Monday, March 28, 2005

Personal Exemption

Lest we find a moment's reprieve in the Easter joy, the taxman follows on our heels to demand our debt of fun forms, if not additional money.

I had a noteworthy but all too typical conversation with another physicist last week. The conversation started about policy—the gentleman is part of a very laudable effort to provide Congress with dependable scientific information—but as regular readers of this blog might have guessed, it inevitably turned to philosophy.

In retrospect, it is likely that by bringing up the need to acknowledge teleology and the reality of qualities, I was drawing my interlocutor in over his head, so it is very understandable for him to curtail the discussion by asserting (I paraphrase), "But that's philosophy."

The implication is that scientists don't need to know about philosophy, but only about science: philosophy is foreign to science and has no place in scientific discussions. Some scientists (not necessarily my interlocutor) will go so far as to say that philosophy is not valid knowledge because it's "doctrines" cannot be measured; adherents to this view use "metaphysics" as an insult.

Like an elephant casually standing in the middle of a cocktail party, there is a massive problem with these ideas. The strong version that says that philsophy is invalid knowledge is inconsistent with itself; the adherents to this view neglect to apply it to themselves: the idea that only the measurable is real is itself not measureable.

Adherents to the weaker version similarly exempt themselves from their own pronouncements. Without admitting it, they are indulging in philosophy: the idea that philosophy is not part of science is itself philosophical.

The bottom line is that philosophy is intrinsically part of even modern science. Notice that the full title of the work that brought about the birth of modern science, Newton's Principia, is well translated The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Not only does Newton clearly recognize his work as part of a larger philosophical enterprise, he also qualifies his work as its mathematical branch.

It is impossible to do science without philosophical assumptions, and unexamined assumptions, like uncalibrated instruments, restrict our observations much more than examined ones. Ignoring the philosophical assumptions underlying one's work is like piloting a ship without knowledge of ocean currents. One way or another, the scientist does philosophy—if only implicitly. Neglecting one's philosophical assumptions does not free one from their influence.

The man who stops his ears to the taxman must still pay.

For documentation of further instances of modern thinkers' tendency to exempt themselves from their own dicta, see

Stanley L. Jaki, Means to Message (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's, 1999).

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