Bashing Philosophy

About six weeks after the beginning of the half, as Tom and Arthur were sitting one night before supper beginning their verses, Arthur suddenly stopped, and looked up, and said, “Tom, do you know anything of Martin?”

“Yes,” said Tom, taking his hand out of his back hair, and delighted to throw his Gradus ad Parnassum on to the sofa; “I know him pretty well. He’s a very good fellow, but as mad as a hatter. He’s called Madman, you know. And never was such a fellow for getting all sorts of rum things about him. He tamed two snakes last half, and used to carry them about in his pocket; and I’ll be bound he’s got some hedgehogs and rats in his cupboard now, and no one knows what besides.”

This exchange, taken from the mid-Victorian novel about Rugby School, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, shows just how people interested in science were regarded back then. Martin is treated kindly, but as you can see as a bit of a freak. Even the great headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold (father of the poet), is mystified by the boy. Education and learning was Latin and Greek all of the way, with some mathematics thrown in. Science was for oddballs or (more generally in mid-Victorian society) people in industry.

How things have changed! As is shown by the agenda of my governor, Rick Scott, science and mathematics are everything and the humanities nothing. He wants to get anthropology out of the universities – although I have heard it plausibly suggested that the real agenda there is anti-evolution – and I suspect that if he ever heard of the classics or philosophy, they would be added to the hit list.

In today’s climate, I suppose this is all to be expected. But I am truly getting a bit sick of scientists doing Rick Scott’s work for him. I am used to uninformed comments like that of my colleague, Nobel Prize winner Harry Kroto, when he says things like: “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” What on earth does he think is the status of that particular statement? From which branch of science is it drawn?

However, it is becoming clear that Sir Harry is but the tip of an iceberg when it comes to scientists on philosophy. My good friend (and he really is) Edward O. Wilson, the ant specialist and sociobiologist, has long been calling for philosophy to be taken out of the hands of philosophers and “biologicized.” In a recent article in Atlantic, he is at it again.

Wilson announced that his new book may be his last. It is not limited to the discussion of evolutionary biology, but ranges provocatively through the humanities, as well. Summarizing parts of it for me, Wilson was particularly unsparing of organized religion, likening the Book of Revelation, for example, to the ranting of “a paranoid schizophrenic who was allowed to write down everything that came to him.” Toward philosophy, he was only slightly kinder. Generation after generation of students have suffered trying to “puzzle out” what great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Descartes had to say on the great questions of man’s nature, Wilson said, but this was of little use, because philosophy has been based on “failed models of the brain.”

Answers to the fundamental mysteries of human nature can only be found elsewhere, Wilson told me—in science, and most particularly in genetics and evolution.

Then there is Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago professor and president of the Society for the Study of Evolution. Here he is on the works of St. Augustine: “But you have better things to do with your time than read them. He may well have been an intellectual giant of his day, but his ideas are so outdated and even then, so deliberately tendentious, that they are like much of modern theology—so much sophisticated hot air.”

Just at the moment, Coyne’s big beef is about some chap who has been given a postdoc to work on the philosophy of religion. How could God know what will happen and yet grant us free will? A couple of philosophers pointed out against Coyne’s first rant on the subject that the actual existence of God is not the point of the exercise. It is rather about the nature of time and free will and much more. Coyne’s response: “The theory is NOT philosophically interesting in the absence of an omniscient being. If there isn’t one, as I presume both of these folks agree, then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed.” Or how about the free will problem in its own right? “The more I read about philosophers’ attempts to redefine and save the notion of “free will” in the face of the neurological facts, the more I think that they’re muddying the waters.”

Most recently, we have Freeman Dyson in the NYRB telling us that philosophy just organized stories. He quotes Bertrand Russell at his silliest: “Philosophy is just organized piffle.” Dyson tells us that “this is a view of philosophy similar to mine.”

Let me say that I don’t mind scientists talking about philosophy. I am glad that they do. I just wish that they would do us the courtesy of taking seriously what we are trying to say. It is not a subject that can be done over a few drinks in the faculty club at the end of a hard day in the lab. The questions are important and they are tough. I think science has much to say to philosophy. I showed that in my recent discussion of the foundations of ethics. But it doesn’t have everything to say to philosophy and the questions science doesn’t tackle need tackling.

Take just one example in which I have been much involved, the teaching of evolution in state schools in the U.S. It needs knowledge of science. It needs knowledge of the law. It needs knowledge of theology. It also needs knowledge of philosophy. What is science and is evolutionary theory science? What is religion and is Creation Science religion? Do the two overlap? Is Intelligent Design Theory science or religion? Should parents have the right in a democracy to decide on curriculum content? And so the philosophical questions continue.

It is bad enough that so many American politicians are philistines when it comes to the humanities. Do scientists have to follow suit?

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