Philosophy and the Sciences MOOC (First Essay)

Question Mark GraffitiEssay below is a part of the MOOC course – Philosophy and Sciences on Cousera developed by University of Edinburgh. It is in response to the question below:


In what way can philosophy or philosophical thinking contribute to the physical sciences? 

To say that Philosophy or Philosophical thinking merely contributes to the physical sciences is a misnomer, similar to implying that Philosophy is merely the ladder that the physical sciences use to climb to a position where their enquiry can begin. Philosophy then being a Butler to a physical Science master, rather than the rightful the Lord of the Manor. To use a different analogy, Philosophy gave birth to the physical sciences, has not left her to her own devices and all of her traits can be found in the physical sciences just as a mother passes on her genes to her forebears.

Firstly, this position will be defended from a historic perspective by not only pointing to the fact that what we now call the Physical sciences, in its early years was not at all divorced from philosophy but was just a branch of it – Natural Philosophy as it was formerly known. This is evidenced by the name of the seminal work by the foremost of all the Physicists, Isaac Newton and his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica or Principles of Natural Philosophy. Also, names like Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Gottfried Leibniz and Galileo Galilei cannot be said to be Philosophers or Scientists. If a title is to be ascribed it will first and foremost be that of Philosopher, for it was seen to be more prestigious, due to the influence and reputation of the Ancient Greek Philosophers.
Although secondly I will be arguing that Philosophy provides the epistemic principles for the Physical Sciences I will again be doing so from a historic framework.

In the accompanying book to the MOOC course, the Galileo affair was discussed within the context of Epistemic relativism. There is however a false claim made about the two epistemic standards at war in the Galileo affair. In the first chapter of the book, a section written by Michela Massimi and Duncan Prichard, we find this statement:

“…the problem is that Galileo and Bellarmine used two seemingly incompatible norms or epistemic principles to evaluate the truth of their respective claims…Galileo appealed to the epistemic principle, which might be called observation whereas Bellarmine resorted to the epistemic principle of revelation”. [Pg 2, Philosophy and Sciences for Everyone]

The authors have in the quote above, pitted observation and revelation against each other, although true is some cases, it is however false in this. Galileo himself in his Dialogue Concerning the two Chief World Systems, had this to say about the controversy:

*Nor can I ever sufficiently admire the outstanding acumen of those who have taken hold of this opinion [Copernicanism] and accepted it as true; they have through sheer force of intellect done such violence to their own senses as to prefer what reason told them over that which sensible experience plainly showed them contrary. For arguments against the whirling of the earth which we have already examined are very plausible, as we have seen; and the fact that the Ptolemiacs and Aristotelians and all their disciples took them to be conclusive is indeed a strong argument of their effectiveness”

Observation or senses as he (Galileo) states in the quote above is against the Copernican view and it is also interesting to note that what influenced the church and the Cardinal was not the Bible as Massimi and Prichard will want to claim but it was instead Aristotle, a philosopher as earlier mentioned.

The Galileo affair would have been best discussed within the context of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigm shift’ (Pg 9 & 10 Philosophy and Sciences for Everyone). It does however remain true that epistemic standards had a part to play and I also do not subscribe to Kuhn’s idea that the Copernican option merely had a greater puzzle-solving power and was successful not necessarily due to its truthfulness.

By this discussion of the Galileo affair I hoped that I have successfully showed the powerful part Philosophy has in the past played in the pursuit of scientific enquiry and it is a disappointment that the modern academy in its increasing specialisation and fragmentation of knowledge has sought to divorce the two disciplines, a child snatched from its mother. This is to the detriment of the Physical sciences and the pursuit of truth in general.

* I must acknowledge Mitch Stokes and his book “a shot of Faith to the Head” for this quote and also for correcting the popular error that the Galileo affair was an issue of Science against Religion.

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