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What Has Philosophy Ever Done For Us?

While science has been enormously successful, philosophy has failed at its stated goals


Historical Socrates in a toga talking to modern scientist in a white lab coat.
AI-generated image of Socrates and a modern scientist facing each other. Shutterstock image ID 2401340363. By Shutterstock.AI.

What has science ever done for us?

The title is based on a sketch of the movie Life of Brian, by Monty Python. In it, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea asks “what have the Romans ever done for us?” He ends up saying:

“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

What the Romans had done for the people of Judea is quite similar to what science has done for us. It’s a long list!

Our wonderful Western civilization would not exist without science. However, material progress is not the only gift of science. The biggest contribution of science is giving us a comprehensive, internally consistent, detailed and actionable view of ourselves, the world and our place in it. Far from being nihilistic, as claimed by many, the scientific worldview is full of meaning, as I explain in this article.

And yet, philosophers often criticize science. For postmodernists like Michel Foucault, science is just another ‘grand narrative’ built to support power structures. Other philosophers fail to recognize the specialness of science as a reliable purveyor of knowledge, equating it to religion, mythology, shamanism and other ‘narratives.’ Of course, this is a bit self-serving, because they don’t want to recognize that science surpasses philosophy as a source of knowledge.

One thing becomes clear from this antagonism between science and philosophy: they are different things. This prevents philosophy from claiming science as one of its accomplishments.

So, maybe it’s time to turn the tables on these philosophers and ask: what has philosophy ever done for us?

What is philosophy good for?

Doing a Google search with this question, these websites came on top:

Some of those reasons are self-referential, like “learn to read and write like a philosopher.” Other are vague, like “philosophy is a constantly modern subject.” This seems dubious, given that, unlike science, philosophy doesn’t seem to make progress. It constantly refers back to ancient philosophers. Otherwise, philosophers create their ideas anew, instead of building on the work of others like science does. This has created a labyrinth of ideas, instead of a self-consistent body of knowledge.

Perhaps the best approach would be to analyze what the main branches of philosophy have done for us. These include epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics.

Epistemology: the worker and the critic

There is an old joke I heard while growing up in the Franco dictatorship in Spain, a time when my country was backward and unmotivated. If you found three men working at the side of the road, one of them will be doing the hard work while the other two just hang around and criticized what he was doing.

I think that this describes quite well the relationship between science and philosophy. Scientists do the hard work of unraveling the mysteries of nature, while philosophers write long papers explaining how everything they do is wrong.

Philosophers in charge of criticizing science call themselves epistemologists. They should not be confused with epidemiologists, the scientists who study the propagation of diseases.

More formally, epistemology studies how we know things. It includes philosophy of science, logic, critical thinking and philosophy of language.

Epistemology: Has Popper been falsified?

Karl Popper is one of the most respected epistemologists. He came up with the idea that scientific hypotheses cannot be verified, they only can be falsified. This idea was popular among scientists for a while. Later, it was deemed too negative. Scientific ideas can and should be verified, not just falsified. Hypotheses are used to make predictions, which can then be tested experimentally. If the predictions confirm the hypotheses, the hypothesis is verified. This is a gradual process in which the hypotheses are subject to increasingly rigorous tests.

Or, as I like to put it:

A scientist should formulate the most beautiful hypothesis he can. And then torture it with experiments until it confesses the truth.

Epistemology: Kuhn’s scientific revolutions never came

Another famous epistemologist was Thomas Kuhn, who came up with the idea of the paradigm shift in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I read it and was quite taken by the romantic idea of the young revolutionary scientist fighting against the scientific establishment. However, as I pursued my scientific career, scientific revolutions never happened. Instead, what I witnessed was a slow, grinding process of science. Sometimes there were breakthroughs, of course, but these were more technological—like PCR, CRISPR or optogenetics—than conceptual.

There isn’t really a scientific establishment. This idea applied to early 20th century Europe, but not to modern science in the USA. Young and old scientists compete for the same research grants.

For the last dozen years, I have participated in one of the core institutions of modern science: the Study Sections of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were million dollar research grants get scored. The NIH goes out of its way in keeping a gender and race balance in the Study Sections. They also rotate scientists, so relatively young scientists can participate. Cliques tend to form, of course, but the system actively discourages them. I have seen grant proposals by famous scientists do down in flames, while grants by relatively unknown scientists get the highest scores.

Some scientists write in their grants that their ideas are a paradigm shift. That’s usually a bad sign. My colleagues in the Study Section considered Popper’s falsifiability as a criterion, but dropped it in favor of hypothesis-testing.

The first half of the 20th century was rich with paradigm shifts: the two theories of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the discovery of DNA and the genetic code. However, for the last 50 years, there have not been any scientific revolutions as defined by Kuhn. Yes, there was the computing revolution, but this was a technological change that emerged from existing scientific concepts. It didn’t change the core ideas of any science.

