Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Why science needs philosophy

There's a widely held view that science can make philosophy redundant, that philosophy has a declining role in the understanding of our world.  That's wrong.  Without philosophy, science is just data collection.  Let's look at some examples.

1. Philosophy can help us understand what it means to talk about 'ultimates'.  To give an example, some String Theory says that the ultimate constituents of the universe are extremely small vibrating strands of something, and the behaviour of particles is determined by how those strands vibrate.  It doesn't take much philosophy to understand that these strands cannot be the ultimate thing because a vibrating object necessarily has identifiable parts, such as nodes of vibration.  Philosophy can lead us to realise that it may not make any sense to talk about ultimates, because philosophy can allow us to investigate what attributes some such ultimate might have, and to explore if they are consistent.

2. Philosophy can help us look at the subject of multiverses.  What does it mean for a region of space, or some spacetime domain to be a 'multiverse'.  Can a universe that does not connect to our time and space be thought of as existing at all?  This is a question of philosophy.

3. At some point we will make an artificial mind.  How do we know if this mind is conscious?  Should we grant such a mind rights?  Is it murder to turn such a mind off?  These are questions of philosophy.

4. Does reductionism make sense?  Can we explain what happens in our brains using neural networks?  Is there some extra causal effect at the level of brain cells that is just not present when dealing with the physics of the material the cells are made of?  This is, again, a subject for philosophy.

Philosophy is the process of thinking about meaning.  We will never be in a position to not have to do this, and so we will always need philosophers to help us interpret science.

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