Darwin’s impact on philosophy has long been my fascination. Given that we are evolved creatures, it’s not so surprising that many of our individual behaviours and our cultural institutions might be profitably understood from a biological perspective. Yet traditional, so-called armchair philosophy has been done with minimal input from the empirical sciences for as long as there has been philosophy (which is incidentally longer than there has been armchairs.) The poverty of empiricism in philosophy, to borrow a phrase, has only recently been corrected.
Philosophers as we now know them have their feet in many camps – they are sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists or engineers; they are computer scientists, neurologists or historians. The diversity of reputable philosophers’ training is perhaps unmatched by any other discipline.
But this great empirical trend in philosophy comes with its own dangers. By over-correcting for the highly abstract, even Platonic trend in philosophy, the pendulum can be made to swing the other way. If philosophy leans too much on science, the former risks being swallowed whole by the latter. This would be a grave mistake – philosophy is not yet ‘merely’ a branch of the other social and pure sciences. Other fields are undeniably encroaching fast, but philosophy still has a humble outpost that is truly its own domain.
This belief has taken me a long time to reach. Since very early in my philosophical education I felt that purely philosophical questions existed only because they had not been asked in the proper empirical terms. It is easy to make a splash with this type of claim. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow opens with the bold claim that “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.” The papers and blogs jumped on this with the usual gusto for Hyperbole stemming from Authority and providing Controversy (the H.A.C. Factor™ as I have come to call it).
Not quite, I would say to Hawking and friends. Philosophy suffers when it is overwhelmed by the natural sciences, and especially so in the case of moral philosophy. Of course, Hawking and Mlodinow are concerned with the origins of the universe and not necessarily how one ought to live, but their overreach is nonetheless instructive.
Philosophical questions do not disappear even when they are very cleverly couched in empirical terms. They are eroded, chipped away at, freshly illuminated – pick your metaphor. Scientific progress will continue to correlate strongly with philosophical progress, but there is little risk of science eclipsing philosophy just yet.
Perhaps without realising it, many moral philosophers similarly over-extend the reach of the natural sciences in philosophy. I am likely still guilty of such mistakes, although this mea culpa of a post should at least make it clear that I hope to change my erroneous ways.
In many ways the most recent wave of this notorious infusion of the biological sciences in philosophy began with E. O. Wilson’s work on insect and animal societies. Although not alone in this movement, his book Sociobiology was probably the most popular and controversial example of biology’s newest pretenses to speak with authority in traditionally off-limit domains (i.e. sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc.).
Wilson is still committed to his vision of unified knowledge of the universe, and his more recent book Consilience is beautifully written defense of finding unity in the sciences. But Wilson is not as strong a reductionist as it might seem. He doesn’t claim that the key to understanding the endless forms most beautiful that are being evolved (to borrow another phrase) must be done in terms of quantum physics. Different ‘levels’ of the universe require different ‘levels’ of explanation. This point is easy to forget when philosophy is so thoroughly infused with science. But there are limits to this infusion.
I have always enjoyed Bertrand Russell for his clarity and his style. But his philosophy has not stood up well with time. In a short piece called “Philosophy in the Twentieth Century” he writes:
“The first characteristic of the new philosophy is that it abandons the claim to a special philosophical method or a peculiar brand of knowledge to be obtained by its means. It regards philosophy as essentially one with science, differing from the special sciences merely by the generality of its problems, and by the fact that it is concerned with the formation of hypotheses where empirical evidence is still lacking. It conceives that all knowledge is scientific knowledge, to be ascertained and proved by the methods of science.” The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell. p. 268
It’s undeniable now as it was in 1928 that philosophy increasingly resembles science and profits from its methods and findings. But philosophy and science are not one and the same. Granted, moral decision making will continue to be illuminated by scientific progress. But to say that we will finally cross the gap of ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is, I believe, mistaken. The explanatory level of agency and morality may well be the highest level of explanation in the universe. This is because for every complex social phenomenon – broad cultural systems like politics, industry, economy (divide it however you like) – we can and do aspire to direct them for practical and moral reasons.
It’s true that our political system exists only because there are millions of individuals whose collective actions constitute a given political entity. And some of the phenomena we see associated with the body politic are not reducible to these individual actions – the logic of politics requires another level of explanation. But the intentional actions of individuals within the body politic are shaped by the trends at this ‘higher’ level of explanation. Feedback is possible, and indeed common. Political trends emerge because of the collective actions of millions, which in turn affects the actions of those millions (some more than others, of course).
The way we deem suitable to direct the political phenomenon is a moral question, which we only dimly understand using statistical and theoretical political models. Science informs our understanding of this complex phenomena that is nevertheless emergent and susceptible to direction from ‘below’. Our social sciences have come a long way, but have plenty of room to grow.
And yet, as I think we will increasingly understand, agency always finds a way to bubble to the top of the explanatory hierarchy, and thus will always, if only minutely, remain meaningfully distinct from scientific explanation.
The moral questions are separate from science, if just barely. But our ability to create that insurmountable explanatory leap is what makes us human, and it is something we ought to hold quite dear. That gap is perhaps our greatest distinguishing feature as temporary assemblies of matter in a cooling universe.