The Historian Atheist
I couldn’t help notice in the course of the last couple of years that in the atheist-science community there is a rather large distain for the field of philosophy. A sentiment of disapproval perhaps made emblematic by the great Dr. Sheldon Cooper, the fictional theoretical physicist in the series ‘The Big Bang Theory’, of which he dispenses in ample quantities across geology, philosophy and all humanist-sciences (or “sciences” as he would maintain) in equal measure.
It goes without saying that as a historian I am rather displeased with his attitude and his exclusive stance on what constitutes ‘a science’, but then again he is
just a string-theorist (and very aptly a fictional one at that) so I guess that makes us even.
Personally I look very favourable upon philosophy, albeit my limited and subjective version of it. For it may be correct that the field is perfuse with speculative- and fantastical explications and “I have a theory”-s where mere hypotheses are indicated; In my view it is the adhesive between reality and harder-sciences and the glue among those sciences themselves. In IT-terms it is the ‘Bootloader’ that thanks to a messy, hackish and largely hard-coded bios-program loads the much needed operating system into memory. It is the link between the ideal world of bit-and-bytes and the bare metal.
Similarly it may be that the scientific method is capable of determining, above any measure of doubt what the melting point of nickel is in specific circumstances; what that scientific method itself looks like, should look like, what its limits and its strengths are, is still a messy and inexact philosophical discussion.
If we define philosophy as ‘speculative reasoning about unknown elements of reality’ it is clear why many of the atheist-scientists dislike philosophy. For if that description is not far off the mark it means that religion, in its earliest form, was a rational philosophy. The thing that made it irrational was that over time it held on to its conclusions against the evidence.
For instance, if one reasons that everything that ‘moved’ in the Palaeolithic age moved because a conscious biological actor (humans, animals) moved it, because he had a purpose for it, it is not irrational to conceive of a god-mover that moves the things us mere mortals couldn’t. However it should already have been clear to the more observant Neanderthaler that, given gravity and eroded rocks, that there is an abundance of processes around for which no conscious motivation can be discerned (hence the ‘mysterious ways’) and whose ubiquity requires either an omnipresent and omniscient consciousness (properties we know to lead to paradoxes) or impersonal processes that are omnipresent only by being woven into the very fabric of our reality.
The fact that religion is a philosophy that embraces paradoxes, where conclusions negate premises, should not stain the rest of philosophy I think. Still it should serve as a warning for both the fundamental level on which philosophy acts and the way in which it is self-defining, with all the risks the latter entails. It can serve as a well-oiled ‘bootloader’ for your scientific endeavours or it can be a ‘rootkit’ that divulges everything you do, to an IP-address near Beijing.
When used sensibly, philosophy resembles math to some extent. For it is not because we don’t know the value of ‘X’ that we can’t conclude many useful things regarding its relation to ‘Y’, among which the rate of change in Y as we change of X over time. It differs from math that it doesn’t work with idealised input or is able to use clean and isolated transformations between premise and conclusion. But if it can give us insight in the likely events or the best course of action given the most likely values for ‘X’, that is a powerful if not an indispensable proposition.
Come to think of it, it’s all about Baden Powell really, “Be Prepared”. Though I’m not a believer regarding intelligent alien life existing within the event-horizon of our species I don’t think we should wait until they land on Brussels’ “Grand Place” to start reasoning about the likelihood of their motivations being hostile or even about our own species’ likely reaction to them.
Like the alien-hypothesis there are a number of more-or-less binary hypotheses out there over which intelligent people strongly disagree. I find this very disconcerting especially since many of these hypotheses aren’t the least philosophical at their core. The “green-house-effect” as it was called then, may have been a philosophical discussion when I was still a kid (full of unknowns, with distant impacts if any), now global-warming is shaking our hand it isn’t philosophical in the least. It has become a ‘science versus religion’ debate where the opposition is holding onto hypotheses in malevolent spite of the evidence.
The philosophical part has been reduced to the question how we maintain our fragile economic and social cohesion as best as we can, while processing information on the speed of climate change (and it’s tipping point beyond which there is no holding it back) while deconstructing our consumption society sufficiently to stave of the worst of the climate change impact.
To kill an already dead metaphor, philosophy is the part where we examine reality and ‘think outside the box’. This is useful especially in light of what physics teaches us: that there is no box. When we follow physics to the fringes of what we know we automatically come into unknown territory filled with possibility and odds. Thanks to the red-shift detection of stars moving away from us we know that the universe was once much closer together.