Science has made a lot of progress, probably more than ever, but at a gradual pace, not the shattering revolutions predicted by Kuhn.

Epistemology: the failure to understand science

Science and philosophy became divorced when science opted for induction and philosophy for logic. Inductive reasoning consists of extracting a common truth from many observations. It forms the core of the experimental approach of science. Logic, or deductive reasoning, consists of driving an idea from previous ideas, called premises. Modern philosophy is also big on intuitions. Scientists use intuition to formulate their hypotheses, but then proceed to test them rigorously. They are well aware of how intuitions feed on our biases and blind spots.

David Hume criticized induction by showing that it is not logical. It is based on the assumption that things behave in a regular matter, an assumption that is itself based on induction. Therefore, induction is circular. He was wrong because it just happens that nature is organized following certain rules that can be studied and understood. We call these rules the laws of nature. In another article, I propose that some of the laws of nature arise from natural computing processes. However, the most basic laws of physics seem to have been there since the beginning of the Universe. Nobody knows where they come from.

While philosophy got stuck in logic, which led to an increasing number of opposing schools of thought, science perfected induction into highly sophisticated technologies: statistics and mathematical models.

Philosophy will never understand the scientific method because there is no scientific method. Each science has its own. In fact, the scientific method is part of the discovery process. We make it up as we go along.

Epistemologists will never be able to catch up with science. Only scientists can understand how science is made.

Metaphysics: philosophers lost in space

“Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality. This includes the first principles of: being or existence, identity, change, space and time, cause and effect, necessity, actuality, and possibility.” Metaphysics, Wikipedia.

The problem is that this is largely the job of science. And it left philosophy in the dust a century ago.

Studying space and time is the job of physics. It’s not finished, of course. We will not understand the basic nature of the world until we unify Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. But don’t expect any philosopher to do that.

The nature of existence is also being tackled by physics by unraveling the fine structure of matter and the large structure of the Universe.

Consciousness: philosophers gone batty

On another front, neuroscience is trying to understand the processes that give rise to subjective experience and consciousness. This will reveal how we exist as human beings.

Meanwhile, modern philosophers like David Chalmers loiter by the side of the road and try to convince neuroscientists that their job cannot be done. That consciousness is forever mysterious.

Neuroscientists study some of the neural underpinnings of consciousness, like the switch from the default mode neuronal network to the executive attention network during flow.

Meanwhile, philosophers talk about qualia, what is like to be a bat, and philosophical zombies.

It sounds like philosophers are going batty trying to raise from the dead old ideas about the soul.

Ethics: none of the schools get it

“Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that ‘involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior’.” Ethics, Wikipedia.

There are three schools of ethics: deontology, consequentialism and virtue ethics.

Deontology is either old time religion—following God’s commands—or the stuff invented by Emmanuel Kant. I was done with religion by age 15. Even if there is no God, Kant believed that there are universal moral truths. The problem is, where do they come from? It seems obvious to me that moral rules were invented by humans. They cannot preexist humanity since they are part of culture. If we invented them, they have to be based on some previous knowledge. And there has to be some logic that takes us from fundamental ideas to ethical rules and laws. Hence, there cannot be universal moral truths. There has to be a way to invent ethical rules.

Consequentialism poses that things are good or bad depending on their consequences. The problem is, how do we know if consequences are good or bad? We need an ethical system to decide that. Therefore, consequentialism is not self-sufficient. It is either circular reasoning or it needs to refer to a system of ideas in which to base morality.

I think that any system of ethics has to be based on previous beliefs about the world and humanity. And science is the only reliable system on which to base those beliefs. Otherwise, we are back to religion.

One form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which poses that we should maximize happiness and minimize suffering for the largest number of individuals. The problem is that we need good definitions of happiness and suffering to do this. In the articles I link to, I show how these concepts can be based on neuroscience.

We also need to understand what is an individual. Since the beginning of utilitarianism with Jeremy Bentham and culminating with Peter Singer and his Animal Liberation, utilitarians wanted to include animals as individuals. This resulted in the most vicious attacks against scientists who use animals in their experiments, who had their laboratories ransacked, their homes sieged, their children harassed and their cars burned. If this is ethics, who needs evil?

Virtue ethics blossomed into several philosophical schools of Greek and Roman antiquity, like the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Cynics. Stoicism has gotten quite popular lately. However, virtue ethics suffers from the same problem as consequentialism: it fails to establish a firm foundation for morality because it does not provide a convincing definition of the concept of virtue. It depends on the beliefs of each particular culture. For example, being rich is virtuous in modern capitalistic America, but immoral in socialist societies. Casual sex is unethical in many societies, but not in modern sex-positive culture.

