Science and Philosophy

After attempting to read Hegel he complained, “what an unclear, senseless torrent of words I was to find there.” In 1905 Boltzmann wrote to philosopher Franz Brentano (1838 – 1917), “Shouldn’t the irresistible urge to philosophize be compared to the vomiting caused by migraines, in that something is trying to struggle out even though there is nothing inside?”[i]

In 1904, Boltzmann gave a lecture attacking Schopenhauer before the Vienna Philosophical Society that was originally to be titled, “Proof that Schopenhauer is a stupid, ignorant philosophaster, scribbling nonsense and dispensing hollow verbiage that fundamentally and forever rots people’s brains.” Actually, Schopenhauer had written these precise words to attack Hegel.[ii] Boltzmann changed the title, but still came down hard on Schopenhauer.

[i]  David Lindley, Boltzmann’s Atom: The Great Debate That Launched a Revolution in Physics, (New York: Free Press, 2001), p. 199.

[ii] Ibid, p. 201.

The problem with Hegel is that he says everything he needs to say in the first 20 pages of everything he writes.  I don’t think he was completely bankrupt of intellectual content, but he ends up writing this sort of recherche pile of stuff that adds nothing and actually manages to confuse the hell out of the reader.  As for Schopenhauer I would not even go there.  His ideas are completely silly from the first paragraphs.

I don’t go quite as far as to say philosophy has nothing to do with science.  Hume managed something, Russel and Reichenbach did a few interesting things, Popper made some decent points and I think Dennet is fairly reasonable.  Actually I would give a tip of the hat to Wallace as well.  Yet experience indicates how the coupling between effective ideas in physics and philosophy is very weak.  I think the problem is that few philosophers have much grounding in physics or science and they end up making grand schemes for existence that are patent bilge water.  The halcyon days of philosophy was the ancient world and then its revival in the late middle ages and renaissance.  Out of this earlier philosophy came the methods for scientific thought, starting with Thales and reaching a sort of grand conclusion with Roger Bacon.  Since then philosophy has largely played a very secondary role by at best filling in a few intellectual gaps in science.  The real impact of philosophy  has been on a decline for the last several centuries.

In effect our final understanding of the universe will be forced upon us.  Even if we have a decent theory of quantum cosmology, if it has some open problems what data we get to support it will be the final data, and this may be the end to our expansion in our understanding of cosmological foundations.  We may be faced with other limits in various areas of other scientific foundations, where molecular biology is faced with a serious complexity problem.  Applied science might have some ways to go, and there will probably be various niche scientific subjects that keep popping up.

The scenario is this.  Fine literature seems to be either gone or it is buried under too much noise.  The same holds for musical composition.  Philosophy appears to be in a hopeless slump, and slumping further.  And by the mid 21st century it is entirely possible that a number of major scientific foundations will have reached their end or limit.  Space flight and ideas about colonizing planets all seems to be a fading dream.  So what will be left?  Fukuyama said with the end of the USSR that we were at the end of history, the rest of human existence will be about market and economic games.  All one has to do is look through history and the buildings constructed to see which type of social motif ran things.  In the high middle ages the great constructions were Cathedrals when the Church ruled things.  From the 16th to the end of the 19th the great constructions were palaces and government buildings.  Now go to any city around the world and see what the big buildings are devoted to.  Just read the signs on them to see what has changed in the last 100 years and what the future will be.  The banks, financial houses and corporation pretty much are acquiring absolute dominance.  In such a world there will be little care given to foundational questions in science, nor will things like philosophy count for much.  The only thing that will count will be something with a market price.  While economics is a crap subject, I think Don Henley got it right with his final line of the song “Dirty Laundry,” which is “crap is king.”

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.—Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 1995
When Einstein realized that a person in a falling box would see the same physics as another person way out in space without gravity he used this to motivate the construction of general relativity.  We might call this philosophy, or natural philosophy, for this involves looking at the fundamental postulates involved with understanding or constructing a theory.  The curious thing is that this and other similar developments are done by physicists, not philosophers.  The game of what might be called natural philosophy has been stripped away from the philosophers.

The last big development in philosophy was existentialism, which so far as I can see has run its course.  Dennet works on philosophical ideas with science and consciousness with the idea these might facilitate scientific developments.  Beyond that philosophy seems to be in or heading deeper into a nadir.  Maybe I am wrong, but from what I see it appears that philosophy is a subject at universities that is becoming similar to importance as art history.



About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence.
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