The Purpose of Philosophy and Science

The existence of God, the nature of freewill – we just seem to keep running into some of the same BIG questions that have orbited around Western philosophy for centuries. I thought it might be a good moment to step back again and consider the best way forward.

Carl in a comment on my post called Cosmic Evolution evoked the use of Ockham’s Razor to explain why he believed that we shouldn’t add any teleology to the picture of evolution. William of Ockham was a monk in the Middle Ages who is credited with the notion that we should always prefer explanations that have the least number of assumptions. The notion of Ockham’s Razor has been used in science and is certainly a good principle to follow. At the same time it isn’t always the case.

 The way that Ockham’s Razor is used in relation to evolution is by saying that chance variations that occur in individuals and the natural selection that occurs through survival advantages can account for the movement of evolution. Since those principles are enough to explain evolution, we shouldn’t add any type of purpose or direction to the explanation. This is certainly a worthy application of Ockham’s Razor, but it doesn’t prove that there is no deeper directionality also at work in evolution.

Our understanding of evolution isn’t at a point where we could either disprove or prove the existence of a directional force in the universe’s evolution. The best counter argument to the above comes from the so-called Anthropic Principle. If we assume that there is nothing but chance variation and survival to account for evolution then we are saying that the universe as we see it has come about randomly.

The Anthropic Principle states that the conditions of the universe necessary for a life form like ours to have evolved are so exact and so complex that the odds of this universe having evolved are virtually infinity to one against. With odds such as that it seems impossible to rule out at least the possibility of some guiding principle at work in tandem with chance variation and natural selection. The Anthropic Principle certainly doesn’t prove the existence of such purpose – as some of its more religious minded adherents would like to think – but at least in my mind it does leave open the possibility.

Similarly on the individual level as Carl has also pointed out Behaviorism can explain the development of human behavior on the basis of reinforcement and conditioning. Again as powerful an explanation as this is, it isn’t proof that there is nothing else at work.

What I find interesting is why do we as individuals choose to tend to lean toward one side or the other in these debates. William James believed that in the end it was a matter of temperament. He claimed that any person tends to be either hard-minded or tender-minded. The hard-minded find solace in facts and determined causes. The tender-minded find solace in more mystical notions of purpose and intent. In the end James believed that how we saw things had more to do with our character than any objective account of reality.

I believe there is something to this, but I would add a related notion which has to do with the purposes we are invested in. If our purposes are more scientific (and I mean this in a very broad sense) then we are motivated to try to find the objective truth. That is the truth that most accurately and unbiased reflects observable facts. If our purposes are more philosophical (again in a very broad sense), I believe that we are (or should be) motivated to create a picture of reality that creates the optimal navigation system for human development at all levels. I suppose that already shows my bias, but I think it is something worth considering. Are the aims of philosophy and science the same or different?

Carl also said in his comment that he felt that we can build a morality based on humanistic values. I am not so sure about that. I think that ultimately our moral sense is directly related to our most fundamental conception of the nature of reality. That is why I believe that the reality of evolution provides a potential platform upon which to rethink our moral basis. The Western World has moved largely outside of the influence of the great religious traditions and so far a humanistic morality has not emerged that seems compelling enough to guide us. Maybe evolution will be the basis for a new morality.

I had a thought the other day that I wanted to use my next few blog posts to run through a thought experiment trying to experience the development of the Western Mind from the fall of Rome to modern times. Could be interesting…