Science makes progress so why doesn't Philosophy?
Since the scientific revolution of the 17th Century, the progress of science has been a relentless triumphant one. This is vindicated by the fact that it has been extraordinarily fruitful in terms of the prediction and manipulation of our environment, as well as in the creation of our technology. The same cannot be said for philosophy. Why has there been such a lack of progress in philosophy, especially when we compare it to science?
We first have to recognize the difference between science and philosophy. Both disciplines seek to establish the truth. But, although there is overlap, in general, I would suggest that the nature of the truths that each of these disciplines seeks to establish are of differing types.
At a minimum, science seeks to accurately describe how the physical world unfolds and to manipulate the environment in the creation of our technology. Here we can easily see why progress is relatively easily achievable. For if someone proposes a scientific theory that describes some aspect of the world, it is in principle susceptible to being tested through our observations. A theory that fails to mirror what we actually observe can be discarded.
Now, let's consider philosophy and specifically the most important questions we can ask ourselves. Questions such as, 'what is the world', 'why is there something rather than nothing', 'does a creator exist', 'do we have free will', 'is there a purpose to our existence'? Or in the realm of ethics where we ask practically important questions such as, 'what is the Good', 'how should we live', 'should society seek to maximise happiness', and so on. All these questions appear to be purely philosophical since it seems there are no empirical investigations we can carry out that can help us to establish the answers to them. The resolutions to such questions have to rely upon arguments alone.
So, what generally (but see the next section) demarcates scientific issues from philosophical ones, at least for a lot of the deeper philosophical questions, is that the former can be tested, the latter has to rely upon arguments.
There's a problem with just exclusively employing arguments though, and it is this. Even if the arguments are sound, other people have to be able to understand them, and a sufficient number of people at that to overturn prevalent pre-existing beliefs. Compounding this problem, people have to be motivated to read the arguments in the first place. How many people are motivated to read an argument that contravenes their implicit beliefs? And, even when they do, might they not be doing so in order to try and pick holes in it rather than adopting an attitude of an open-minded enquiry and a dispassionate search for the truth? If that were not enough, philosophy is extremely difficult. It includes asking the most important questions we humans can ask ourselves, and the process of reasoning to certain conclusions can engender no end of misunderstandings and confusions. Sound reasoning is frequently heavily outweighed by erroneous reasoning that comes to incorrect conclusions.
So the reason why philosophy doesn't progress is due to the fact that on the few occasions where someone has an insight and produces a sound argument for something or other, it does not have sufficient influence amongst other people to gain sufficient traction. People will frequently not be able to comprehend the argument. Or they may feel antipathy towards the conclusion of the argument if it contravenes their entrenched beliefs. More often still, though, philosophical arguments are simply ignored. Contrast this with science. For example, consider the science behind powered flight. Would such science have been convincing in the absence of a practical demonstration? It seems not since the stories regarding the success of the Wright brothers were met at first with ridicule. But seeing is believing. In short, science progresses because people are convinced by what they can see with their eyes. Philosophy generally lacks this validation.
Is philosophy therefore pointless, or even meaningless?
It is commonly felt that because philosophy doesn't progress, at least in the form of universal assent, then it has no use at all. That is to say, it is pointless. Indeed, there are even some that suggest that the questions philosophy asks are meaningless. I suppose the idea here is that if no progress is made, then this implies no progress can be made because the questions themselves are, in principle, unanswerable. And they presume they are unanswerable since they are, quite literally, meaningless.
I do not think this charge passes muster for one second. First of all, the lack of progress will be for the reasons I mention above. Moreover, clearly many philosophical questions have at least meaning, even the deepest questions. For example, either there is a creator (however conceived), or there isn't. If the latter, then the whole shebang came into existence by blind fortuity, or by happenstance, or by however one chooses to frame it. But, even when rejecting a creator, the question of whether or not there is a creator still has meaning. So, whatever the truth is here, whether there is a creator or not, there is a fact of the matter, even if it is a fact that forevermore lies beyond the ability of human beings to fathom.
There are further reasons to reject the contention that philosophical questions are meaningless, or at least pointless. I mentioned above that what demarcates scientific issues from philosophical ones is that the former is decided by empirical investigations, the latter by arguments. But that was a bit simplistic. It is somewhat more involved and nuanced than this. In fact, there is no rigid demarcation between science and philosophy.
For example, consider Galileo's argument that demonstrates that objects of different weights must fall at the same acceleration (see my post Thought Experiments in my other blog). Thought experiments, such as this are, strictly speaking, philosophical. But Galileo's argument is an example of a thought experiment that can be empirically investigated -- namely by dropping two objects of different weights from a high height and seeing if they reach the ground at the same time.
There are also examples of philosophical reasoning or thought experiments that although cannot be empirically established at the time they are articulated, are eventually susceptible to empirical investigation. So, for example, George Berkeley back in the 18th Century in his essay Du Motu produced sound arguments against the notion of absolute space, although his argument was ignored by virtually everyone. Berkeley's insight foreshadowed the rejection of absolute space in the 20th Century that came with the general acceptance of Einstein's special theory of relativity.
