Historically, physics and mathematics have often overlapped with philosophy, and many great scientists engaged with philosophers to advance their own thinking. (Einstein’s work can be studied alongside that of Kant, for example.) The physicist behind the theory of relativity was also a philosopher of science and, as Hall points out, Einstein reconfigured our concepts of space and time—itself a philosophical undertaking. What distinguishes modern science from other forms of knowledge such as philosophy is that it explicitly forsakes abstract reasoning about the ultimate causes of things and instead tests empirical theories through controlled investigation. Science is not the pursuit of capital-T Truth. It’s a form of engineering — of trial by error. Scientific knowledge is not “true” knowledge, since it is knowledge about only specific empirical propositions — which is always, at least in theory, subject to further disproof by further experiment. Many people are surprised to hear this, but the founder of modern science says it. Bacon, who had a career in politics and was an experienced manager, actually wrote that scientists would have to be misled into thinking science is a pursuit of the truth, so that they will be dedicated to their work, even though it is not.
Why is all this ancient history important? Because science is important, and if we don’t know what science actually is, we are going to make mistakes.
The vast majority of people, including a great many very educated ones, don’t actually know what science is.
Since most people think math and lab coats equal science, people call economics a science, even though almost nothing in economics is actually derived from controlled experiments. Then people get angry at economists when they don’t predict impending financial crises, as if having tenure at a university endowed you with magical powers. Countless academic disciplines have been wrecked by professors’ urges to look “more scientific” by, like a cargo cult, adopting the externals of Baconian science (math, impenetrable jargon, peer-reviewed journals) without the substance and hoping it will produce better knowledge.
Because people don’t understand that science is built on experimentation, they don’t understand that studies in fields like psychology almost never prove anything, since only replicated experiment proves something and, humans being a very diverse lot, it is very hard to replicate any psychological experiment. This is how you get articles with headlines saying “Study Proves X” one day and “Study Proves the Opposite of X” the next day, each illustrated with stock photography of someone in a lab coat. That gets a lot of people to think that “science” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, since so many studies seem to contradict each other.
This is how you get people asserting that “science” commands this or that public policy decision, even though with very few exceptions, almost none of the policy options we as a polity have have been tested through experiment (or can be). People think that a study that uses statistical wizardry to show correlations between two things is “scientific” because it uses high school math and was done by someone in a university building, except that, correctly speaking, it is not. While it is a fact that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads, all else equal, to higher atmospheric temperatures, the idea that we can predict the impact of global warming — and anti-global warming policies! — 100 years from now is sheer lunacy. But because it is done using math by people with tenure, we are told it is “science” even though by definition it is impossible to run an experiment on the year 2114.
It’s very profitable for those who grab some of the social prestige that accrues to science, but it means we live in a state of confusion. It also means that for all our bleating about “science” we live in an astonishingly unscientific and anti-scientific society. We have plenty of anti-science people, but most of our “pro-science” people are really pro-magic (and therefore anti-science). we also have a very anti-scientific mindset in many areas.
For example, our approach to education is positively obscurantist. Nobody uses rigorous experimentation to determine better methods of education, and someone who would dare to do so would be laughed out of the room. The first and most momentous scientist of education, Maria Montessori, produced an experimentally based, scientific education method that has been largely ignored by our supposedly science-enamored society. We have departments of education at very prestigious universities, and absolutely no science happens at any of them.
Our approach to public policy is also astonishingly pre-scientific. There have been almost no large-scale truly scientific experiments on public policy since the welfare randomized field trials of the 1990s, and nobody seems to realize how barbaric this is. We have people at Brookings who can run spreadsheets, and Ezra Klein can write about it and say it proves things, we have all the science we need, thank you very much. But that is not science.
Modern science is one of the most important inventions of human civilization. But the reason it took us so long to invent it and the reason we still haven’t quite understood what it is 500 years later is it is very hard to be scientific. Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.
Philosophy is not for everyone, and many are perfectly happy to live their lives without trying to figure out what, exactly, Heidegger is saying. Philosophy does not give us the certainty that math or experimental science can (but even then — as many philosophers would point out — these fields do not give us as much certainty as is sometimes claimed). But that doesn’t mean that philosophy is worthless, or that it doesn’t have rigor. Indeed, in a sense, philosophy is inescapable. To argue that philosophy is useless is to do philosophy.
Seemingly every day, you can find examples of people displaying stunning cultural illiteracy — people in positions where that simply should not happen. The great philosophical tradition that our civilization is built on is left largely untaught. Even “liberal arts” curricula in many colleges do not teach the most influential thinkers. If our elites aren’t being taught this great tradition, then it should come as no surprise that some subset of that elite — experimental scientists and their hangers-on — don’t know it.
That’s part of the problem. But it’s just a part of it. After all, as a group, scientists have an obvious objective interest in experimental science being recognized as the only path to valuable knowledge, and therefore an interest in disdaining other paths to knowledge as less valid. People who listen to scientists opine about philosophy ought to keep that in mind.
And then there’s another factor at play. Many, though certainly not all, of the scientists who opine loudest about the uselessness of philosophy are public atheists. The form of atheism they promote is usually known as “eliminative materialism,” or the notion that matter is the only thing that exists. This theory is motivated by “scientism,” or the notion that the only knowable things are knowable by science. Somewhat paradoxically, these propositions are essentially religious — to dismiss entire swathes of human experience and human thought requires a venture of faith. They’re also not very smart religion, since they end up simply shouting away inconvenient propositions.
Fundamentalism is not a belief system or a religion, it’s a state of mind. There can be fundamentalist religion, fundamentalist atheism, fundamentalist socialism, fundamentalism libertarianism. What all of them have in common is, in David Bentley Hart’s words, “a stubborn refusal to think.” The fundamentalist is not the one whose ideas are too simple or too crude. He’s the one who stubbornly refuses to think through either other ideas, or those ideas themselves.
Sadly, many of our greatest minds give us an example of this state of mind.
To be a “free” person in our civilization requires an understanding of precisely those ideas. Yes, that means also understanding critiques of those ideas, but we’ve gone too far in the other direction. We’ve reached a point where our elites don’t even understand the basic concepts that make our civilization run. A civilization is nothing but institutions, and institutions are nothing but ideas in motion — in our case, institutions such as human rights, liberal democracy, free market capitalism, the scientific method, and so on.
Writers report on “studies” that they’re not numerate enough to understand. And the ability to understand data, to query it, to manipulate it, can be taught. A specific science (computers!) should not be a basic part of the liberal arts curriculum, but a strong foundation in mathematics and statistics should definitely be.
Economics and sociology are valuable, as long as you understand the processes by which they arrive at their findings, and the limits of those processes. This is the hard work of epistemology, which is the study of how we decide which things are true and which aren’t, and how we prove things, which might be the most important discipline today as well as the most understudied.