Friday, May 09, 2003

Philosophy and Science

An NRO Corner reader sent the following to Jonah Goldberg:
In philosophy, the idea is to sit in a dark room and understand the universe using reason alone. In science, the idea is to ask "OK, what actually happens" i.e. do an experiment and see what reality says about your ideas. I'll take reality over intellectual consistency any day (although, of course, most scientists are perhaps a bit distant from reality).
I know that a lot of people believe this, but look:
  • The notion that the universe can be understood through reason alone would be an extreme form of rationalism--so extreme that I know of no one who holds that view (not even Descartes, for those of you thinking "Oh yeah, what about Descartes?")

  • The notion that science works mainly by inference from experiment would be an extreme form of inductivism--so extreme that I know of no one who holds that view, except for those who hold to a naive "lab-coat" view of science, according to which scientists are people in lab coats running experiments and taking notes. A good deal of science is theoretical, not experimental.

  • Neither philosophy nor science have as an exclusive aim the understanding of the universe or reality in general. There are branches of philosophy and science that have that aim, but there are many more that do not.
In brief, what the reader has done is to conflate philosophy with one extreme philosophical position and to conflate science with one extreme view of science.

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