Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Philosophy of Science

Yesterday I watched a discussion between Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Massimo Pigliucci here and have been thinking about how discussion can be much more productive than solitary work such as book-writing. When someone writes a book, it may be plagued with misconceptions and errors that never come to light, and the reader must wade through it in darkness.  During a discussion, these same misconceptions and errors can be dispensed with immediately, resulting in very rapid progress, comparatively speaking.

I felt a strong affinity with these three.  Once I was a philosophy student, and I would have liked to have studied with someone like Daniel Dennett, though he was a rarity then and still is now.  The other two are steeped in the sciences, and I find them refreshing after spending several fruitless years attempting to plumb the depths of literary culture.  I still correspond with one of my philosophy professors, who is now 83, but I find that I have very little in common with him.  He comes from the analytic tradition, with an emphasis on religion, moral reasoning and the philosophy of art, and seems to have a specific dislike of science. We cannot agree on much because I believe that science has reframed several philosophical issues and removed some of their mystery.  Specifically, I think that Darwinism has recast how we should think about human behavior: we are above all animals, and any conspicuous behavior must be looked at first for a possible adaptive advantage.  In my view, this immediately turns most previous thought about moral reasoning on its head. Morality has little to do with reason, and can never be understood properly simply by analyzing concepts.

Although that topic did not come up in the discussion, a couple of my favorites did.  First, all three are avowed atheists, and they had no cause to disagree. Second, and more interestingly, they all seemed to hold the view that, rather than being a rare, unexplained phenomenon unique to mankind, consciousness is essentially a biological phenomenon shared by many animals in varying degrees, and that scientific research will in the end clarify its nature.

For many years I thought that philosophy was divided into two main camps. In the U.S. and U.K., analytic philosophy dominated, and the focus was on the analysis of concepts. Continental philosophy was the province of big theories and sweeping generalizations. Neither paid much attention to science or considered it relevant to philosophical problems. I now see philosophers like Daniel Dennett as potential saviors of philosophy as a discipline that would otherwise go the way of Homeric Greek.  Dennett understands the conceptual clarity that made philosophy a viable subject, but he is rare among philosophers in recognizing the role of science in advancing our conceptual schema.

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