Is Philosophy a Science? Part 2: Science Helping Philosophy

A couple of people have asked me to follow up on my “Is Philosophy a Science?” post, so here we go. In this one, I will try to show how I think science can inform and help solve philosophical problems. In the next, I will show how I think a scientific (or naturalistic) approach to philosophy can pay dividends. And then perhaps to finish, I will tackle the perennial question of whether philosophy, unlike science, never gets any sure answers or makes any progress.

For today, take ethics – moral philosophy. There are two big questions: What should I do? (This is known as substantive or normative ethics.) Why should I do what I should do? (Meta-ethics, to do with foundations.)

As far as substantive ethics is concerned, from David Hume via Charles Darwin, I argue that ultimately what we should do is what we feel we should do – there is no higher court of appeal – and what we feel we should do is what our biology – our evolved human nature as shaped by natural selection – tells us we should do. Put in all sorts of qualifiers, obviously, about working to systematize one’s thoughts and not letting kooks spoil it for the rest of us – I am not approving of the emotions of that chap in Norway any more than I am saying that someone born with sickle-cell anemia is a fully functioning human – but that is it.

Note that I am not arguing for anything radical because I think our biology has formed humans to be cooperators and that loving your fellow in some sense is normal and biological. I am also not a relativist: We humans are one species and it is clear that the basic similarities way outweigh the differences.

As far as meta-ethics is concerned, I don’t believe in foundations. I am what they call a moral non-realist. I think evolutionary biology points me this way. Because evolution is non-progressive and could have gone other ways, I could imagine a species that was social but that got its cohesion from very different substantive norms. For instance, we might believe what I call (for fairly obvious reasons) the John Foster Dulles theory of morality. Hate your neighbor but remember that your neighbor hates you and so it is in your joint interests to cooperate. Perhaps the formal rules of sociality will always be the same, but the content can differ. (I think Kant recognized this in the Metaphysics of Morals and that is a major reason why he failed to get morality from formal content alone.)

In other words, I argue that even if there is an objective morality, we might never know or believe it! And that is about as close an absurdity as it is possible to get in philosophy. (Note that I am unmoved by the criticism that my argument should apply equally to our beliefs about the physical world. There is a crucial difference. I may have evolved to sense the speeding train in ways other than I do now, but if I don’t sense it in some way, I am in big trouble.)

You may say: Why do we have morality – meaning not just emotions or desires but a sense of obligation? Killing is wrong, not just that I don’t like killing. Why not reason out each time what is in our evolutionary interests and follow the path that serves us best? Simply because time is money, and if we spent our time reasoning then too often we would not act quickly enough in our own interests. (I think Kant spotted this too.) Morality sometimes breaks down – I get cheated – but overall it is a quick and dirty solution to being social that works pretty well.

One more thing. Why doesn’t morality ultimately break down completely? Why don’t we all simply cheat? You help me but I only pretend to help you. And before long, the cheaters have out-evolved the moral types. The fact is that morality is of value to us all individually, and so natural selection has put in place an adaptation to see that it persists. Even though morality is not objective – has foundations – we believe that it is. I believe that killing is really, truly objectively wrong. And before you say that now I have let the cat out of the bag, we can all go away and sin happily, I would argue that our psychology always trumps our philosophy and in fact we are not going to be able to act that way.

   I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Here then I find myself absolutely and necessarily determined to live, and talk, and act like other people in the common affairs of life. (David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature)

As I conclude, let me throw in a final goody for believers. I am an accommodationist, thinking that science and religion can exist together harmoniously. But have I not just argued that the heart of religion, its moral dicta, are (as I have said elsewhere) “nothing but illusions put in place by natural selection to make us cooperators”? I still think that they are illusions about objectivity, in the sense of thinking that morality refers to facts out there as the claim about the speeding train refers to facts out there. But I see no reason why the theist should not say that my account fits very comfortably with the idea of a God who made morality a function of human nature – and that that is the beginning and end of it. And of course many theists do. It is known as “natural law” theory. So in the end, I think today’s science comes to help philosophy but that, far from being a threat to traditional ideas and discoveries, it confirms and underpins them.

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