Alex Rosenberg on Whether Philosophy Emerges from Science

by Max Andrews

Rosenberg breaks questions into two orders: first order questions and second order questions.  First order questions are normative.  This asks, “What is a number?”, “What is the nature of the abstract?”, “What is time?”, and “What is justice?” The questions are typically associated with what are now considered to be metaphysical, axiological, and aesthetic questions.  The second order questions ask, “What are the appropriate methods for science?”, “How does this work?”, “What cause could produce such and effect?”, and “How does science apply in this circumstance?”

There are two types of explanation: philosophical explanation and scientific explanation.  The philosophical explanation takes many forms.  Some Platonist philosophers treat the claims of science as truths to be discovered whereas others treat science as a human institution, something invented as a mode of discovery and to organize our experiences and enhance our technological control of nature.  Philosophical explanations, according to Rosenberg, are merely questions left unanswered and are only secondary to scientific explanations.  Scientific explanations attempt to make an objective relation between facts and/or statements that we set out to discover.[1]

If Rosenberg is correct in his position that philosophy is a consequent of science then all normative questions will have one of two fates: either normative questions will ultimately prove useless or they will be reduced to physical processes.  If the former is true then normative questions are not scientific and are purely pseudoscience.  If the latter is true then normative questions are identical to empirical or scientific questions.  Thus, science will be the ultimate domain taking on everything.  Typically, given the bifurcation between science and philosophy, philosophers bring philosophical reasons for any given event rather than scientists bringing scientific reasons. Rosenberg makes the case that science will ultimately set the agenda and science will give the reasons; it is science that answers the questions.  Contra Descartes, the empirical world will always have empirical answers.  If the direction in which science carries philosophy is a one-way street towards physicalism, determinism, atheism, and perhaps even nihilism, then the intellectual obligation to science of those who wrestle with philosophical questions would be unavoidable—despite the fact that this isn’t necessarily so.[2]

Philosophy has had a relative lack of success in advances compared to the natural sciences due to a failure to correctly identify or implement the empirical methods that have succeeded in natural science.[3] If Rosenberg is right in that philosophy will inevitably fall short of explanation and science will supersede all method of inquiry and answer every question then science itself may become inept in explanation.  The problem is not so much that science will determine the pseudoquestions but that science will ultimately prohibit our method of inquiry and or epistemology.  Having this bifurcation defeated by science does not promote science.  Lest we fall prey to the same trap Newtonian scientists and philosophers fell into by using the Newtonian universe as a landscape for permanent intellectual discussion.  It turned out that Newtonian mechanics is a sufficient explanation on certain scales.  It’s inapplicable on the quantum scale and on the large scale of general relativity.  If contemporary scientists and philosophers, a la Rosenberg, use the quantum and Einsteinian landscape as a permanent feature of reality.  It may be the case that current scientific explanation end up just as inept or worse than Newtonian explanations.  There is no guarantee the scientific explanation will expand the epistemic horizons.  Additionally, what we currently consider to be normative knowledge may not be knowledge at all and our pseudoscience and pseudoquestions can have a wider scope data within them than the scientific knowledge.

I disagree with Rosenberg’s analysis based on the above implications.  There is a distinct bifurcation between philosophy and science but there is a necessary overlap.  How one interprets scientific data is dependent on axiomatic truths previously accepted—philosophy.  Thus, there is a grid by which the scientific data must pass through to construct a meaningful interpretation, law, and theory.  It is not the case that science will ever be able to explain axiological truths.  It may discover how we come to know them but it cannot explain the why question.  Science doesn’t seem to be capable of explaining a priori truths (or at least doesn’t give an indication that it will be able to).  Likewise with philosophy, I am hesitant to base all metaphysical truth apart from scientific truths.  Philosophy has been wrong in this area as well so I must not trump my philosophy over science in every instance.  Science may be able to inform philosophy just as philosophy is able to inform science.  This is a co-dependent relationship and it would be intellectually irresponsible to trump one over the other.

[1] Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy of Science (New York: Routeledge, 2012), 53.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 23

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