Monday, 14 December 2015

More scepticism please


Case closed. I know what I am talking about. It is difficult to broach a subject with someone who claims to have all the answers. It is just as difficult to do this with someone with a religious fundamentalist as it is with a scientific fundamentalist. Someone who is a Christian might not even be an expert on theology, but he is resolute that the Holy Bible has all the answers, it has a factual basis and that it is a reliable guide for an ethical lifestyle. Meanwhile, an expert on theology might say that the Bible is just a series of myths, that they are not logical and rational propositions and that these myths can be interpreted in a logical and rational way. A scientific fundamentalist would say that science can be used to solve anything and it is the best method as a result. They might not say this because they are experts on science or philosophy, they often say it because a guy in a lab coat told them so. If you claim otherwise – that science cannot solve everything – you might even be accused of being a creationist! (This happened to me recently.) Surely it is healthy to talk about everything, to question everything and to have a plurality of disciplines and discourses. What a few members – not all members! – of the scientific community end up doing is that they shut off all discussion of these issues. Even when non-experts have conversation – and I am not an expert on philosophy or science – all discussion is shut off because of an allegedly consensual view. Is that scepticism?

Science, surely, is empirical. It analyses causality; it doesn’t interpret it. It’s not really about meaning in the sense that language connotes meaning. Science is extremely laudable. We wouldn’t have better living standards without it and I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this without it. That’s all functional. It’s how, not why! Science can explain why I am here in the sense that it can explain the psychogenetic features of perception. It can explain the nature of the physical world. Again, that is all descriptive. It doesn’t explain what something like consciousness means, or the nature of my existence.

So, science is surely empirical. We need facts to ascertain how things as they there. Science can empirically tell me that this really is a computer and that I really am typing on a keyboard. It can tell me how this computer works. But is everything empirical? When we speak about the ideas that language connotes, they have no empirical basis in the same way that this computer or a chair has an empirical basis. Metaphysics cannot be empirically proven because my thoughts are not in the empirical world of cause and effect.  

When we speak about morality, I have values and moral judgements that precede experience. If you try to scientifically reach an absolute truth about morality, you get to really murky territory. If I have a political bias, I might find certain things about universities morally repellent. I might think that fees are extortionate and that students become mired in debts. From a moral standpoint, I might say the there is a duty to provide welfare to attenuate all this.  Someone from a different political persuasion might say that, no, students have to work and pay for their debts regardless of the circumstance as they themselves have made the choice to come to university. So, you can have a moral framework to inform a moral argument, but the moral argument is driven by values and principles which precede experience and hence are non-empirical and non-scientific. The only way to resolve that is dialectically. You have thesis, antithesis and synthesis. How is that scientific? If you were to say that we could use scientific methods to solve these problems, then you are still doing philosophy because you are working with abstract ideas. When someone like Richard Dawkins says that we should use genetic engineering to prevent children with Down’s Syndrome being born, surely this is morally objectionable. You don’t judge the morality of scientific experiments like eugenics through science either.

How can science have a say in aesthetics? (Science has tried its hand at this recently.) You can scan a painting and say it has certain features. That’s just a description of shapes; that’s geometry. It can’t really say how these shapes have been put together to create a desired effect and whether it is good or bad. What about the messages and ideas connoted by the painting? Again, this is impossible. Aesthetically, you might ascertain that a painting is, for example, about the quest for transcendence or about injustice. Those are concepts and concepts are removed from experience. If you say that that is meaningless because it can’t be empirically tested and, is hence, not there, you are wrong because concepts tell us something about experience and hence have meaning. All art is representational (it can be of a concept or a real object or a real life event). The artist has used his intention to represent and/or interpret his perception of something. In this sense, it is expressing something metaphysical and conceptual and is removed from experience. These are ideas which aesthetics explores and that can’t be empirically tested.

Confusion arises when science makes enormous leaps. These leaps should be welcomed by everyone. Science makes progress because its knowledge is cumulative. Philosophical questions are timeless and perennial. We always ask why we know what we know. Epistemological questions like those are philosophical, not scientific. Ditto to morality, aesthetics, metaphysics, ontology and on and on and on. The reason why it hasn’t led to any ‘findings’ after thousands of years is very simple – its problems are insoluble. If you want findings, then yes, by all means, go to science. I don’t understand why, for instance, finding how the universe came to being discredits philosophy or even theology. On the contrary, it makes more of a case for them. It leads to more questions and more speculation. If I learn what the causal factor of the universe is, then that makes me think about my being here and the existence of other objects in a different way. You can theorise why there is something rather than nothing. Theologically, it has implications because you can work existing theories and ideas about creation around it.  When Stephen Hawking claims that ‘philosophy is dead,’ this is an example of that confusion. It seems to imply that morals, ethics, epistemological questions progress in the same way that science and technology do. If you make the claim that they do progress, then you still doing philosophy.

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