How Philosophy Makes Progress

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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in The Chronicle of Higher Education (image: André da Loba for The Chronicle):

Questions of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, cognitive and affective neuroscience, linguistics, mathematical logic: Philosophy once claimed them all. But as the methodologies of those other disciplines progressed—being empirical, in the case of all but logic—questions over which philosophy had futilely sputtered and speculated were converted into testable hypotheses, and philosophy was rendered forevermore irrelevant.

Is there any doubt, demand the naysayers, about the terminus of this continuing process? Given enough time, talent, and funding, there will be nothing left for philosophers to consider. To quote one naysayer, the physicist Lawrence Krauss, “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then ‘natural philosophy’ became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves.” Krauss tends to merge philosophy not with literature, as Wieseltier does, but rather with theology, since both, by his lights, are futile attempts to describe the nature of reality. One could imagine such a naysayer conceding that philosophers should be credited with laying the intellectual eggs, so to speak, in the form of questions, and sitting on them to keep them warm. But no life, in the form of discoveries, ever hatches until science takes over.

There’s some truth in the naysayer’s story. As far as our knowledge of the nature of physical reality is concerned—four-dimensional space-time and genes and neurons and neurotransmitters and the Higgs boson and quantum fields and black holes and maybe even the multiverse—it’s science that has racked up the results. Science is the ingenious practice of prodding reality into answering us back when we’re getting it wrong (although that itself is a heady philosophical claim, substantiated by concerted philosophical work).

And, of course, we have a marked tendency to get reality wrong.

More here.

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