Philosophy, Math and Science

It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is...............20th philosopher WJC.

Despite (or maybe, because of, their common origins) there is a fair amount of tension between philosophy and science. I don't know why or precisely how the mutual hostility arose, but I have some guesses. For one thing, it looks to me like Aristotle and especially Plato took some wrong turns that held back science for a couple of millenia. In particular Plato emphasized thought at the expense of experience, and thought that reality could be grasped by thought and argument alone. In this he was following in the footsteps of Parmenides and his pupil Zeno, who made the same argument. Aristotle was far more open to experience, and was a tireless investigator of every kind of phenomena, from physics to writing plays.

Unfortunately, though, his vast and manifold genius seems to have discouraged those who might have thought to go beyond him. Moreover, he, like Plato, gave primacy to thought over experience, which discouraged precisely those kinds of investigation which could go beyond him. I note, though, that even his wrong ideas often show the stamp of genius. He thought, for example, that a vacuum was impossible, since then an object in motion would have no reason to stop.

Breaking free of the Aristotelian straightjacket was essential for Galileo and the other pioneers who invented physics, or reinvented it, I should say. The bitterest critique of the ancients came from the paleontologist and evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson, who wrote:

“The question “What is man?” is probably the most profound that can be asked by man. It has always been central to any system of philosophy or theology…. The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”

1859, of course, was the publication year of Darwin's Origin of Species. Even hard core Darwinists, like myself, tend to find this diagnosis a bit over the top, but I recognize the sentiment. Take that, Plato!

So is philosophy an intellectual dead end? On the whole, I tend to think yes. The intellectually vibrant portions have nearly all been co-opted by science. Exactly what remains, I'm not sure.

Nonetheless, philosophy seems to continue to attract quite a bit of talent. Studies of GRE scores by intended graduate major consistently show that planned philosophy majors are tops in verbal reasoning and analytical writing, and are even slightly above average in quantitative reasoning.

Philosophy has never been afraid to tackle the big questions. It's ability to get good answers has failed to keep up.


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