Turn on the evening news, and listen to the onslaught of human destruction. We’re reporting on wars, mass shootings, political fiascoes, or financial woes. Seldom do we discuss all that is good or great in this world.
However, no matter what is discussed in the news and across the internet, we are only ever talking about ourselves. How we have arrived at the place called ‘the here and now’ has arguably been through evolution and scientific endeavors; all done in the name of ‘progress’. Without research, we would not be living in the type of engineering world we find ourselves in today. But what does that research and progression have to do with philosophy?
Five years ago, I would have rolled my eyes and sighed if someone had told me to engage with philosophy. I would have thought back to my compulsory year 10 class where we all had to sit around a circle and take it in turns to give our opinion on whatever the topic was for that week. These days, people would probably describe me as ‘philosophical’ if they were asked to describe my nature. I love philosophy now because, at its core, it is nothing more than the constant questioning of life as predicated on the subjective experience of being human. After all:
The world is based on different ideologies. What matters most is not what you think, but how you think.
If you have grown up in a Western civilization, as I have done, your mind might wonder to the Ancient Greek names of Aristotle and Socrates when you think about philosophy. We hold these names in such high regard in the West because they are seen as being the ‘founders’ of philosophy (meaning that most philosophies ever since have been built, through the years, on top of their original scriptures). In actuality, however, eastern philosophy preceded western philosophy by a few centuries and, in my opinion, is much more profound. Just look at the list of eastern philosophies that are seldom mentioned in Western education:
I myself align with Daoism, but I digress. We tend to forget that some of the most intriguing philosophies to emerge are fairly recent. For example, the most influential philosopher from the 20th Century is said to be Martin Heidegger. As all scientists and thinkers do, Heidegger built on the work of those before him, which allowed him to create his theory for explaining the man-technology relationship from a social practices view.
However, unlike those before him, Heidegger said something that seemed so obvious but for which no one before him had put into words. That’s the beauty of philosophy; it serves as a somewhat art form of keeping things relevant based on current language and context. Heidegger might not have come to his views about the world if not for him living through an industrial age.
In essence, how and when you live your life is in direct relation to both your own philosophy (whether you are aware that you have one or not), and the philosophy of others, who have used their ideas to help shape and craft the world we all collectively live in.
So what relationship does Philosophy have with Science?
Even Einstein knew the value of science in relation to philosophy, saying that “Philosophy is empty if it isn’t based on science. Science discovers, philosophy interprets”. In technical terms, philosophy is often concerned with Ontology (reality) and Epistemology (how we know that reality) through Metaphysics (our being-in-the-world and our sense of self in relation to such realities). If you’re religious, you could also throw-in theology into the mix in terms of discussing the nature of God in our existence.
Some philosophers debate, however, whether you can actually separate the above when discussing existence. I am of the belief you cannot; because that would mean separating the thinker from their thought, when both are one-in-the-same process. Even the view of ‘God’, in Daoism, is one of identity – that we are God on earth, but such a belief does not warrant a separate theologian view of a spiritual God.
When we think of things like science and technology, we seldom think about philosophy (or God). However, philosophy is highly relevant and fundamentally present in all scientific work, and all aspects of human life and our societal evolution. To understand philosophy in science, we can explore the two main scientific camps:
- Natural sciences
- Social sciences
The natural sciences involve humans and their use of man-made technology (instruments/tools) to study nature – both our biological and chemical nature, and of course the natural world; including the broader cosmos. Such investigations unfold through the scientific method, which is based on an understanding of ‘law’ (in physics) and the philosophical stance of positivism. This is the view that reality can be measured, understood, predicted and explained through experimentation at the man-technology-mathematics intersection. This is otherwise known as scientific rationality.
The social sciences, on the other hand, is concerned about human behaviour; namely our psychology, beliefs, cultures, languages, actions, ideas, thoughts, and our collective belonging together – our sociology. Now, this is where philosophy starts to get interesting in terms of the social sciences. Half of the social science scholars still align with the scientific method; of believing human behaviour can also be measured, understood, predicted and explained via mathematics.
The other half, however, (where I fit in) align to the philosophy of interpretivism, which is the view that human experiences are seen as always being subjective, that change is created through social practices, and that ‘reality’ itself is only ever constructed and ‘interpreted’ through individual experience. In this view, the focus becomes social phenomenon, of exploring how and why of a social event. Instead of trying to explain an objective reality, these types of scientists attempt to describe the experiences of those who were part of the event, and how they interpreted it through their ‘lived’ experience.
In a nutshell, the major areas of scientific research are shown in the following diagram:
Just remember, however, that each one of these areas of science are comprised of nothing more than human researchers. Each of these people, depending on who they are, where they live, and what they are investigating, have a philosophy standing behind their practice. And this philosophy is likely not one from the Eastern diagram shown above! (Just Google a map of Western philosophy for yourself to see how many different ‘worldviews’ there are in our ONE world).
So the natural and social sciences divide into the following:
- Those who see the world as objective and explainable; of believing mankind has force and form over matter (that we are separate to nature)
- Those who see the world as subjective and open for interpretation; of believing mankind is mangled in both form and matter (that we are an irrecoverable part of nature)
Do you see any contradictions between the two types of sciences? Both views exist in the same one world, much like all the different philosophies do, but both are also dependent on the harsh reality of philosophy: the world is only ever experienced and understood through the subjective self.
All sciences are based on a social practice, predicated by the individual’s own view of ‘reality’ (their philosophy about reality, nature, and human nature). Furthermore, their approach to the empirical world (where they collect and source their data from) is always based on a model. For positivists this is often a statistical model or a mathematical equation. For interpretivists, this is often a theory that guides their engagement/their approach with a particular empirical context.
Neither type of science captures ‘reality’, as scientists from both domains ‘slice and dice’ the world from the stance of their own subjective research interests. This means they only ever report on the past, can never capture the present moment, and often fail to realise the future does not yet exist.
What science does do, however, is allow us to learn more about ourselves in relation to everything we deem ‘not-of-the-self’. This is why science is nothing more than the mining of our collective identity. Philosophy, in turn, allows us to question this identity. However, this is only possible because of the polar opposite scientific views (which, ironically, aligns to my own worldview of Daoism as it relates to yin-and-yang).
The unity of opposites gives meaning. In terms of science, for example, you cannot investigate the stars by asking the question ‘What are stars feeling?’ Just as you cannot, mathematically, measure what a person means why they say they love someone but hate what they have done. The two ‘worldviews’ of approaching the same ‘reality’ become complimentary when looked at in their respective contexts.
Once you realise that ALL science is based on a ‘worldview’ you can begin to question the outputs of science, even if you yourself are not scientifically inclined or knowledgeable about the ‘STEM’ model (science, technology, engineering and maths). Once you realise that all scientific endeavors are based on subjective views of the world, and science itself is a limited form that can never truly describe ‘reality’, you are better equipped to engage in scientific (and social) debate.
There’s also the view, which I’ll talk about in a future blog post, that all of science, through its unity with art, is where true philosophy emerges – where the thing we are all hungry for (meaning) is revealed to us via our sense of wonder.
As a takeaway, I encourage you to watch the following explanation of science and philosophy from Alan Watts. He was not a scientific methods man, but he sure as heck knew how to question its underlying assumptions from a social sciences view.