Beyond Anti-Philosophy

28 August 2011


SETI and the evolutionary argument

for the obsolescence of philosophy

In a couple of posts, Fashionable Anti-Philosophy and Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, I examined the almost hostile level of rhetoric found in some works of contemporary scientists when they discuss philosophy. Beyond mere anti-philosophy, as I call it, and which implies its reactionary character, there lies the possibility of merely dismissing philosophy as irrelevant or outdated. This will be my concern today.

The scientists that I cited in my remarks on anti-philosophy were all from the “hard” sciences, or the natural sciences, and (in so far as my knowledge extends, which is admittedly not very far) it seems that the most unkind cuts of all to philosophy come from physicists. In a certain sense this is almost paradoxical, or counter-intuitive, in so far as physics today is profoundly shaped by general relativity and quantum theory — both of them physical theories with deep philosophical roots. But set that aside for the moment.

It would be my guess that researchers in the social sciences and other “soft” sciences are so busy defending the scientific character of their work against impressions of lack of objectivity that infects their disciplines that they have little time to be concerned with the scientific status of other disciplines. And beyond the social scientists, there are those scientists engaged in activities so marginal to the main stream of contemporary science that these practitioners, despite their credentials and institutional affiliations, no doubt find it difficult to command the respect they believe due to their work, not to mention the funding they need to continue their work.

One can easily sympathize with the plight of SETI scientists regarding the legitimate scientific status of their discipline. I imagine that they probably don’t get the best offices, and that when they pass particle physicists in the hall the physicists are probably whistling the alien theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind under their breath. And they probably get thoroughly sick and tired of hearing people say, “E.T. phone home!” This kind of atmosphere would probably eventually make an impression on even those most secure in the scientific status of their discipline, with the inevitable desire to distinguish itself from what is unambiguously non-science

In fact, Paul Davies in his The Eerie Silence: Renewing our Search for Alien Intelligence devotes a section of his book to “It’s great — but is it science?” (pp. 10-13) His answer to this question is:

“What is not in question, however, is that the methodology of SETI is real science. The research is conducted with state-of-the-art technology by highly trained scientists using rigorous techniques of enquiry and analysis, and the results are subject to the usual scrutiny of peer-review. There is no question that the research groups are doing quality science. But are they chasing a chimera? Well, read on…”

So, according to Davies, the manifest scientificity of the method of SETI makes it science, even if that methodology is possibly focused on the pursuit of a chimera.

I have already written about Davies’ book The Eerie Silence three times previously, in Silent Worlds, Empty Worlds, SETI as a Process of Elimination, and Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence. Davies’ book is written in a wonderfully conversational style that effortlessly conveys a great deal of information. I was impressed by the intellectual creativity that the author brought to his task, and I took away much from the book that will be of use to me, intellectually speaking. However…

I found in Davies’ book not the explicit anti-philosophy of Susskind or Hawking, but a more subtle and perhaps also a more complete and final dismissal of philosophical thought, which I would call the evolutionary argument for the obsolescence of philosophy. While my name for this argument is new, the attitude is familiar: the age of philosophy has passed; the age of science has arrived; nothing will ever be the same again. Deal with it.

It has been a commonplace of intellectual history that the many special sciences have progressively separated themselves from philosophy as they have reached a level of maturity that would allow them to develop independently. It was formerly the custom to cite psychology and sociology as the sciences most recently separated from philosophy. This is no longer the case. I would argue that logic and cosmology are now the most recent sciences to be separated from philosophical antecedents.

It is only a small step beyond this commonplace that would allow us to conclude that, once all the content of philosophy has been stripped away by the various special sciences as they have taken their leave of philosophy, philosophy simply disappears, vanishing in a puff of smoke. At least, that’s the idea that I call the evolutionary argument for the obsolescence of philosophy.

Here is one of Davies’ asides on philosophy:

“The philosophical arguments I have presented in this chapter, intriguing though they may be, are no substitute for hard data. They build grandiose cosmic conclusions from the slenderest of facts, and are only as good as the assumptions on which they are based. So long as there is no concrete scientific evidence for life beyond Earth, they are about all we can do. But SETI is fundamentally an experimental and observational programme, not an exercise in philosophy and statistics. A single discovery… could instantly overturn centuries of philosophical presupposition.”

Speaking of “building grandiose conclusions on the slenderest of facts,” is not this exactly that Davies is suggesting in emphasizing the scientificity of the methodology of SETI? The most rigorous scientific method in the world is not going to get us very far if it is employed in the study of spectacularly non-naturalistic phenomena such as ghosts or past lives, which some scientists have chosen to take up from time to time. I am not suggesting that SETI is like the scientific investigation of the paranormal — it is not — but only that Davies is defending SETI on grounds that could equally well be employed to defend the scientific investigation of the paranormal.

What’s wrong with the scientific investigation of the paranormal? Am I demonstrating that I am a closed-minded stick-in-the-mud by rejecting it? The problem is not scientific method, as Davies points out, but the scientificity of the concepts. The idea of a “past life” is not a naturalistic conception. The idea must be “cashed out” in a supernaturalistic framework for it to make any sense at all. And that is fine — science remains silent on the ontological question of naturalism vs. supernaturalism, but it cannot remain silent or neutral on the question of methodological naturalism, because if science gives up methodological naturalism, it has nothing left to call its own.

I have noted elsewhere that Jung’s investigation of UFOs was about what is meant that things are seen. Jung did not even take up the question of the origin or supposed purposes of flying saucers; he only considered the fact that things are seen. This is the scientific spirit, even in the face of the paranormal. And a psychologist or sociologist who takes up ghosts or past lives can take them up in this spirit and remain true to science. But if, as a psychiatrist (for example), you take up past lives, the ontological question of past lives, indeed the very concept of past lives, is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is that lives are reported and described (sometimes in great detail). The interesting scientific question is the explanation in naturalistic terms of these reports and descriptions. Anything beyond that ceases to be science.

It is only possible to understand the distinction between science and non-science by understanding that there is a difference not only in method but also a difference between scientific concepts and non-scientific concepts. Treating non-scientific concepts with a rigorous scientific method will lead to nonsense just as certainly as treating scientific concepts by way of a non-scientific method.

It is only possible to appreciate this by understanding that science is a philosophical research program, and it is based upon a small set of philosophical principles that have proved themselves remarkably fruitful in the investigation of the natural world. Scientific concepts are amenable to exposition by methodological naturalism. We might call this conceptual naturalism. Failures of conceptual naturalism — like investigating past lives as past lives, rather than as reports and descriptions of lives — result in conceptual confusion, and no amount of observation or experiment will clarify conceptual confusion.

Science cannot extricate itself from conceptual confusion, but it can call upon the resources of philosophy in an attempt to clarify the conceptual confusions that lie at the foundation of the scientific enterprise. The conceptual confusions include the philosophical presuppositions without which science cannot be practiced. The “centuries of philosophical presupposition” that could be overturned by SETI (as Davies says) are not necessarily the philosophical presuppositions necessary to the philosophical enterprise, the conditio sine qua non of philosophy, but SETI could very well overturn “centuries of philosophical presupposition” that have been central to scientific thought.

It is just as much a folly to position science as the apotheosis of human reason — which is what the evolutionary argument for the obsolescence of philosophy does — as it was in the past to put theology or philosophy in this position. Science absolutized would be as insufferable — and as wrong — as any other form of human thought believed to be absolute. This does not mean that we can recklessly ignore science, but it does mean that scientific thought cannot recklessly ignore other forms of human thought.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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