One major mistake that we can be misled into, by thinking philosophy ought to be the hand-maiden to the sciences, is believing all knowledge is somehow of a piece, that it all fits neatly together because of methodology or subject matter. This is simply not true.
Admittedly, this has been a dream of philosophers since at least Aristotle, perhaps Plato. Pursuit of this dream has led to construction of those magnificent cathedrals of logic and language known as ‘systematic philosophy:’ everything could be brought together, everything would be explained. From the cycles of the stars in the sky, to the boils on one’s buttocks, all would be known.
I can’t remember who said it, but it has been said, that Hegel’s dialectic ended with the burning of the Reichstag. In fact the past hundred or so years has seen the complete collapse of every project of a ‘systematic philosophy,’ in the face of social, political, cultural changes undreamt of in Hegel’s day. We now know that we simply can’t account for all possible human experience, and human experience remains the core of any possible knowledge.
While the Positivists confined themselves to the details of language, their privileging scientific theory above all other language uses tells us that they hoped that a ‘systematic philosophy’ would at last be possible – only not within the practice of philosophy, but in science. Science would eventually tell us all we needed to know – about the world, and, eventually, about ourselves – and discourse outside of science would be recognized as mere opinion: perhaps deeply felt, but ultimately unreliable. And many scientists and some philosophers still seem to believe this.
But it is becoming more clear that the methodologies of the various sciences are actually rather varied; and that there is sometime little or no connection between differing sciences, either in the kind of knowledge they provide, or the structures of knowledge implicit in their modelings. Right now, computer simulations seem to be the one practice that all sciences share; yet the fact remains that these simulations are very different in structure, from one science to another, and implicate differing degrees (perhaps, in a sense, different kinds) of probability and predictability.
And no computer simulation or algorithm is going to get me a better tasting beer, for the simple reason that my taste in beer varies from day to day, and brewing recipes depend on the brewer’s own taste and attention to details, some of which must be measured strictly, others more reliant on the brewer’s intuition. And should I drink beer before driving a motor vehicle? Obviously not, it’s against the law; but such laws have been arrived at after years of communities suffering the consequence of poor choices on the part of drivers.
But why should I drive any motor vehicle at all? That’s a question science cannot answer, because the question depends on the social world, its history, and my place in it. Indeed, it seems a curious question; yet our collective failure to ask it has contributed to a damaged biosphere and the consequences of that.
‘Well, wait; doesn’t the damage caused by vehicular pollution – which is a scientific fact – answer my question?’ It certainly informs it, and informs some of my political choices. It won’t pay my bills should I decide to quit my job because it involves a long commute.
What are my obligations in such matters, and from whence do they arrive? One can reduce such a question to matters of consequence – ‘if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t break the law!’ But concerning matters not determined by law, surely simple reference to positive or negative consequences just won’t do. I don’t have a family anymore; but when I did, I certainly felt obligated toward them, despite the fact that they were wholly dysfunctional, both individually and collectively, and unpleasant to be with. (In “The Marx Bros. Go West,” when Groucho asks Chico, concerning Harpo, “You love your brother, don’t you?” Chico shrugs. “Naw, but I’m used to him.”)
Should we not expect philosophy to provide answers to questions such as these? Here, I agree wholeheartedly with those who prefer a critical thinking, rather than ascertaining all the ‘right’ answers: No; what philosophy ought to do is what it’s always done best, even before the coming of ‘systematic philosophy’ – pose the questions in a way that causes us to think deeply about them.
And the devil of it is that people expecting science to answer all these questions fail to understand that such answers are not what we want of science, they’re not what any science has been set up to get us. One effort after another to reduce the human experience to the lowest common denominators for statistical probability and ‘scientific’ intervention has failed. (As late as 1980, Skinnerian Behaviorists were trying to ‘train’ homosexuals to be heterosexuals. Now most of us no longer view homosexuality as an aberration; simply yet another possibility in the wide range of what it might mean to be human.)
We need to stop thinking that the human experience is filled with all sorts of diseases or pathologies that somebody needs to diagnose and cure. Just as, after years of tortuous logic chopping in America, and equally tortuous inflated tropology among certain Europeans, that good plain speech is something we must suspect, dissect, correct. Humans make a lot of mistakes, and think and do a lot of stupid things. But we must remember that the human is the source of all value, and must be respected for that.
“I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here (Auschwitz) , to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.” – J. Bronowski, “The Ascent of Man”
Originally submitted as comments to Dan Kaufman’s “On Philosophy and Its Progress,” https://theelectricagora.com/2016/06/02/on-philosophy-and-its-progress-a-response-of-sorts-to-massimo-pigliucci/