Friday, June 15, 2007

Philosophy Against Science

Rihard Rorty and some of his students and colleagues talk about his contribution to Philosophy. (Thanks to the Anonymous commenter for the link.)

Reading about Rorty in different newspapers and blogs in the last week made me realize how my own ideas have changed in the last couple or so years. I remember reading three books by Steven Pinker and then a couple by Daniel Dennett in 2002-03 and getting convinced that these philosophers who doubted the existence of objective reality and universal human nature were frauds, who can only survive in the humanities department of universities where the standards are always more lax as compared to those in the sciences. I was particularly incensed by those who criticised science purely on Political grounds, confusing scientists with techno-evangelists and those "management" thinkers who want to restructure human lives and societies based on some normative, rational principles derived from science.

More than Pinker and Dennett (and I had already read Dawkins before), the book that affected and influenced me most was E.O. Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (wikipedia has a nice short summary of the book.) It is a magisterial and awe-inspiring defence of the idea of one unified basis of all human reality and all human knowledge. It is not hard to understand why philosophers generally were hostile to the book. Wilson basically asks them to be handmaidens to the scientists--bascially help them in framing questions, clearing conceptual and naming confusions and in general build, fix and repair the foundations on which the scientific edifice can then be built, whereas they would rather (specially post-Nietzsche) destroy these foundations. The same with the people working in the humanities. They would have trouble with the idea of their disciplines being "supervenient" (Wilson never uses this word, but this is a more accurate description of what he means than "reductionism" or "scientism") on lower level scientific theories.

These details of the grand unification project aside, in the first few pages itself Wilson convinces the reader of the desirability of order and unity among different domains of human knowledge and realities. So why are philosophers so antagonistic to this project? Why are they intent on destroying the foundations of science? (Someone in the video above says there can be no "science of science".) Why create more disorder, fragmentation and why not at least acknowledge the desirability of the ideal of unity?

I have read very little philosophy, even that very unsystematically, but Rorty was I think the only philosopher of the "other side" I read without getting irritated and who convinced me that the "disorder" was not so bad after all, in fact it may even be desirable because it had potentials for self-realization which Wilson's philosophy may not allow. In fact he actually answered many of my questions and objections regarding relativism very satisfactorily. Two nice, non-technical essays by Rorty I could find on the internet: Phony Science Wars and the second a review of The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin which answers some of the political objections to anti-foundationalist western philosophy, mainly that relativism left these modern thinkers vulnerable to the attractions of fascism. I have read only parts of Contingency Irony and Solidarity (whatever I could grasp) but I think it is one of the best and the most effective defences of that philosophical tradition. Also check out this fashionable dictionary if you haven't.


Vidya said...

I have'nt read Consilience and as for Rorty, I can't quite place Rorty as the "other side".He was someone who could not be boxed into the "right/left" definitions and had his own views and criticized both.

Again I am not exactly clear what this post implies when you say 'other side'.Also I wonder if the tone behind this is an issue of dealing with isubjects of this century. I have had conflicting views myself on this issue.

Just as the thinkers of the earlier centuries including Pre/Post Nietzsche period had to talk of religion and its impact with reality today's philosophers have to apply science and pseudo science and management to philosophy.It is an issue of evolution of ideas.The whole problem with normative and rational principles is that they are not fixed.At one point a normative scientific principle was geocentricity. Same is the case with objective reality.The limits of human understanding are being constantly pushed and I think it is unfair to distinguish between a pure experimental scientist vs others because of multidimensional impact of ideas today on human consciousness. Several of the initial philosopher-scientists believed in alchemy.It is just the prevailing environment.

People tend to polarize ideas into left,right, center and there are always a few individualists who question some or all these groups.And then groups form around them and again another dissident arises.

The phony science wars link doesn't work.(Sorry for the long comment)

Alok said...

By "other side" I meant people who are critical of science, people who are skeptic about the existence of any objective reality and who think that the whole edifice of science is built on very shaky foundations, and that is if they acknowledge the existence of any such foundation at all. That's most of the European continental post-modernist philosophy and also most of the modern philosophy of science.

Have added a different link now. it should work fine.