Philosophy, Science, Real Life, and God

Bas van Fraassen (Princeton) is interviewed by Richard Marshall at 3:AM MagazineThe whole interview is chock full of interestingness. Here are three brief and possibly provocative passages from the interview.

1. On what philosophers have to offer scientists:

RM: Ok, so the idea of ‘laws of nature’ belong to submerged metaphysical assumptions that contemporary science has rejected. Metaphysics needs to heed science is the lesson to be learned here. But coming from the other direction, should scientists heed (some) metaphysics, in the same way we exhort philosophers to stay in touch with contemporary science?

BvF: Once in a symposium in the Netherlands an older, in his own field very well known, theoretical chemist was in the audience. He challenged me to mention just one way that philosophy of science could ever help him in his work. What could I say?

It does not make sense for a scientist to look outside scientific practice for any direct help with his day’s work. Instead, philosophy could help if he wanted to understand better what he was doing, when he engaged in scientific inquiry. That might not have practical value, but could bring some intellectual good.

Now I think that this reply is at once too harsh, too unsympathetic, and too modest. For metaphysical ideas have always played a quite public, salient role in some scientists’ thinking, whether to help or to hinder. For such scientists it would be important to understand the array of criticisms that philosophers can aim at those ideas. And in addition there are fascinating examples of very insightful interactions with philosophy, that philosophers can learn from, not just by such great thinkers in our past such as Einstein and Weyl but also by contemporaries such as Rovelli and Smolin.

2. On “real life” problems versus philosophy’s “self-created problems”:

RM: Why are you dubious about analytic metaphysics and ‘objectifying’ epistemologies, worrying that they end up parochial or/and trivial?

BvF: When analytic philosophy developed in the early 20th century, at the hands of Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, and Carnap (and in fact in many small centers of philosophical discussion in Europe), it was largely in reaction to a previous metaphysics. That included the Idealism of the preceding century as well as the neo-Kantian tradition which was at least perceived to be repressively dominant. In the case of Russell, however, that reaction included a return to something like pre-Kantian realist metaphysics. This turned out to be disproportionately influential in the second half of the century with, for example, Quine’s idea that philosophy could be science carried further by other means.

To me this historic development is very disappointing. It seems to me to have degenerated into solving its self-created problems. I remember a paper, for example, that argued very cleverly that there are only ‘simples’, that is, that nothing has parts. What supported this thesis was that it solved various problems about the part-whole relationship. But those problems arose in the first place from taking the word “part”, which in ordinary use is very context-dependent, and treating it in some abstract way as a context-independent transitive relationship. It is probably a good exercise for the mind, but why not turn to the problems that arise already in real life, problems of art, religion, science, mathematics, and animal rights, as well as existential problems of death and suffering?

3. On empiricism and theism:

RM: Many would think that an empirical stance was one that left one in a secular position. After all, empirical science has not been able to discover a God or a theological realm. You dispute this though don’t you? Can you sketch why you don’t think the orientation of the empirical stance allows for just a secular orientation, and why do you think some theological options are still open and important for the contemporary philosopher of science?

BvF: Critics of religion seem typically to know very well what it is to be religious, to know what sort of thing God would be, and what is believed by people who are religious. That they are sure they know this is clear from what they are criticizing. But I wonder, how did they get to know all that?

As example, consider your statement that empirical science has not been able to discover a God or a theological realm. By saying that, you convey to me that you know what it would be for empirical science to discover a God or a theological realm. And really, just what would it take?

To design an experiment is to set a question for nature to answer, but a question is not well-defined unless the set of its possible answers is well-defined. The NSF would surely not fund an experiment unless it was made clear beforehand what its possible outcomes were, and what significance each of these outcomes would have for the topic of inquiry.

It is just here that the difference between religious and secular comes to the fore. If we are to put nature to the question, both the question and the meaning of each of the possible answers nature could give, must be clear to all sides. That is, all of this must be formulable in secular language, for it must be a language that both secular and religious can understand. The secular could not be satisfied with an experiment whose outcomes have their significance specified in religious language. So for this sort of enterprise to get off the ground at all, we would first of all have to accept that religious language, the language in which religious express their faith, is reducible to secular language. And that is a tendentious claim, on the face of it that does not seem to be the case at all.

I have a very low opinion of the intellectual quality of almost all of the science-and-religion literature, however well intentioned (not only of the ‘new atheism’ but on both sides).

To come back to your main question, though, why needn’t empiricism lead to a secular orientation? As I understand empiricism, and what empiricism can be now in contrast to how it got sidetracked into in the past, it is a philosophical stance that prizes experience above all, favors experience over theory, rejects overriding demands for explanation that could only be satisfied by postulates about the unknown, refuses to get drawn into philosophical fictionalizing, into what Kant rightly called the Illusions of Reason. That implies that the empirical sciences, as understood by an empiricist, are a paradigm of rational inquiry. But none of these elements in an empiricist stance need be foreign to the religious.

The whole interview is here.

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