Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Philosophy and science

I've been thinking about the relationship between philosophy and science.  More specifically I've been thinking about metaphysics and science.  More specifically still I've been thinking about how that relationship affects me.  Now, I don't know much about science at all.  I have very modest GCSEs in the sciences and as a child was of the opinion that I just couldn't do them (turns out that I think I would have been quite good at them if I hadn't been so lazy and negative, but that's another rant for another day).  As a student I discovered philosophy, and metaphysics.  I fell in love with it and specialised in it at the earliest opportunity.  In my sheltered metaphysical bubble I happy worked away on universals, possible worlds, and conceptual analysis, blissfully unaware that a significant proportion of the academic world considered the discipline I was training myself in to be... well, bull.

Now that I'm a grad student my horizons have been widened a little.  I'm still a metaphysician, but I know plenty of scientists, and work in a department with a lot of philosophy of science going on.  I am now very aware of the disreputable nature of metaphysics, though I have never encountered a reason that didn't make me lose some respect for the person giving it.  But enough of that, this post is not going to be a rant by me defending a field of philosophy that I am clearly very biased towards.  You don't want to read that, and I don't want to write it (if you do want to read that I'm sure you can google someone else's views on the matter).  What this post is about is the position I've found myself in now that I've been thinking about this.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot actually.  The reasons people given against metaphysics (or even more ignorantly against philosophy as a whole *cough* *Hawking*) haven't convinced me that metaphysics is bunk, but what they do highlight is that some of it is done badly.  Now, just because some people do something badly doesn't mean that what they're trying to do is bad.  If you think that it does then I really don't know what to say... except perhaps to recommend that you sit and think about it for a while (and don't come back to this post until you realise that you're wrong).  However, there is badly done metaphysics, and it looks like one of the reasons that some of it is done badly is a lack of awareness of the science related to the issues being investigated.

Obviously not all metaphysics needs to take scientific theorising into account.  For some enquiries it just seems irrelevant.  But with my work focusing on essence, it looks like I may be one of those metaphysicians who falls within the group that needs a little scientific awareness.  Herein lies my problem.  As I see it I have three options.  The first is to ignore this fact and go about my life as a metaphysician, and if people call me up on it then just patronisingly smile and remind them that they're not being sensitive enough to the philosophical issues.  The second is to try to take science into account where it seems to be relevant to metaphysical endeavours.  The third is to put it off, recognise that it is relevant, accept that I can't do that, and reassure myself that I've do it one day. 

Obviously I don't think option one is appropriate.  If I did then this post would clearly have a very different tone.  Option two appeals to me the most (seemingly being the most intellectually responsible action to take), but there is a problem.  As mentioned before, I don't know science.  I mean, sure, I probably know more that the average person who doesn't know about science, I like popular science stuff and have an okay grasp of that, but that just ain't enough.  If I try to do metaphysics that is scientifically informed it isn't enough to just learn a bit and have a stab, lest I risk falling prey to that most venomous insult in the philosopher of sciences arsenal: "Thinking that because I've read the wikipedia page I know about quantum field theory" (or whatever).  But what is the alternative?  I'm a grad student in philosophy, I don't exactly have the time to get degrees in physics and biology.  

It seems that I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't.  Which is a shame, because I don't want to be damned, I'd much prefer to not be damned if it's all the same actually.  So I guess I have to plum with option three.  I'll continue to plug away at my scientifically uninformed metaphysics for now with the promise to myself that in the future I'll somehow learn the science I need to do metaphysics without being branded a 'GCSE chemistry philosopher.' 

Of course there is another option, just stick to the parts of metaphysics that go too far beyond the scientific data and to which it is irrelevant...  But how do I know which ones they are without the appropriate knowledge?

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