Science’s hidden philosophical truths

When it comes to modern science, philosophy is alive and kicking

Writer: Isabella Boyne
Artist: Cveta Gotovats

In 2011, the late renowned physicist Stephen Hawking declared that “philosophy is dead” based on the notion that “philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science”. However, it appears to me that, he failed to realise that the assumptions that science relies on are philosophical, and perhaps more importantly, that we admire science because of the philosophical truths it shows us. 

The assumptions that science relies on are not scientific, but philosophical. For example, if I were to do a simple experiment in which I wanted to test for the presence of starch, I would add an iodine solution and look for a colour change from yellow-brown to dark blue. However, I am making the philosophical assumption that the dark blue colour that I see is the same as what everyone else sees. It is possible that someone sees dark blue where I see red, but I will never know if this is the case, because I cannot access someone else’s mind to understand their independent experience. This is an idea presented by philosopher Thomas Nagel, through the concept of qualia – individual instances of subjective conscious experience. Scientific observations disregard this possibility, and instead, we assume that everyone is experiencing the same thing. If it were not for this assumption, the scientific method would not be able to take place. In fact, there is no scientific reason to believe that what I am observing is actually happening. Science cannot demonstrate that we are not just a “brain in a vat”, a disembodied brain floating in a jar, experiencing a simulated reality. When approaching the sciences, we are making the philosophical assumption that what we see is reality. 

Even the reason why we admire science in the first place is not necessarily because of its good use of empirical evidence. If someone found the cure for cancer, the vast majority of people would not admire his ability to extrapolate data or conduct repeated trials, we would admire the reduction in the number of human lives lost and the advancement of human achievement. This raises a series of philosophical questions about what it means to be human: firstly, that there must be something inherently good about saving human lives or avoiding death; secondly, that we seek knowledge as a significant aspect of human life; and finally, that seeing science as human beings’ biggest achievement, reflects a desire for humans to regard themselves as a superior species. 

It could be suggested that the reason we value human life is purely biological, i.e. a scientific justification for a philosophical issue. It may be the case that we instinctively want to survive as a species. However, if we consider the question of, ‘why is death inherently bad?’, we might find some philosophical justification in something known as the ‘harm thesis’. This thesis would compare the level of welfare (i.e. the general pleasure or happiness one receives) that they obtained in life before death, compared to the level of welfare they would have received if they had not died. This may be the reasoning behind why we admire science’s ability to save lives. 

Philosophy has often suggested that knowledge plays a significant role in human life. Plato, one of the early Western Philosophy’s greatest philosophers, suggested that the meaning of life was to aim towards attaining the highest form of knowledge, the Form of the Good. Similarly, other philosophers, such as Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant, suggested that in order to live morally, we must follow our reason or rationality. This suggests that in both a pre- and post-science world, knowledge and rationality were considered to be the foundation of a good life. As the sciences similarly pride themselves on the utilisation of rationality, it seems absurd to suggest that philosophy has not kept up with modern science, when it was Philosophy that introduced this idea in the first place.

This notion of rationality and reason may also be why scientific achievement is a reflection of the superiority that humans appear to have. For the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, humans had a “rational soul” whereas animals did not; it is this rationality that makes us special and differentiates us from non-humans. Modern French philosopher, René Descartes believed that animals, unlike humans, were merely mechanistic machines with no intellectual capabilities. Christian philosopher St Thomas Aquinas suggested non-human beings are instruments for humans to use, rather than existing for their own sake, and that only human beings are capable of attaining an understanding of God. Regardless of the philosophical branch, there is a clear pattern that reiterates that humans are inherently a superior species. Perhaps, modern science and the praise surrounding scientific achievement is just our new way of cementing humans’ god-like status. 

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