Can philosophy provide an insight into reality that surpasses that which science offers?

[The following was my response to an exam at my graduate program. The idea of this exam is that it is unprepared and ex tempore. One has 4 hours to write a response to one of three very broad question on the nature of philosophy. The title of this post indicates the question that I chose to answer and the body of the post indicates my response to it. I post it on the off chance that somebody is morbidly curious as to my own philosophical opinions.]

To a certain sort of empirically minded modern person science unambiguously surpasses philosophy because it is superior to philosophy. There are four reasons he could advance in support of his claim:

First, science strives for objectivity. That is to say that its aims and methods strive to be as value-free as possible. This value-free objectivity allows scientists to make claims that command asset universally. One need not be a member of a particular culture, religion or language group for a scientific demonstration to be persuade one. This is in marked contrast, it seems, to philosophical theories, which are often subjective and parochial insofar as they rely on cultural idiosyncrasies like belief in a Deity. Therefore, science has a superior insight into reality, that is to say, the mind-independent physical world.

Second, science provides a superior insight into reality than philosophy because scientific theories are capable of being proven false. A good scientific theory produces predictions which future experiments could possibly prove untrue. Philosophical theories are seldom predictive and never falsifiable. If Plato was wrong about the Forms, still there is no way for us to check, so we cannot be certain. Therefore science provides a superior insight into reality.

Third, because there are ways of proving scientific theories wrong, it is possible to speak of the progress of science. An old theory is shown to be flawed, so a new theory arises which can definitively replace it, as the molecular theory of heat replaced the phlogiston theory. In philosophy there is a succession of arguments certainly but it has happened seldom, if at all, that an old theory is definitively discarded and replaced by a more adequate successor. Aristotle’s metaphysics might go out of fashion, but it hasn’t been proven false and replaced. Science is progressing towards a true knowledge of reality, having left Ptolemy and Galileo and Newton in the past. Philosophy has not yet progressed beyond Plato. Therefore, it seems that science provides the superior insight into reality.

Fourth, the progress of science has brought in its train a host of practical benefits: Medicine, Agriculture, and so on. Philosophy, however, does not seem to help alleviate the suffering of human beings. One might become a stoic sage with Philosophy, but the sage’s virtue doesn’t fill hungry bellies. Science provides a superior insight into reality insofar as it gives one the ability to do some practical good for humanity.

To the contrary of this optimistic view of the sciences are the evils brought about by science in the 20th century: the atom bomb, eugenics, global warming, etc. To this it must be said that philosophy too shares responsibility for great evils in the 20th century. Philosophies decay into ideologies and ideology often translates into murder.

I respond, nevertheless, that philosophy surpasses the sciences in its insight into reality.
By “science” I mean an empirical investigation into some feature of the world. The goal of a science is to produce theories about laws of nature that can be expressed with universal quantifiers. “All atoms in an ideal gas . . . “ (Note that this definition is making no distinction between natural and human sciences because I take a positivist approach to social science still to have defenders. Moreover, a more hermeneutical social science seems to be drifting closer to a philosophical discourse rather than a scientific one. These complexities can be ignored for the moment.)

By “philosophy” I mean a rational investigation into those non-empirical parts of reality such as justice, beauty, goodness, freedom, God and so forth. Philosophy and the sciences share a goal—finding the truth about reality. Thus, philosophy and the sciences are not locked into a competitive struggle over which discusses reality just because the objects investigated by the sciences are not the same as the objects investigated by Philosophy. No one wishing a complete knowledge of the world could neglect either.

Nevertheless, philosophy can be said to surpass the insight of the sciences in two ways: first in virtue of its logical priority and second in virtue of the higher value of the subjects it treats.

By saying that philosophy offers an insight into reality that surpasses that of the sciences in virtue of philosophy’s logical priority I mean that the presuppositions of the sciences are themselves objects of philosophical inquiry. For instance, the critical presupposition of the first three objections above is that what is most valuable and worth knowing is an objectively-existing mind-independent physical world. But why should “reality” = “mind-independent physical world”? In fact I think that reality contains not only mind-dependent entities, but non-physical ones as well. It isn’t possible to prove this here, of course, but I don’t need to prove its truth to demonstrate the problem for my empiricist objesctor, because it is surely a metaphysical thesis that “’reality’ = ‘mind-independent world’”. He cannot use this metaphysical thesis implicitly to argue for the global conclusion that scientific theories are just better than philosophical ones, because the ground for the argument is itself a philosophical claim.

All sciences are going to invoke philosophical notions such as “truth” and “reality” as presuppositions just because what the sciences are trying to do is to produce true statements about reality on the basis of empirical experiment. But “truth” and “reality” are not empirical things; therefore, they cannot be given a scientific meaning. The meaning of these concepts must then come from philosophy, therefore, philosophy provides an insight into reality that is superior in the sense that it is logically presupposed.

Philosophy also provides a superior insight into the nature of reality in that the worth of its objects of investigation surpasses the worth of the objects of investigation of the science for philosophy considers things such as justice, goodness and beauty and the sciences consider atoms and plants and voting patterns (charitably assuming that there is something “scientific” about political science). Now it is surely a valuable thing to know why people vote as they do. But it is surely something much more precious to know how they ought to vote in order to vote justly.

By inquiring into the nature of justice, the philosopher gains an insight which enables her to evaluate her society critically, and this is the safeguard against philosophy (or the sciences) being pressed into service for ideological ends.

To the first, second, and third arguments that science was superior in virtue of its objectivity, neutrality, progress and falsifiability. It is not the case that all that is worth knowing is demonstrable scientifically, as was shown above. These other aspects of reality perhaps do not admit of objectivity, neutrality and falsification, but they are not unimportant for all that. Therefore, the objections fail.

To the fourth that science is superior in that it provides practical benefits to humanity and philosophy doesn’t, it must be said that this is false because philosophy is concerned above all with the question “How shall I live?” By dwelling on this question philosophers can help resist the march of ideology. Therefore philosophy is practical as well, even for those who are not themselves philosophers.


One Response to Can philosophy provide an insight into reality that surpasses that which science offers?

  1. wtm1 says:

    Very nice, Shane.

    It seems to me that one could do a similar exercise to show why theology isto be ranked higher than philosophy, and then you have a nice little ladder of sciences. Of course, I don’t think either of us want that.

    Is there any way that we can think of (empirical) science and philosophy as mutually conditioned and therefore equally basic? Somthing like this may provide the most satisfactory AND the most demonstrably profitable account.

    Of course, I would still tend to rank science above philosophy if for no other reason than that the thought forms of the human mind and intellect are shaped by for many years by interaction with the empirical world before anything like a capacity for abstract thought emerges.

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