“Of course we don’t expect science to give us the answer to just any question. Science can’t tell us whether slavery is wrong, for example, though it might be able to tell us about some of the social or economic consequences of slavery. We don’t expect science to tell us whether, say, Christian Trinitarianism is true: that’s not its business. (Nor does it make much sense to suggest that since we now have science, we no longer need any other sources of knowledge–religion, for example. That is like claiming that now that we have refrigerators and chain saws and roller skates, we no longer have need for Mozart.)”
“Science can account for many things in the world; it may some day account for all that which the world of phenomena actually is. But why anything at all is, or exists, science knows not, precisely because it cannot even ask the question.”
It’s currently fashionable for scientists to dismiss philosophy as a viable activity – some have even pronounced its death! One branch of philosophy, which particularly gets singled out, is metaphysics. For those of you unfamiliar with this term please note that I’m not referring to the occult or astrology; but, rather, to the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of reality. A metaphysicist will ask (and attempt to answer) questions like: What is truly real? What is personal identity? What is the nature of the mind? How do things persist over time? What is a cause? What is time? Etc..
Unlike a scientist, a metaphysicist approaches these questions, primarily, through rational discourse. They are more concerned with abstract generalizations than with explaining concrete particulars–with the theory underlying our scientific presuppositions than with specific details regarding particular things. As Stephen Mumford explains:
“When we consider what exists, the philosopher’s answer will be at the highest levels of generality. They may say there are particulars that fall into natural kinds, there are properties, changes, causes, laws of nature, and so on. The job of science, however, is to say what specific things exist under each of those categories. There are electrons, for instance, or tigers, or chemical elements. There are properties of spin, charge, and mass, there are processes such as dissolution, there are laws of nature such as the law of gravitational attraction. Metaphysics seeks to organize and systematize all these specific truths that science discovers and to describe their general features.”
A good example of a metaphysical problem would be the laws of nature. Scientists, largely through observation and testing, attempt to detect and record regularities in nature in order to explain particular events (e.g. the falling of an apple). These regularities, over time, become laws of nature (i.e. the law of gravity or the law of thermodynamics). Metaphysicist’s, in contrast, are less concerned with explaining particular events, and more concerned with explaining the nature of the laws themselves. Hence, a philosopher will ask: What are the laws of physics? Are they objective realities that we discover about nature or merely a construct of the mind?
Both questions are extremely important, but the methods we use to arrive at a proper answer are very different. One must primarily rely upon empirical methods (i.e. observation and testing) in order to explain particular events; but to answer metaphysical questions, one must primarily rely upon reason.
Because philosophy focuses on the abstract, and utilizes slightly different methods than science, many scientists are suspicious of, and even antagonistic towards it. Without realizing, they slip into a form of anti-intellectualism known as scientism. Scientism, to put it crudely, is a stunted or incomplete theory of knowledge. It is roughly the belief that science is the only viable source of knowledge and that all other disciplines are either useless (e.g philosophy or theology) or incomplete. Scientisms adherents will typically claim that empirical methods, alone, are capable of giving us genuine knowledge about reality. Thus, they proclaim the death of philosophy!
Immediately, however, one should be suspicious of this point of view: namely, because scientism, itself, is a philosophical position. It is not possible to prove the claims of scientism through purely empirical means. From the outset, therefore, it refutes itself and demonstrates why we need philosophy.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke brings up another important point, with regard to empiricist limitations on knowledge:
“One central flaw in all such theories of knowing is that they are in principle unable to do justice to the very subject or self that is asking the questions, since this is at the root of every conscious sense experience and quest for understanding, but not out in front of our senses as an external object to be sensed by them. In a word, the inner world vanishes in its very attempt to understand the outer world. The empiricist way of thinking also cripples the age-old natural longing of the human mind to understand, make sense of, its direct experience in terms of deeper causes not directly accessible to us. The human mind cannot be satisfied to operate only within this straightjacket of an arbitrarily restrictive epistemology.”
Inherently, we all desire to find answers to the questions philosophers ask. We all want to know the nature of ultimate reality and the value of our existence; we all want to understand how it is that we can know anything about the world; or what knowledge is to begin with. Scientific research is incredibly important, and empirical methods provide us with a vast number of interesting facts about particular things in the universe. Science, however, does not give us the deeper meaning behind these amazing discoveries.
Science has especially failed to provide us with any meaningful answers to the questions of personal identity and self consciousness—the “subject or self that is asking the questions” as Fr. Clarke just put it. It gives us innumerable, and important, facts about our biology and brain chemistry, but it fails to explain the value or purpose of the observer. More pointedly, it fails to provide a viable explanation for the self’s existence at all. These questions, along with a host of others, are primarily the subject of philosophy and theology.
Philosophy is not dead–and as long as subjective knowers (i.e. human beings) exist it shall never be. For Philosophy – the love of wisdom and the desire to understand the deeper, underlying, questions about the nature of our world – is rooted in and flows out of our very nature as beings made in the image of God.
There are three things about this video which seemed worthy of commentary:
(1) The comicality of Dr. Nesse’s habitual use of the word design when describing human anatomy. Even after Dawkins corrects him, Nesse can’t seem to avoid using design language and engineering terminology when talking about the body (as if it actually was designed!)
(2) The self-refuting nature of Dr. Nesse’s argument against intelligent design. Parroting hundreds of Darwinists before him, Nesse rehashes the same old argument: that “bad design” in nature proves there is no design in nature. Darwinists seem to find this argument existentially pleasing—but those of a rational sort tend to find it dim-witted. Think about it: once you’ve admitted there is “bad design” in nature is it really coherent to suggest, in the same breath, that there is no design in nature? Let’s face it, bad design is still design. I may think of better ways to design my watch—but I don’t deny my watch is designed! Either there is design in nature—however bad it may be–or there is not.
(3) The unfortunate fact that Dr. Nesse’s example of bad design is really a bad example. It is entirely unclear why the human wrist demonstrates bad design–unless one could know what the designers original intent or “end goal” was, this claim is entirely subjective. If the designer responsible for engineering the human body had in mind to create an organism who could never be hurt, then, yes, humans are badly designed (even if this were the case, as I pointed out above, this does not prove there is no design in nature.) However, it seems quite possible, upon observing the human body, that this was not the designer’s original intent or goal. As Nesse’s description indicates, the designer seems to have had in mind to build creatures with the remarkable capability of rotating their wrists. Far from being “bad” design it seems the designer succeeded marvelously in accomplishing his goal.