The contiguous worlds of Philosophy and Science

In an article published on June 1 2017 in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’, David Papineau addresses the question: ‘Is philosophy simply harder than science?’ Described as ‘the route to truth’, philosophy is described not only as the handmaiden of science but as its original foundation since all scientific theories originate from some form of philosophical position, such as, for instance, ancient natural thinkers like Democritus, Epicurus or Lucretius. Through their denial of any divine intervention in the universe, these ancient materialists posed a direct threat to early religious beliefs and teleological interpretations of the cosmos.

Papineau ponders over the apparent lack of progress in his own subject as opposed to the constant evolution ascribed to sciences, in general. Scientists rely on tested experiments and collected data to support their claims. Philosophers, on the other hand, do not have the benefit of laboratory conditions and instead, have to elaborate their theories in the open atmosphere of the lecture hall or the seminar room. Papineau points out that ‘philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox’, which will commonly result from the conflagration of two antithetical ideas. Schrodinger’s cat experiment is a typical case of a philosophical conundrum (partly) resolved by an appeal to experience. Yet, scientists will very often stick to an existing ‘paradigm’ and will be hesitant to venture into totally uncharted territories. Lewis Carroll’s world may not be understandable within the parameters of Kuhn’s ‘normal science’ and though, it is one of the most stimulating and entertaining works of philosophy in the way it challenges and questions our most fundamental beliefs about our perception of physical phenomena.

Curiously, Papineau does not mention the role of science fiction in the evolution of modern science despite the fact that science fiction novels have, for well over a century, inspired scientific minds and unwittingly paved the way to the technological world we live in. Science feeds on the human imagination as much as on revelatory moments of pure genius like Newton’s and Einstein’s or years of sheer hard work and constant obstacles as experienced by Galileo. If the task and mission of science is to provide rational, verifiable answers to specific questions regarding the nature of the physical world, philosophy remains free to speculate outside the ‘scientific’ box and forge original concepts which may eventually serve the scientific theories of the future.

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