This basic fact is what underpins the Big Bang Theory (the science, not the series). Philosophy is what takes this conclusion out on the porch to hit it with a cricket-bat: “is this reasoning valid?”, “how sure are we of this conclusion?”, “Is this a naïve way of thinking?”, “what other similar phenomenon could shed a light on this?” and “what alternative explanations can we come up with?”. The Big Bang theory is rife with philosophical unknowns: was everything once packed into a single point, a singularity?, what is a singularity?, if everything was once closer together does this mean there is a physical centre to our universe? If so, in what direction should we look for it? Is this even a valid question? Did Time begin at the Big Bang? Did the Big Bang occur ‘inside’ another “space”(x) launched by an x-cause(y) at x-time(t) or do we accept it as a beginning to everything including time itself?
It is not possible to do science without also doing some fundamental philosophy. The operating system can’t function without a bootloader.
Philosophy gets a ‘bad rap’ with science for its inexact language, for dealing in probabilities instead of certitudes and for the fact that you ostensibly don’t need to be a physicist-genius in order to dabble in it (although being a physicist-genius makes it better I’m told). But in my view philosophy is just Experience => Scrutinized.
Mathematics would be perfectly content using any old pair of axiom’s to derive equations from. It was a philosophical choice to (mainly) use the Euclidean ones, which seem to align very well with our experience from reality, which made Math such a good predictor of real-world results.
Boolean logic may be a mathematical field, but math would have been quiet happy with any set of logic rules. The ones that are actually used throughout every field of science (including computer science) are based on our experience of how reality works. Something does not imply its own opposite, period! Not in this universe at least. It doesn’t exclude it from being true in another conceivable (magically created?) universe. It is the same logic that (when violated) disproves hypotheses and which transfers conclusions from distant sciences onto each other. If a*x > y and a = z*b then b*x > y with z > 1.
The second law of thermodynamics, conceived over a steam-engine-model, not only explains why a music amplifier needs electricity to work but also why information should be conserved as objects fall into black holes.
Philosophy is an activity that assumes that similarities between patterns in reality can be drawn. It is simultaneously the activity that questions whether this assumption is correct and whether those patterns are objective parts of reality or just results of our subjectivity. In the next post we will go a little deeper into patterns and similarities and how, in an inexact philosophical way, they can still tell us very compelling things about our reality.
In conclusion for this post let me state that it is perhaps understandable that theists mis-categorise Science among the ‘belief-systems’. Perhaps they instinctively feel that beneath the hard sciences lie a number of philosophical assumptions regarding logic, truth, information, objectivity and knowledge that are themselves not mathematically provable. This does not mean they are pulled from the vacuum however. They are based on experience of what works and what doesn’t.
It is true that the moon influences the tides and therefore we can use this truth to free our grounded boat during spring-tide. It is not true that all people born under the sign Sagittarius are timid and friendly, so using the zodiac-signs of suspected serial killers to acquit them will not benefit society at all.
The theist remains attached to the teleological explanation that dead-matter doesn’t move unless something having free-will causes it to move. This could have been a valid hypothesis if there hadn’t been clear examples of impersonal workings of fundamental forces that, since the Palaeolithic, have been used to explain literally everything we know of, except what happens at the event horizon of black holes, the edge of the universe and at the very beginning of everything, if there is such a thing.
For their philosophy the theists have literally no observations to support it with, which explains why they disagree about the fundamental elements of their ‘reality’ as much with each-other as they do with science. They hold onto their hypothesis in spite of the observed, which migrates their ‘philosophy’ to the irrational side of the spectrum. And while their ideas are primitive, irrational and harmful there is no place where you can say this because it hurts their feelings and it makes them angry.
The only way you are allowed to reference their religion at all is with reverence, as something you crave to have but weren’t introduced to in time, using only words as ‘beautiful’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘moral’. Which reminds me of a very disappointing sitting at my local freethinkers-society the other day. I’m sure that the very day mathematicians start slaying each other over some botched proof of the Riemann-hypothesis someone will add ‘peaceful’ to the description of this activity as well.
Philosophy is not science’ orphaned ugly little nephew, it is the historical- as well as current foundation of this industry. It is also here that new science is born. Like back in the day when that short civil-servant had a crazy notion about what the world would look like if not Time was absolute and universal but if instead it was the Speed of Light that was thus.
See you in the next post.