Philosophy matters

What we now know as physics and mathematics, and as many other disciplines of science, originated in philosophy and eventually split from it when the training of a physicist (or mathematician, or…) became sufficiently different from the training of a philosopher that they became essentially different traditions and skill sets. Thus, it may be said (correctly) that the legitimate domain of philosophy has shrunk considerably from the days of Socrates to the present day. Some people have claimed that it has shrunk so much as to make legitimate philosophy trivial or, at least, irrelevant. That is a gross misjudgment.

Consider science (as I have in my past couple of posts). Science generally delivers sound results, I (and a lot of other people) believe. Why does it? This is a question of philosophy; in fact, it is the central question of the philosophy of science. It is also a question that science itself cannot answer, for that would be impermissible circular reasoning (science works because science works). It is therefore a question of legitimate philosophy. It is not trivial, for once one gets past the knee-jerk reactions, which amount to “science works because it’s science”, there are no easy answers.

In fact, the whole of 20th Century philosophy of science is a big pile of failed attempts to explain science; not one explanation is fully satisfactory. Absent a common convincing philosophical grounding, there is room for the development of competing schools of thought even within a single discipline, and this, in fact, did happen (and still causes strong feelings). Fundamental disagreements about what can be known, what should be known, and how one goes about establishing knowledge are still unresolved.

Most scientists enjoy not pondering it, for it’s a bit like being a cartoon character: so long as you don’t look down, you can walk on air.

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