TBT: Zarbi (“Why science needs philosophy”)
This is part of a weekly series in which I showcase a thoughtful and interesting blog to both promote and engage with. Please see here for more details, or to comment about the series as a whole.
For Thoughtful Blog Thursday today we have Zarbi by Steve Zara. A post popped up today which reminded me of Steve and his recent thinking about the value of philosophy and its relationship to science: Why science needs philosophy.
His conclusion is yes, but I’m going to disagree with him, at least as far as his title goes. Science can be done independently of any serious philosophical investigation. One need not hold any particular opinion on the epistemic status of scientific claims, nor on their philosophical or ethical implications in order to do science. Esteemed scientists like Hawking and Krauss see little value in philosophy, at least as it relates to science, and have no difficulty carrying out their work as a result.
Steve’s points, I think, defend a different contention; one that I do agree with. That while philosophy isn’t necessary for science, it can consider questions that are not themselves scientific, even though they may relate to our scientific endeavours. I’ll just examine the second of his four reasons:
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.
I don’t know whether or not science will ever be able to provide evidence for a multiverse. Prima facie it seems impossible for us to gather data from a spatio-temporally separate universe, but science is always surprising us and we ought to know better by now than to say “science will never discover x”.
There is an analogue in philosophy, and that is David Lewis’ idea of concrete possible worlds, often called ‘modal realism‘. On this view (which at first sounds rather nutty, until you read Lewis’ defence…), possible worlds aren’t just concepts or imaginary states of affairs. Rather, they really exist just as our world does. These worlds are spatio-temporally separate from ours, so we can’t get at them, and possible worlds are defined by Lewis as whatever things are spatio-temporally related to each other. This paper by Phillip Bricker provides some further reading, explaining it well and offering some objections to Lewis’ view.
Note that Lewis’ reasoning (see the Wikipedia link for a summary) and Bricker’s objections are philosophical, rather than scientific. The discussion is concerned with the ontological basis for modal claims, rather than the nature of the universe, and so if we were to do away with philosophy, instead preferring to rely solely on science, we would have to remain silent on this question, until scientific evidence (whatever that could mean in this context – I suspect nothing) comes in. That might sound appealing, to the anti-philosophy folk. However, to say that we cannot speak of such things is to take a position on Lewis’ reasoning – to form an objection to Lewis’ theory. Since Lewis dealt with this view, the anti-philosopher must put forward reasons why Lewis failed to do what he tried to do.
And if you’re doing that, you’re doing philosophy.