Philosophy Will Always Be Relevant

Philosophy not only goes well beyond the scope of science—it underlies it, too.

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This article was written in response to “Philosophy: An Antiquated Method of Explanation,” published in Volume 110, Issue 5.

Especially for non-philosophers, it can be difficult to talk about philosophy without sounding like something of a pompous ash. Even a philosophy professor can only use so many phrases like “categorical imperative” and “ontological argument for the existence of God” before it becomes insufferable. The reason for this difficulty is that philosophy has an extraordinarily broad scope. It encompasses issues like the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the whole field of ethics—which is to say, the question, “What’s the right thing to do?”

But those issues are ones that, for better or for worse, humans have to tackle. And all humans do, indeed, answer them; one could not get through life without doing so. Their answers provide the foundation for all action and existence. What philosophy does is allow us to question and think critically and deeply about those answers, to grapple with the issues rather than just tackle them.

Reports of philosophy’s death ignore philosophy’s depth, tending instead to view it narrowly as a tool for finding knowledge of the universe’s absolute facts—its origins, its mechanics, et cetera—long since surpassed by science in usefulness. It’s not difficult to see where these reports are coming from: philosophy, literally defined in ancient Greek, can mean “love of wisdom.” But there is a lot more to life and thinking than narrow definitions and etymologies, and there’s a lot more to philosophy than mere knowledge.

Take, for instance, ethics and morality. Science can aid us quite a bit in our studies of these ideas. For instance, psychology might tell us about the behavioral relationship between morality and empathy, but it does not tell us if morality really exists or, if it does, what it consists of; all it tells us is what motivates us to be moral, and that’s a very different thing—or maybe it isn’t, but arguing that it is would require some philosophy.

Philosophy does more than deal with questions that science can’t answer: it gives science the tools and methods it needs to function, and the justification it needs to exist. The European Scientific Revolution of the 17th century was much more than simply a revolution in known facts: the massive increase in knowledge that it wrought was brought on by a change in how people thought about knowledge—that is, a philosophical change into a more empirically-based paradigm. And the centrality of falsifiable hypotheses to the scientific method was introduced in the mid-20th century by philosopher Karl Popper. Science may cover facts, but philosophy covers the nature of facts and what makes them knowable.

There are limits to philosophy’s usefulness to science. The late, great physicist Stephen Hawking made headlines a few years before his passing when he told a Google conference that “philosophy is dead.” His argument, while ultimately wrong, was not entirely without merit: developments in physics over the past half-century in areas like quantum mechanics have challenged conventional thinking about the nature of reality itself. What Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”—a derisive term for entanglement, which is the idea that objects can have direct effects on the fundamental properties of other objects across the universe to which they are “entangled”—is now the scientific consensus. But these developments have not changed how most people—or at least most people whom I’ve encountered—think about philosophy.

Hawking’s adherents would do well to remember that science owes its foundation to philosophy. This is not just a statement of history—the divergence of philosophy and science as disciplines is a relatively recent development—but of contemporary fact. Why is the scientific method the best way to learn about the universe? Why, indeed, is learning about the universe even a worthwhile pursuit? These philosophical questions are fundamental to the existence of science. If the answer to either is “it isn’t,” then science either cannot exist in its current form or shouldn’t exist in the first place. And let us avoid the arrogance of thinking that we’re done with philosophy because we’ve answered all these questions. Our answers aren’t final—they’re part of a much larger, overarching dialectic. Indeed, Popper’s all-important falsifiability is now being questioned by some philosophers of science.

If there were more to life than the ruthless pursuit of knowledge, then philosophy would still have a place. If there weren’t, we would need philosophy to explain exactly why that is the case. In any event, philosophy is necessary, and we’d be pretty forking lost without it.