Monday, June 7, 2010

On the Future of Philosophy and Science

A friend of mine asked me for my opinion about the future of philosophy. There's a popular perception that, in light of the tremendous advances science has made in the last century or so, philosophy is a dying discipline. As most of you know, I disagree with this assessment, but I do think that philosophy needs to adapt if it is to survive. Here are my brief thoughts on the future of my discipline, and its relationship to the scientific project.

Philosophy as an isolated discipline is certainly in decline--the number of questions that are purely "philosophical" (and worth answering) is shrinking. That's less a reflection on philosophy, though, and more a reflection of the state of academia in general: disciplinary lines are blurring. Physics is (at least in parts) informed by biology, information theory, and other special sciences. The special sciences themselves are (and have been for a while) mutually supportive and reinforcing; there's no clear line between a question for (say) sociology and a question for economics. None of that is to say that physics, biology, information theory, sociology, or economics is in decline, though--it just means that academia is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.

On the face of it, this shift looks to have hit philosophy particularly hard: we've fallen quite far from our position as the queen of the Aristotelean sciences to where we are today, and there's a pervasive attitude both among other academics and among lay-people, I think, that philosophy is basically obsolete today, having been replaced by more reputable scientific investigation. There's a perception, that is, that metaphysics has been supplanted by mathematical physics, ethics has been rendered obsolete by sociobiology and evolutionary game theory, and that questions about the nature of the mind have been reduced to questions about neurobiology (or maybe computation theory). All of this is, I think, more or less true: the days of philosophy pursued as a stand-alone competitor to science are over, or at least they ought to be. This is emphatically not the same thing as saying that philosophy is dead or dying, though--it just needs to undergo the same kind of shift that other sciences have had to go through as they've entered the modern era. Philosophy needs to be incorporated into the unified structure of science generally.

It's not immediately obvious how to do this, but there are some clues. We should start by looking at the areas of science where philosophers--that is, people trained in or employed by philosophy departments using methods that are marked by careful attention to argument, critical examination of underlying assumptions, and concern with big-picture issues--are still making useful contributions to the scientific enterprise. There are, I think, two pretty clear paradigm cases here: quantum mechanics and cognitive science. In both of these fields, philosophers have made contributions that, far from consisting in idle navel-gazing and linguistic trickery, have made a real impact on scientific understanding. In QM, philosophers like David Albert, Hilary Greaves, David Deutsch, David Wallace, Barry Loewer, Tim Maudlin, Frank Arntzenius, and others have helped tremendously in clarifying foundational issues and resolving (or at least explicating) some of the trickier conceptual problems lurking behind dense mathematical formalism. Similarly, philosophers like Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Andy Clark, Ken Aizawa, and others have been instrumental in actually getting the field of cognitive science off the ground; just as in QM, these philosophers are responsible both for clarifying foundational concepts and for designing ingenious experiments to test hypotheses developed in the field.

What does the work these people are doing have in common in virtue of which it is philosophical? Again, the answer isn't clear, but this just reinforces the point that I'm making: there's no longer a clear division between philosophy and the rest of the scientific project to which philosophers ought to be contributing. If anything, the line between philosophy qua philosophy and science (insofar as there's a line at all) seems more and more to be amethodological line rather than a topical one; a philosopher differs from a "normal" scientist not in virtue of the subject matter he investigates, but in virtue of the way he approaches that subject matter. Scientists, by and large, are trained as specialists: by the time a physicist or biologist reaches the later stages of his PhD, his work is usually sharpened to a very fine point, and his area of expertise is narrow, but very deep: many (but not all) practicing scientists know a tremendous amount about their own fields, but are content to leave thinking about other fields to other specialists. Philosophers, on the other hand, are often generalists (at least when compared to physicists). In virtue of our general training in logic, argumentation, critical thinking, and, well, philosophy we're often better equipped than most to see the bigger picture--to see the way the whole scientific enterprise fits together, and to notice problems that are only apparent from a sufficiently high level of abstraction. Training in philosophy means sacrificing a certain amount of depth of knowledge--I'll never know as much about particle physics as Brian Greene--for a certain amount of breadth and flexibility; by the time my training is done, I'll know a bit about particle physics, a bit about evolutionary theory, a bit about computer science, a bit about cognitive neurobiology, a bit about statistical mechanics, a bit about climate science, a bit about the foundations of mathematics, and so on. That kind of breadth certainly has its drawbacks--a philosopher is unlikely to make the kind of experimental breakthroughs that a scientist dedicating his life to a single problem might achieve--but it also has its benefits; philosophers are in a unique position to (as it were) care for the whole forest rather than just a few trees.

Philosophers are uniquely situated, that is, to engage in the project of "bridge-building" between the individual sciences--uniquely situated to facilitate the continuing break-down of disciplinary barriers that threatened philosophy's existence to begin with. Philosophy's tool-kit is sufficiently general to be applied to any of the special sciences, given a little bit of study and localization. This isn't to suggest that philosophers should (or even can) make pronouncements about scientific issues from the armchair; that's the model of philosophy that's dying, and I'm not the only one to have said "good riddance" to it. Doing philosophy of physics means learning physics, and doing philosophy of biology means learning biology. We need to engage with the disciplines to which we contribute; the edges of the bridges need to be anchored on solid ground before they can help us cross the interdisciplinary gaps. The "big picture" questions that have been the hallmark of philosophy for millennia--questions like "what is humanity's place in the universe?" and "what do our best theories of the structure of the world mean for who we are?" and even "what's special about consciousness?" still have a place in contemporary science. Science has room for both specialists and generalists, and questions like "what's the right way to think about a real physical system's being in a state that's represented by a linear combination of eigenvectors?" have an important place in science. The scientific enterprise takes all kinds, and there's room for philosophers to contribute, if we can just get our collective head out of our collective ass and come back to the empirical party with the rest of science.