WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
Philosophy makes progress just as any other science makes progress.
The achievements of the sciences are undeniable. Science has made rapid progress in the relatively short time it has existed. By comparison, philosophers seem to be discussing the same questions people have been asking for thousands of years, such as “What is ‘the good life?’” Whether they’re asking the wrong questions or using the wrong methods, philosophers just can’t seem to produce definitive answers. Well, this is another stereotype about philosophy that needs to be dispelled.
Philosophy does make progress. The 20th century, especially, saw one innovation after another. At the beginning of the 20th century, philosophers developed what would come to be known as classical logic. Essentially, classical logic defined a set of logical rules for “calculating” the truth or falsity of sentences as though they were mathematical equations. This system supplanted the logic of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle as the dominant form of logic used in philosophy – quite an achievement given that Aristotle’s logic had remained largely unchallenged for the last two thousand years.
The significance of classical logic can’t be underestimated. For one, it brought an understanding of stoic logic back to philosophy. Stoic logic was a form of logic influential in the hellenistic period, but its principal texts have been lost to history. Beyond its historical value, though, stoic logic would also prove to have great practical importance, as it would go on to form the basis for all computer programming languages.
As the twentieth century drew on, logicians extended the principles of classical logic further by adding new rules. While classical logic was developing, there was another innovation happening in the philosophy of mathematics. In 1936, the English logician Alan Turing would introduce the world to his concept of a “universal computing machine” – a theoretical device that could procedurally perform any set of instructions given to it. The machine was effectively nothing more than a thought experiment at the time. A decade later, he would be asked to build such a machine to help decode German transmissions during World War Two, and this machine was the origin of computers as we know them today.
So philosophy has contributed to significant scientific and technological developments, and it will continue to do so.
Now that we’ve looked at some of the achievements of philosophy, let’s turn to philosophy’s scientific credentials.
Philosophy shares many of its methods with the natural sciences.
The experimental methods of the sciences and the armchair pontification of philosophy couldn’t be further apart, could they? Well, mathematicians come up with their conclusions from their office chairs, but their results aren’t considered any less scientific.
The truth is, the philosopher has to struggle against powerful stereotypes in the public imagination. Throughout history, philosophers have been described variously as hermits, spiritual gurus and political polemicists.
True philosophy has nothing to do with these stereotypes. Philosophers are serious, hard-working scholars that have far more in common with scientists than they do with Diogenes, the founder of Greek Cynic philosophy who spurned social conventions, slept inside an enormous jar and played indecent pranks on the citizens of Athens.
The hallmark of scientific rigor is that scientific observations can be checked and confirmed by others. This standard helps to eliminate the effect of individual errors and biases. Well, philosophy adheres to exactly this standard of rigor too.
This should be clear from the fact that philosophers couch all their conclusions in logical arguments. Any argument that is clear and logical will produce the same result for anybody that repeats it, no matter when or where in the world they do so.
What’s more, scientific methods are not as cut and dried as people assume. Data produced by experiments don’t prove anything in and of themselves. The data has to be interpreted, interpretations have to be argued for and the arguments used have to be logical. The sciences end up looking a lot like philosophy at times.
Furthermore, philosophers aren’t the only ones in the business of creating thought experiments. Scientists sometimes use them too. For example, the 17th-century scientist Galileo Galilei devised a thought experiment that posed the following question: What would happen if you tied a heavy object to a lighter object with a weightless chord and threw it off a tower? Simple as it might be, this thought experiment helped him to disprove the idea, popular at the time, that heavier things fall faster than lighter ones!
There is so much overlap between the methods of philosophy and the natural sciences that if one is to be considered scientific, the other should be too. However, as we’ll soon see, there’s a big obstacle in the way of philosophy being seen as a science today. Next week, we’ll look at why philosophy still suffers as a result of its attachment to the past and history.
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Have a fruitful day!
Olusola Bodunrin is a social commentator with a passion for gathering facts on social issues. He is writer, businessman, blogger, and wardrobe consultant. He is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Ado-Ekiti. He anchors – ‘What You Should Know’ on SHEFFA.
‘What You Should Know’ is a column that offers to educate and enlighten the public on general falsehood and myths.