Socrates, The Rock Star

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science.”

In his 1995 book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett continues the previous quote with these words, “There is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

University of Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, gives a similar appraisal, “It would be excessively naive to think that contemporary science is religiously and theologically neutral.”

If Dennett was concerned about scientists not taking seriously their biases or philosophical assumptions, he must be pleased to know that philosophy has fared very well in university life over the last decade. Along with Dennett, I welcome this trend. Too many discussions about science are riddled with unexamined “philosophical baggage.”

Less informed participants in such conversations will boldly claim that they have no bias nor philosophical assumptions at all. Dennett rightly sees through this bluff. Far from being dead – as Stephen Hawking recently claimed (a philosophical claim at that) – philosophy as an academic discipline is growing at a rapid pace.

According to an online article in The Atlantic published over the weekend, an increasing number of students are opting to study philosophy. The article points out that at the University of California at Berekely the philosophy major has grown 74% in the last decade. Reflecting on this growth, the author, Edward Tenner, comments:

What makes philosophy different? It can seem self-absorbed; philosophers themselves joke about Arthur Koestler’s definition: “the systematic abuse of a terminology specially invented for that purpose.” But it also is a tool (like history and religious studies) for thinking about everything else, and every profession from law and medicine to motorcycle maintenance.

From the community college to the Ivy League, Socrates is still a rock star. In spite of Hawking’s bold assertion, philosophy refuses to accept a death sentence.  Tenner is right, philosophy is a tool for thinking about everything else. Philosophy allows one to look not only at scientific observations, but at the biases that drive the interpretation, theories and meta-narrative of the scientist.

This is not to say the philosopher is free from biases of his or her own. Philosophy doesn’t provide neutrality any more than science does. What it does that science alone cannot, is help one to understand and evaluate such influences. As John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford and Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, has aptly stated, “Admitting our biases is the best way towards rational discussion which I would welcome.”