So we can definitively conclude that at least some philosophy is able to establish truths about the world. And what is pivotal to their widespread acceptance is whether they can be empirically investigated -- sound arguments alone are generally insufficient. But whether some sound philosophical argument or insight can be empirically investigated or not is incidental to an argument's soundness. That is, a philosophical argument can be sound, even if it can never be empirically validated.
Should we exclusively refer to science to establish truths about the world?
It seems to me to be clear that our empirical investigations of the world do not always overturn those reached by a process of reasoning. To give one example, if we measure the area of a circle and it differs from πr², we wouldn't conclude the geometrical reasoning establishing it is πr² was incorrect. Rather, we would assume our measuring was inaccurate, or alternatively that it wasn't a perfect circle. Likewise, if we had measured objects of different weights falling at differing accelerations, would we conclude that Galileo's thought experiment was flawed and even pointless? No, because given the crucial proviso that Galileo's reasoning was sound, we should conclude there must have been some mistake in our empirical investigations that only seem to suggest that the heavier an object is, the faster it falls. Perhaps the experimenter was dropping a stone and a feather!
There is another reason to reject this contention that we should just rely solely and exclusively on science to tell us about the world. Earlier, I said that at a minimum science seeks to accurately describe how the physical world unfolds and to manipulate the environment in the creation of our technology. But the vast majority of people -- and this also includes the vast majority of scientists -- regard science as doing much more than this. They regard science, or at least physics, as revealing to us the ultimate nature of reality. That our scientific theories depict literal states of affairs. That the plethora of subatomic particles and the four forces featuring in our theories in physics, all have a literal existence. There is also most scientists' belief that the success of science entails that materialism, indeed often reductive materialism, provides the correct depiction of reality.1
As many of you will know, I question all of this. For example, see my What physicists claim exists can be doubted, my Self-floating books, my What philosophical questions does science answer?, and my Why the existence of consciousness rules modern materialism out.
But whether you agree with me or not in any of these essays is simply not relevant. By all means, disagree with me, but this doesn't alter the fact that these issues are philosophical ones, not ones that can be decided by science itself. The problem here, though, is that most people, including scientists, do not appear to understand this. Our scientific education, which in turn smuggles in certain metaphysical suppositions, instils certain beliefs about the nature of the world. We soak up, almost by osmosis, western "wisdom" about what exists, what the world is and so on.
So philosophy, or more specifically metaphysics, is always implicitly involved in forming our conception of the nature of reality. It's just that many people, including scientists, are not aware that it is. They mistakenly think that science validates their metaphysical conception of reality. I regard this as highly undesirable. As those who have read some of my blog will be aware, this in my opinion had led to many fatuous conclusions regarding the nature of the world and what we human beings are.
Let me provide just one example of such fatuous conclusions. Consider the claim that physicists make that consciousness in and of itself lacks any causal efficacy. In reality, everything we ever do, and even think, is the result of the blind interactions of subatomic particles and their forces. But if we strip physics of its metaphysical assumptions and hold that physics merely describes changes in material reality that utilizes mathematical equations, we can see how silly this is. For, when we get right down to it, we are effectively saying that the patterns we observe in the subatomic realm serve to negate our immediate and direct experience of our own causal agency.
Let me go into more detail to try and explicate this further. Firstly, people are immediately aware of their own causal agency. They then project this concept of causal agency into the material world in order to try and make sense of change within it (i.e. they don't like to suppose the patterns in the material world are just a brute fact). Crucially, they regard such material causes as accounting for all change in the world, this includes our brains too since they are material objects. Couple this with the belief that the brain produces consciousness, then it follows that it will be such material causes that account for the totality of our behaviour, including the progression of our thoughts. Hence, they now deny their immediate experience that it is their own consciousness per se that is responsible for their behaviour.
Just reflect for one moment how crazy this is. First of all, it seems we were directly cognisant of the mental causal potency of our own consciousness as witnessed by our ability to move our own bodies and think our own thoughts. We thereby inferred the material world is also governed by causes, this time by material causes. We then turned this on its head. For we now deny that our own immediately experienced causal agency exists, and in fact, only the inferred causal agency in the material world exists!2
Scientists enjoy a prestige only dreamt of by professional philosophers. Hence, there is a disincentive for philosophers to advance ideas challenging scientists' metaphysical presuppositions. A philosopher doing so risks having their ideas labelled "absurd" and even being mercilessly ridiculed. This in turn runs the risk of their careers being negatively impacted. Because of this, and due to other factors such as groupthink, professional philosophers tend to pander to scientists beliefs. Regretfully, as a consequence, philosophy lacks the impact it should and ought to have. Philosophy's lack of influence is not due to its pointlessness though, it's due rather to the unjustified hegemony of scientists' metaphysical beliefs.
1 Note that materialism is independent from the question of whether our theories in physics depict a literal state of affairs -- one could be a dualist, for example, and be happy to hold that our theories in physics gives a literal representation of material reality↩
2 Of course, one can believe both in the causal efficacy of consciousness or mental causality, and material causality too. However, that would contravene physicists belief that the world is physically closed. Physically closed just means they believe that only material causes exist (see a relevant post in my other blog here)↩