28 May 2011

Bad Philosophy

Endowed Latter-Day Saints are familiar with the expression “philosophies of men”, in a context that means “bad”.  From the time of Plato and Aristotle, philosophy was the human species’ attempt to understand the world around us, absent all but the most primitive forms of scientific experimentation and testing.  The history of philosophy during the past millennium, however, reads more like a cycle of Young Turk creating a position opposite to the reigning Elder of that day... then being undercut by the succeeding generation of philosophers intent on being the Next New Thing.  In the meantime, experimental science gathered itself into a real head of steam that really began to explode in the 19th Century.

All philosophy is not all bad, however.  In part this is because there are a lot if different kinds of philosophy:
- Logic (probably best described as the study of the most effective way to think...)
- Epistemology (reason vs. revelation - the nature and limits of human knowledge)
- Ethics (moral principles - rules of conduct)
- Political Philosophy (democracy is a mess, but consider the alternatives...)
- Philosophy of Language (why did you say that... that particular way)
- Philosophy of Science (how does one actually do rigorous science)

You will note that I deliberately leave out things like Existentialism, meta-philosophy, Nihilism, fruit-cakes...

It could be argued that science owes its modern success to philosophy: that ideas evolving from Kant to Hegel to Popper about reality and hypothesis and falsifiability gave modern science a guiding framework to work within.

I have just pulled from my pocket a Droid - which I can use to call my daughter in Australia, waste time with Mahjong, lose consistently at chess, compose and upload a blog, read and even write books (including parts of two that I have recently published*), play Lady Gaga and Ramin Djawadi, locate myself using GPS satellites, take photos and make movies, read bar-codes to find the best price for something, keep my calendar... the list goes on and on.  Given a source of power to recharge the device, I could easily keep myself busy all day.  I might be cross-eyed and have a headache, but I would always be entertained.  This Droid is better, functionally, than a desktop computer I had three years ago.  That desktop computer was functionally light years ahead of my first personal computer, and that one was light-years ahead of the IBM 1620 that I first learned to program in Fortran as a kid... which was housed in a facility the size of my house.

My Droid is a metaphor for the accelerating advance of science and technology; in some ways these have superceded philosophy.  This rapid and accelerating advance can also fool otherwise smart people: some scientists are so imbued with it that they have made the unjustifiable assumption that science has supplanted religion as well.  This particular self-anointing conceit would appear to be fairly common if you listen to the loudest voices... among scientists in good health.  It is also circular logic, and ignorant of the history of science.

With time, the boundaries of science, religion, and philosophy seem to have blurred, but a careless acceptance that this is OK or normal would be a big mistake.  Philosophy can speculate about the truly Big Questions, such as:
Why did the universe begin?
Where did I come from?
Why am I here?
What will happen to me?
...but it can never answer them: it operates without the irritating constraint of data.  At the same time, science cannot answer those questions either - because it cannot access data to either, cosmic background radiation notwithstanding.

Stephen Jay Gould argued that science and religion are different (non-overlapping) “magisteria” - e.g., independent domains that seek to answer different questions by totally different means.

I consider this an unevolved answer.  Like philosophers of old, if you don’t have data you are not constrained in what you may propose, but neither am I constrained to buy your loony suggestion.  I see growing evidence instead that ultimately all truth (as opposed to the philosophical conceit du jour) goes back to just one thing: the Source of Everything.  If the universe began with a Bang 13.4 billion years ago, then something preceded it.  We didn't just happen.

We can glimpse the Glory through science, but we can’t attain it through science.


* Two books I recently wrote or co-authored:

2 Worlds, The Real Venezuela: Living on the Edge of the Jungle and the Rise of Hugo Chavez 

(with Louise Wynn; that's our daughter Valerie on the cover with a pet monkey)

Fulcrum - Gray World (a Sci-Fi book written under the pseudonym of Jason Wyatt)


No comments:

Post a Comment