is actualised or not depending on circumstances. Evolutionism rightly stresses the contingency of outcomes. But it is a true directionality.
Of course, one can always complain about the vagueness of the ontological dimensions: in this case, of the concept of finality. But I hope to have shown, albeit succinctly and partially, that it is possible to determine with precision the different problems implied, in our example, by natural finality. It is certainly desirable to carry out a work of analysis that will allow us to introduce as much precision as possible into each problem. It is perhaps worth noting, however, that philosophical concepts cannot always (or perhaps almost never) be defined in a univocal or, so to speak, operational way, adding that if this presents disadvantages, it also has its advantages, as does the "fuzzy logic" which is currently the subject of interesting studies and even technological applications. Indeed, the most interesting problems often require a certain margin of interpretation and manoeuvre. I can't resist transcribing a sentence that meeting almost daily in a portal in Pamplona, which is a good example of the importance of fuzzy logic. It reads: "All disturbing noises are forbidden after 10 p.m.", and refers to the Municipal Ordinances, article 82. It is an example of teleological brevity: by indicating what is to be avoided, the indication is much clearer than a list of specific things that are forbidden.
These considerations are just an example sample of the possible articulation between science and philosophy, respecting the specificity of each perspective but making a serious effort to achieve a unitary perspective. I have no doubt that this task is a challenge that has important consequences and is worth taking on, even if it entails effort and difficulties. It seems to me that this is one of the main challenges of our time, and that it can only be properly addressed in an environment, such as ours, centred on a disinterested search for knowledge and open to all positive airs and influences, wherever they may come from.