One of my (My human form’s) essay assignments for the intro to philosophy, psychology and language sciences at the University of Edinburgh. I have always found science and critical thinking relevant to social wellbeing, and more so in the storm of misinformation we brave during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I have to warn you that it is longer than what you expect from me, and not as fun to read. I had to adhere to academic standards when writing it. I have done my best to make it more accessible.
Philosophy is often classified as a purely reflective method of inquiry into reality and our place in it. However, science also investigates reality and our place in it, with impressive success. Why (if at all) should we engage in philosophical inquiry into these matters?
This question and its relevance to philosophy as a viable discipline are the reasons for my choice to enrol in this course. I have struggled before to grasp the essence of philosophy as a discipline.
At the same time, I am a strong proponent of a proper scientific approach to everything (and I mean everything. I would apply rigorous methodology to all my decisions if I had access to one). Until now, I failed to see value in attempting to arrive at the truth of anything without direct observation of (and experimentation on) the particular “thing” whose truth needs to be uncovered. In short, and as the question expresses: why do we (civilisation) need a philosophical approach to discovery when we have the proven methods of science?
As I see it today, good philosophy can lead to better approaches to science, and sound science can serve as a corroborator to philosophy.
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It turns out that philosophers, for the most part, are concerned with facts and have a desire to understand reality as well as is humanly possible. I must admit that my disdain for the word philosophy resulted from my exposure to some anti-intellectual schools of thought such as Postmodernism, and to the rhetoric used by the so-called “progressive” minds of new social justice era. Further, my idea of philosophy often brought my thoughts to the less desirable, if not insufficient religious persuasions, and the equivocal employ of the term to refer to an individual’s purely subjective worldview – worldviews that at times seem to corrupt the concepts put forth by the great thinkers of the past.
Good philosophy leads to better science by requesting, that the person conducting an analysis approaches information differently from less orthodox angles. Or, as Dr Ward proposes in his definition, that we step back from thinking to look at the thinking itself and to verify that it is and remains critical.
This metacognitive commitment makes the proper practice of philosophy not only noble but very practical; insofar, of course, as the checks and balances of our most robust scientific methods are allowed to filter out the errors in collected data. This notion, in turn, is how good science can enhance philosophy: by providing the philosopher with better objects on which to focus their disciplined thinking after having determined the essence of these objects to be consistent with reality.
It is possible to argue that science has methods that replace philosophy; however, the emphasis of any philosophy, especially of science is on thinking separately about these methods, their foundations, and their implications to scientific endeavours. Having this focus on the protocols of science can help us determine what qualifies as real science and how reliable its theories are.
Thus, philosophy becomes the checks and balances for the checks and balances of science.
The answer to this question is in the benefit that proper philosophising can offer to science and the activity of thinking in general. The truth is that humans will accept what they want as true despite evidence to the contrary, and even the most powerful of philosophical intuitions will not deter this behaviour. But those who apply proper epistemic tools to their thinking and the claims of others, will most often arrive at better conclusions than those who do not.
I propose a society where everyone is exposed to philosophical and scientific principles as part of their basic education. A world where we are not simply given answers to questions but afforded the ability to formulate better questions and to successfully challenge and test the solutions we construct during our pursuit of truth. I firmly believe that while this exposure to better ways of thinking would not solve all the problems that plague the human condition, it would grant us the possibility of a more balanced and just world.
As my conclusion, I submit that science and philosophy (when observed with discipline) can operate independently, and quite successfully, but can only present optimal result when worked together. But science and philosophy can only deliver these optimal results when all those involved observe their obligation to intellectual honesty, and when we regulate personal emotional biases through a similar meta-cognitive commitment to critical thinking.
I will add here that I completed that part of the program with distinction, as academia loves to say.
Thank you for reading this long and drawn-out piece. It’s what the school required of me. I hope I made my point clear.