Monday, January 10, 2011

The Ivory Tower of philosophy

I think that the world is greatly indebted to philosophy. I do not say that because I am a philosopher, for originally I am a sociologist and I turned to philosophy, just because it gave me important insights. But I think that the world would be different without philosophy, for the worse and for the better. This is not such an arrogant remark as one might think, if one realizes that philosophy developed together with the world and that what was called philosophy many centuries ago is not exactly the same as what is called philosophy today. Man’s political views of the world, ethics, mathematics, theology, astrology, science, and much more: all this was headed together under the name of philosophy. However, through the ages, one after another split off and became independent ways to approach the world or a part of it, until what remained is what we call philosophy today: a wordly way of thinking about themes that are not empirical.
When the philosophical field shrunk its character changed, too. Philosophy developed into a service organization for the sciences, for instance, and into a way to interpret scientific results. One of the tasks of philosophy today is thinking about what science is and about its methodological rules. By doing so, philosophy founds what science is and how it is done. But once science has done its work and presents its results, it is not so that these results have an unequivocal meaning. Far from that. As such scientific facts do not exist, for they are dependent on the type of instruments used to discover them and on presuppositions that are basic for these instruments. Facts are also dependent on the theories in which they are framed and these theories are continuously changing and being improved. In other words, scientific results are interpretations. To make clear what this implies is a philosophical task. Actually, this explanatory task is a continuation of the methodological task of philosophy before practical scientific work starts.
Moreover, scientific results are embedded in a social world, they have a meaning for this world and they have consequences for this world. Just think of the effects of medical discoveries on the way we live and the way we think about death and life. Scientific results can influence and change what we find important and what we value.
In view of this narrow relation between philosophy and science I am a bit surprised how often it happens that philosophers ignore scientific results. For instance, in the discussions on personal identity, one of my fields of interest as the readers of these blogs will know, it is often as if we still are in the days that Locke introduced the subject, more than 300 years ago. As if, since then, research of our body and mind hasn’t made clear that they are inextricably interwoven, which makes that our psychological identity cannot be separated from what we are physically are. Or taking another example that is not a hobbyhorse of mine, I was really amazed to see a recent publication that still took naïve realism seriously (happily it was an argument against it). This conception of the way we perceive the world says that we perceive things directly and in an unmediated way, as they “really” are, although it is clear from neurological and psychological research that it is a naïve view indeed that only is worth to be discussed in philosophical history books. When reading such stuff, it is as if philosophy has missed the developments elsewhere in the world and thinks that it can live in an Ivory Tower.

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