Friday, July 5, 2013
Many of my fellow atheists are very quick today to discard philosophy in favor of science. Science has made philosophy irrelevant, they say, and philosophy no longer contributes anything useful to understanding reality. This is a problem in my view. Atheists hold science up in such high regard because we know it's largely been science that has cast light onto the darkness of man's ignorance, and has given us the best way of understanding reality that nothing else comes close to. But, we can not deny—we should not deny, the fact that in order to make sense of anything, you need philosophy.
Sure, science is the empirical methodology that we should all use to guide our philosophy, but science should not be used to replace philosophy altogether. To do so would be an egregious error on the part of the atheist. For example, how do you argue morality without using philosophy? It's impossible! Science is not going to give us definitive answers when it comes to ethics. Science can be used to guide our ethics when it comes to giving us empirical information about certain moral issues, but you will need philosophy to make any sense of that scientific data. And what about interpreting quantum mechanics? Science can allow us to predict quantum particles to eleven decimal places, but how do you interpret quantum weirdness properly? We have many theories, including the Copenhagen interpretation, and the many worlds interpretation. But science is not—at least not yet—going to give us definitive answers to these pressing issues. The philosophy of science is what guides these theories because the scientist who entertains such possibilities has left the realm of physics and entered the world of metaphysics.
Now some atheists are hardcore empiricists. If it isn't scientifically proven to be true, then to them it's false by default. We have to be careful with this way of thinking. Just because something isn't proven to be true, it shouldn't necessarily be false by default—if it's scientifically possible. For example, we don't have proof that the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. Physicists are split over it when compared with the other interpretations. That doesn't mean we can't entertain the idea of the MWI when it comes to trying to come up with an accurate description of reality just because it is not a proven fact. Scientists do this all the time, and when they do, they sometimes unwittingly become philosophers of science.
My two loves growing up was science and philosophy. I don't think there is any conflict between the two necessarily, and they can compliment each other quite well. If science definitively disproves some old philosophy, then yes it should be tossed into the waste bin of ideas and only referenced for it's historical significance. And we have to be keen when it comes to the desires of New Age philosophers like Deepak Chopra who take science and extrapolate enormous unwarranted inferences from it, and come up with all kinds of pseudoscience. Scientifically minded theologians like William Lane Craig do the same thing. This is where skepticism comes in handy, but our skepticism should not entice us to the point of throwing out philosophy altogether.
One philosopher I've come to admire is Alan Watts. He studied Zen Buddhism in Japan and introduced it to Western audiences. If you listen to some of his lectures on YouTube, he often uses science when interpreting some of the aspects of Zen. Now it's true that the early Zen philosophers didn't have the science available to them that we do today, but given the fact that some of the Zen philosophy is perfectly compatible with what we now know scientifically, does it have to be discarded because it isn't science itself? You see, philosophy allows you to put a subjective interpretation on things even if they're objectively empirical. The modern philosopher, upon learning of the scientific facts can say, "Here's how I look at it." And the truth is, we all do this—atheist, theist, pantheist—all of us. So the atheist who wants to do away with philosophy is a hypocrite because he needs philosophy to infer his atheism using science.