Disclaimer: I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything. This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
I want to accomplish something on my birthday (I know, I’m weird), and so I thought I’d start a series I have thought about for a while on the true value (imho) of philosophy. The trigger for this is a very nice book my son James got as a prize a while back and I found among his leavings when he left home: Bryan Magee’s The Great Philosophers. It provides, I think, a nice overview of the way that the “main stream” of philosophy has evolved over the centuries, and some suggestions as to how this should impact us.
I confess that I read it differently from most, as someone who read Plato’s early writings “for fun” as a teenager, and then Aristotle and Locke as part of my undergraduate training in Harvard’s version of political science (Harvard called it Government), as well as having a nodding acquaintance with brief descriptions of pragmatism and the like. At the same time, I was getting a very quirky view of science from my training in computer hardware, as well as a connection between philosophy and science because of Quine’s formalizations of logic as presented in an undergraduate course – not to mention the connection of both science and philosophy to mathematics in the works of Godel and Turing and their heirs.
Thus, in reading Magee after all these years, I asked myself not the typical question – how can philosophy help me in leading a better life – but rather, how does philosophy still add value in an age where science is indeed providing a firm foundation of understanding of ourselves and the physical and chemical world, and increasingly taking the lead in suggesting how things can be done better. And it seemed to me, reading Magee, that one theme of the book was that philosophy was needed because science simply had no answers to many questions about the nature of the world and ourselves – an answer I disagree with, based on the many scientific advances in my lifetime on things like what dreaming does, or how our internal clock works.
Setting the Stage
Here’s what I argue: Along with its role in our internal wrestlings about how to live the good life, philosophy should also be seen as a counterpoint to the slow development of what we now call the scientific method. Here I note that I am using the term scientific method in a very broad sense: As not only the techniques of experiment, peer-reviewed publication and verification, and statistical analysis that have come to be accepted as individual practices, but also the broader community and bureaucracy that coordinates and revises the overall model of the physical/chemical world that science is establishing. Thus, my scientific method is not only an individual guideline but a community-wide, evolving process.
Philosophy can be seen as such a counterpoint because one of the recurring themes of philosophy as per Magee is “thinking about thinking”: examining such questions as, what can we know for certain, and how can we be sure that what we are thinking is the truth, e.g., the truth of reality, of the physical and chemical world. And that matters in the history of the development of the scientific method because what is going on, it appears to me, is what we call in computer science “bootstrapping”: establishing a certain set of facts, then using them to establish others, and so on, until we begin to have a full-fledged, comprehensive model to work with – of a computer, in bootstrapping a computer operating system, or of scientific reality, in science. And so, in the development of the scientific method, philosophy could serve a useful role by saying, are you sure of these facts? Are you sure that the next facts follow? Are you sure that your preliminary model captures reality? Is your logic solid, and does it reflect what is going on?
I am not sure that I am doing justice to what was a grand and scary project: To capture reality when you are sure neither of the validity of what you see in front of you nor of your own thoughts. In this project, from the point at least of Plato in “western civilization”, whatever that is, onwards, philosophy offered at least one lingua franca to the budding scientist, one common way of thinking across the scientific community about establishing and testing validity and models.
But I would also be remiss if I didn’t say what I viewed as a key flaw of philosophy: its emphasis on this being an individual or small-group endeavor, the “hard internal wrestlings of the soul” of Wedgwood’s Oliver Cromwell, or the symposia of Plato and Julius Caesar. The development of the scientific method has made it clear that it must be exceptionally broad in all its doings, in order to capture the very different experiences and worldviews that allow us to triangulate an approximation of reality. And the obvious example of this is the demonstrated enormous value of incorporating fully in the scientific method the female perspective, as has not been done historically in all cultures. Philosophy simply has by its very individualistic nature failed to adequately detect differences in thinking when it assumes commonality with the thinking of a Plato or a Nietzsche (we all desire “the good”, or we are all innately determined by our origins and our lowest common denominator is pretty pathetic).
So I want to set forth my viewpoint on what role the thinking of those philosophers was playing (and should play now) in the evolution of our understanding of the scientific method – because I feel that in some ways, far more than being a guide to our behavior, that is the value of philosophy to us. Or, to put it another way, the value of philosophy is potentially much more in reassuring us that scientific truth is indeed truth, than in helping us use that truth to determine what is the good life we want to strive for; because at this point science and common sense are better guides to getting at the good life. In any case, I want to start with Plato, and Socrates as described by Plato.