Ethics cannot be formulated independently of beliefs about human nature and how to establish a free, egalitarian, prosperous and peaceful society. And any such beliefs need to be based on knowledge acquired through science to be rational and based on reality.

Ethics: a long list of missed opportunities

With all their accumulated wisdom, you would think that philosophers would have stepped in to give us guidance on the biggest moral decisions in our civilizations. For example, slavery, genocide, racism, misogyny, gay rights and sexual liberation.

In every single one of these moral crises, philosophers were missing in action.

Regarding slavery, the great philosophers of antiquity apparently thought that Virtue Ethics were perfectly compatible with it. Neither was a big uproar by philosophers while Blacks were slaved in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America.

The concept of different races at the root of racism was not challenged by philosophers. Neither was a social order based on racial apartheid. Admittedly, it took a little time for science to catch up with those, too. However, it was the job of philosophers to dictate morality, not of scientists.

The fight against slavery and racism was carried out by regular people. So was feminism. Then, philosophers stepped in and appropriated these ideas, corrupting them in the process to give birth to the monster of modern identity politics.

Gay rights were fought by gays, particularly during the dark times of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s. Scientists helped to dispel some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about AIDS transmission, and eventually come up with a cure. Philosophers did nothing.

Sexual liberation started in the 60s. Philosophers have always been big in puritanism and sexual repression. In the 70s, academics like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon started a war against pornography, BDSM and sex work, that eventually spilled over to harm gays and lesbians. People into BDSM organized and fought back. Nowadays, new relationship standards like ethical non-monogamy and polyamory are flourishing. Philosophers either oppose them or remain oblivious.

Every time they had an opportunity to lead the way towards new moral standards, philosophers missed it.

The reason why the world is such a mess these days is that we have several competing cultures—mainly Western secularism, Christianity, Islam and communism—with mutually exclusive ethical values. They go to war with each other to see which one will rule the world. Science is at the essence of Western secularism. Philosophers remain undecided between secularism, communism or something of their own making like postmodernism or identity politics.

How ideologies corrupted philosophy

Maybe I am being too uncharitable.

I agree that, if we go sufficiently back in time, philosophy has done good things for Humanity. It led the way in antique Greece and Rome. It brought us out of the dark Middle Age, being at the center of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Without it, we would not have developed modern democracy, discarded theocracy and fought back against the injustices of the nascent Industrial Revolution and capitalism in the 19th century. At that time, philosophers developed the ideas of the Enlightenment into Socialism.

Then, in the 20th century, things went awfully wrong. Communism split from socialism and became dogmatic and dictatorial. The dialectic of power of Nietzsche fueled the Fascist and Nazi ideologies that took over Europe. Philosophy, it seems, lost its ability to think and became mired in one ideology after another. With the advent of postmodernism, it became openly hostile to science. This opened the door to a long list of irrational ideologies: standpoint theory, anti-racism, radical feminism, intersectionality, the denial of sexual differences.

In a society divided between irrational conservatism and the dogmatic Left, scientists almost have to go underground to do their work.

What shall we do about philosophy?

I’m sorry to tell you that the philosophy emperor has no clothes. He’s been butt-naked for a century. And we are in a global situation too dire to enjoy the porn show. We cannot waste our time reading long books in deliberately obscure prose. We need to move on.

Many scientists have a critical view of philosophy:

“There’s a certain sub-group of famous, publicly visible scientists — biologists Lewis Wolpert and Richard Dawkins, and physicists Neil de Grasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, and the late Stephen Hawking among them — who’ve made no bones about the fact that they deride philosophy and philosophers.” @Austin Hackney in Philosophy vs. Science: There’s a Clear Winner (and It’s Not Philosophy).
“Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.” Stephen Hawking.
“Of course, philosophy is the field that hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.” Lawrence Krauss.

Some philosophers are starting to take those criticisms seriously: The Unreasonable Ineffectiveness of Philosophy.

A common counter to criticisms of philosophy is that such criticisms are themselves philosophy. Of course! I’m not arguing that philosophy—the pursuit of wisdom—is bad. What I am saying is that modern philosophers have done a terrible job of doing philosophy.

It’s time we take philosophy away from them.

Regular people should engage in philosophy by doing what they have been doing all along: decide what is right and wrong. No need to study complicated philosophy textbooks to do that.

Scientists should do philosophy by exploring the implications of the scientific worldview. I think that the amount of knowledge that science has gathered about the world is vast and deep enough to answer many of the fundamental questions of life.

In fact, some philosophers—Daniel Dennett, Paul and Patricia Churchland—are already doing this by studying and embracing science instead of fighting against it. Other philosophers have made substantial contributions to immunology and cognitive science.

And yet, I am worried that philosophy could become a Trojan Horse to infect science with ideology and political correctness. Philosophers have to earn the trust of scientists by showing the same commitment to intellectual honesty and independence from ideology.

A good start would be stopping their misguided war against science.

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