The rage people sometimes feel for philosophers is probably warranted. A friend recently read one of my blogs and laughingly said, so what’s the conclusion? Feeling secretly disturbed, I think I might have laughed more loudly when I quipped, do you always surrender yourself to the linguistic whims of your writer? Silence. A rift. Then: Casual conversation emptied the void.
The science narrative has pervaded mainstream discourse with a sense for the practical. Assessment. conclusion, application. Assessment. conclusion, application. Assessment. conclusion, application. Assessment. conclusion, application. Repeat.
Therein lies the trouble. This paradigm of discourse does not have dibs on how to construe the truth or endeavour to find the truth. The history of philosophy is literally filed with competing formulations of the truth, which implicate assumptions on a host of interrelated issues ranging from the relationship between the truth and the world; whether indeed there is a mind-independent world (that can be known); how indeed the structures of natural languages gauge and meaningfully expose the truth; the metaphysical underpinning of any truth assertion, and how the so-called distinction between the thinking subject and object are to be bridged, if at all. Mostly scientists, and those disposed to scientific-like formulations of the truth, are oblivious to all of this and often respond with a gaping yawn at such quibbles.
Part of the problem lies in the distinctive nature of philosophical discourse. Philosophy is a second order discipline that always wants to have a look at what lurks underneath the rug, or what goes on behind the stage. Philosophers aren’t satisfied with merely finding the most efficient ways of keeping the rug clean or operating a smooth production; philosophers want to know what the rug is! Now most people don’t care to ask this question because it is, after all, just obviously a rug. It is, as it were, an uninteresting question. I mean really who cares?! Well Plato cared. He cared about being able to apprehend the rug itself as opposed to one’s perceptions of the rug. Plato had noticed (he wasn’t the first to notice this, however) that appearances vary from person to person and from time to time. He also noticed that we address the items of the world that occupy our mind as if they are eternal and constant. The point being that there must be some enduring thingness that survives these relative changes if we continue to refer to any such item as that thing that it is, namely the table, person, dog, star, and so on. Plato got to this “conclusion” by exposing abounding contradictions; for instance, Elly is both beautiful and ugly, for John has issued the first statement, and Mary the second. But Elly can’t be both beautiful and ugly since being beautiful contradicts being ugly. So Elly can’t be both of these things, anymore than a piece of string can be both long and short, or a man can be both strong and weak (do you find my examples to be sexists? 😉 ) In come the distinction between appearances and reality. Appearances are ephemeral; whilst reality is eternal. Appearances don’t speak to the thing itself, but rather to how that thing appears to the human mind under certain conditions – so Elly can be ugly to Mary and beautiful to John because the statement speaks to “Elly” or the appearance of Elly, as opposed to Elly herself. (Ummm what happened to Elly? Where’d she go? Does she not exist?) The thing itself, however, cannot be apprehended by mere perception. This is where things become hazy. Plato argued that the world of appearance – this one, the one we live in – is the world of appearance from which one can glean only partial and relative truths – is distinct from the intelligible world – some “other” realm or “world” or sphere of human understanding where the items that make up reality are true to their essence, enduring in a manner unadulterated by the human condition or the physical circumstances of the perceptible world. You may disagree with Plato’s metaphysics, but notice that if we are to rely on the results of scientific inquiry, we’d better be sure of the domain of its heir. And if Plato is right, scientific inquiry pertains to asking questions about the hows and whys of this world; the world of mere appearance. As complex as this enterprise may be answers apply only within a narrow field of assessment conditioned on the breadth and depth of the understanding of the laws that govern the behaviour of sensible objects in this field of perceptible things. The more we know of the conditions that sustain certain perceivable events, the more enduring the assessment and assent to a given truth about the world. You have noticed how science changes it’s “mind” about its understanding and explanation of events all the time, right?! So the scientific paradigm is limited in scope, namely it is limited to the objects of the physical, ephemeral and perceptible world, and the breadth and depth of scientific understanding and discovery. It would seem, therefore, that the conclusions of scientific inquiry are not conclusive!
So to my friend, and all those who entertain the bias that indiscriminately favours the science paradigm, don’t forget your boundaries!