Plato and Socrates
As presented by Magee, Plato has three “periods”: an initial period of trying to present the thoughts of Socrates (e.g., Symposium), a second period of elaborating on those thoughts to present positive answers to the questions that Socrates raised (e.g., Republic), and finally a period of “academically” analyzing and challenging the results of periods 1 and 2 (e.g., Timaeus). Magee summarizes by saying “Platonism is a philosophy you can use … if you want to see how scientific and spiritual values can be reconciled.” He says this because, fundamentally, Plato is an “anti-materialistic” philosopher who believes that truth goes beyond what can be captured by the scientific method. Specifically, in his “theory of Forms”, as interpreted by later generations, Plato argues that in some sense the general concept of “chairness” or “virtue” exists independent of us. This, in turn, in theology leads to the requirement the Greeks appear to have imposed on the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions that God be “perfect”, not flawed by human imperfections, and thus to things like angels, djinns, and “the Word.”
At the same time, the program laid out in Plato’s Republic is a program for eliciting the mathematical symmetries and “order” that Plato believed were inherent in Nature, and is therefore the fountainhead of Plato’s school, which led to Aristotle and an attempt at a systematized model of physical reality as corresponding to those symmetries.
To me, however, the most lasting contribution of that philosophy in the area of “thinking about thinking” and the scientific method is the inculcation in the scientific method of “Socratic questioning”.
The Socratic Method
The Socratic method, still used afaik in law schools as in the Constitutional Law taught by my father or possibly as shown in the Paper Chase TV series, seems now effectively to be a way of shaking up college graduates’ thinking by showing how easy generalizations can lead one astray. Or, as Magee puts it, “They try to think about it; they produce an answer. Socrates shows the inadequacy of the answer. You end up not with a firm answer, but with a greater grasp of the problem than before.”
There is a striking analogy here to the programmer’s practice of debugging one’s own or another’s code. Effectively, you know there is a bug, but you also know that you will probably not be able to understand the code fully and objectively enough to see the flaw immediately. Instead, you argue backwards from a wrong output to a point in the software’s logic that your experience with code and bugs tells you is a likely reason for the problem, and then try a different approach at that point. In the same way, Socrates says, we don’t need to examine in detail your idea, instead, let’s look at something that doesn’t fit your generalization or model of reality (causes the wrong output); now let’s examine your logic to see what the problem might be, and try a new approach.
Following the analogy with programming further, I would suggest that Socrates is introducing the notion of “design-time debugging” – which, programming practice shows, is often more effective at producing relatively bugless logic than debugging after the program is run through the compiler (pre-testing) or used at runtime (testing in the real world). But note that this tests not the inputs to the program or scientific theory (it doesn’t test the validity of the data from the real world); rather, it tests the logical steps by which that input is turned into a testable output. Thus, iirc, Socrates combats the notion that slaves may be incapable of rational thought by adducing the example of a slave taught to mimic Greek by imitation of the sounds of a flute; but since no one is communicating in the slave’s native tongue or considering the possibility that another language is equally productive of rational thought, the whole exercise is scientifically useless. You have a greater grasp of the problem; but in this case you have no better grasp of the solution.
And this, I would argue, is why the Platonic/Socratic approach is at once a major advance in and a major limitation on the scientific method. One the one hand, debugging the logic of a model of reality as an approach to testing its validity is, even in our day, an underemphasized skill – hence the usefulness of the “causality debugging” in Judea Pearl’s work. On the other hand, focusing on this aspect of the task and ignoring the importance of materialism, i.e., the problem of the validity of real-world data and our ability to apprehend it, takes us away from the sort of experimental carefulness that we now know to be vital to establishing scientific truth. Moreover, the process of like-minded individual challenge rather than peer review, attractive though it is to thinkers in all ages, still fails to achieve the quality goals of scientific research because it fails to bring in a broad enough spectrum of experience. Or, to put it another way, the rogue scientist must present his (yes, in those days, pretty much universally his) finding of a fossil as a question about whether this fits under earth, air, fire, or water rather than as a new category calling for a fundamentally new model.
Two steps forward, one step back. Let’s go on, next time, to consider the next development: Aristotle.