Thursday 6 April 2017

Philosophy and Science?

Behold, a Great Man

Scientists, in general, are ignorant of philosophy and conversely the average philosopher is not well versed in the scientific method. Fair enough you say, philosophy and science are two completely different rational belief systems without overlapping areas of interest. Philosophy is mainly concerned with uncovering knowledge by thinking very hard about the topic in hand and Science, on the other hand, is about empirical observation of the ‘real world’ and developing ideas to explain that reality (what is reality?). Some would argue that theology completes the trilogy of knowledge systems. I would disagree and argue vehemently that theology is not a rational belief system at all, but I don’t have space, or remit, to espouse my reasoning in this post. I would further contend that science and philosophy do have a point of contact and that contact lies in the realm of epistemology. At this point, I should be drawing a Venn diagram, but frankly, I can't be arsed (arse).

In brief, epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature, methods and limits of knowledge. It asks the following questions: What constitutes knowledge and how can we distinguish between true and false knowledge? As scientists, our endeavour should be to uncover new knowledge so it stands to reason that we should have a rational and coherent appreciation of what ‘knowledge is’, if it exists as a meaningful concept, at all. This is where we introduce the philosophers, or philosopher, in this case, as I will be dealing with one extraordinary man, Karl Popper, who is considered the most influential philosopher and commentator of science in the 20th century.

Popper was born in Austria in 1902 and took up tenure at Canterbury University, New Zealand in 1937. In 1946 he was offered a teaching position at the London School of Economics where he stayed until his retirement in 1969. Enough biography, Flaxen. His early work focussed on differentiating valid empirical scientific theories from none scientific appreciations of existence, such as metaphysics. It could be conceived that Popper extended the work of the British empirical British philosophers such as David Hume. If you would like to know more about Hume, click on the link and be enlightened.

Popper thought that there should be a valid distinction between knowledge which is inherently scientific and knowledge which is not scientific. In this respect, Popper was not unique or original in his thinking. His originality lies in his concept of falsification. Thus, counter to how most scientists think, theories instead of being reinforced by experimental evidence, the scientist should actually strive to contradict and hence falsify his cherished theory(s). In contrast, adherents of metaphysical theories are mostly concerned with making observed reality fit their theories’ prediction. Sigmund Freud’s concepts are of this ilk and consequently, have no truck with real science. To be fair to Freud, he never claimed that his theories were verifiable by empirical experimentation. Intellectually, Freud was a direct descendant of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and clearly was an unrepentant adherent to a lost intellectual age. 

Popper believed that pragmatic scientists strive for truth. However, attainment of empirical truth is forever elusive and always lies just beyond/behind  the epistemological horizon. Thus, empiricism can never provide absolute evidence for a particular theory. On the contrary, scientists, according to Popper, should constantly and consistently strive to refute their theories. Of course, all this sounds horribly counter-intuitive but from a logical perspective, it is perfectly consistent. However, whether scientists actually behave in this way is entirely a different story.

Frankly, as a practising scientist, I am not enamoured by Popper’s postulations. It has an air of over-intellectualisation (not a real word- but I'm sure you get the drift) which is not in tune with real life. Philosophers have a tendency to do this. Whether they are describing what happens in real life does not seem to bother them, at all. All is subsumed to apparent intellectualism. Furthermore, Popper seems not to consider the human psychological perspective. Few scientists set out to falsify theories, more often their experiments are devised to confirm beloved postulates. In the event of the data not fitting the theory, it is a brave scientist who advocates the abandonment of a well-established theory. Much work and experimentation would have to be done to overturn established scientific paradigms. And indeed, a revolution in scientific theory is relatively rare. In most cases, the theory is not discarded but modified and basic tenets remain unsullied. There are more technical objections to Popper's contentions but I am not inclined to outline here. Any university level textbook on philosophy will give a solid appreciation of the problems. But of course you could do what everyone else does, these days- go check out Wikipedia; the font of all wisdom and knowledge, allegedly.

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