This article was inspired by Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast #120 in which he talks with philosopher Rebecca Goldstein (whom I’d never heard speak before but who was very impressive) and physicist Max Tegmark about the different ways science and philosophy approach reality. While I obviously recommend the podcast itself and although I constantly refer to Goldstein and Tegmark throughout, if you don’t have the time or inclination, it isn’t necessary to have listened to the podcast in order to follow what I discuss in the article.
Tegmark attempted to defend philosophy from the “curmudgeons” in physics who write philosophy off as useless but in my opinion he didn’t do a very good job mainly because I suspect he may be something of a curmudgeon himself. He tries to carve a place for philosophy by defining it as clear, theoretical thinking that puts up theories for science to confirm or deny. Two points to note about this impoverished definition. First, if philosophy were just a synonym for clear thinking, it wouldn’t even be necessary. After all, when do we want unclear thinking? Second, only a curmudgeonly physicist could reduce philosophy to the role of servant to science. Philosophers sit around in their armchairs and think up theories to give to scientists who then do the real work and tell us which ones are true?! This obviously makes scientists the arbiters of truth and philosophers… well, I’m not sure what it makes them, because it’s scientists, not philosophers, who put forward scientific theories anyway. Let’s call this a first stab at a definition of philosophy.
Goldstein provides a far more substantial account. Philosophy for her is about coherence. It steps back from the trees so as to give us a glimpse of the forest. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, taking a page out of Heidegger, expressed a similar sentiment when he spoke of philosophy as being different from all other disciplines in that, while they partition off a part of the whole to study, philosophy alone, in assuming nothing thereby takes everything for its subject. While science, presupposing the external world, asks, “What is this?”, philosophy asks, “What is what-is-this?”, effectively grounding science. Indeed, Goldstein makes this very point. The answer to what science is, she points out, is itself not a scientific question. You can’t devise a scientific test to determine whether scientific realism or instrumentalism is true, for example.
She then goes on to add that we need philosophy to understand what is (the real) and what matters (the significant) because philosophy is part of being human. Philosophy doesn’t bracket off ‘subjectivity’ as something irrelevant (like the hard sciences), nor does it get lost in it (like psychology), nor does it concentrate on only one aspect of the whole (like all other disciplines); instead, it brings coherence to all human thought by questioning everything and assuming nothing. This is why philosophy exists as a discipline in its own right, but also why we can have a ‘philosophy of-’ every other discipline (philosophy of science, philosophy of law, etc.).
Goldstein also addresses the question of why we don’t see progress in philosophy, why it is that Plato and the Stoics are just as relevant today as they were more than two thousand years ago. Her answer is basically that ideas in philosophy often become so ubiquitous that we lose sight of their philosophical roots, becoming so commonsensical that we forget people could have ever thought otherwise. One example she gives of this is the English philosopher John Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities, which was revolutionary at the time and a wholly philosophical insight but has since merely been absorbed into the scientific worldview as one of its basic tenets.
Another area in philosophy which has seen significant progress according to Goldstein, is morality. It is no longer acceptable to keep slaves, subjugate minorities, beat wives, burn ‘witches’, or do any one of a number of other things which used to be considered completely normal. We seldom see this as progress in philosophy though, precisely because we see with philosophy. Harris hits the nail on the head here when he says philosophy is the water in which we swim, intellectually.
So, this is all true but doesn’t entirely answer the question. In particular, it says nothing about why we are still wrestling with the same philosophical ideas as Plato thousands of years ago. I would go further than Goldstein here and add that quantifiable progress is a scientific benchmark and it is a mistake to try and evaluate philosophy with a scientific ruler. Quantifiable progress of this sort is well-suited to a discipline that operates within the certainties of mathematics and the objectivity of the physical. Philosophy, on the other hand, isn’t about discovering absolute, certain truths which hold for all of time. That’s the claim of religion and the goal of science. Philosophical claims don’t admit of certainty because they deal with foundations, which are by their very nature either unprovable (despite there being a ‘true’ answer one way or another) or dependent on human interpretation (in which case there is no ‘true’ answer). Recall what we said earlier. Philosophy is the way we bring coherence to our existence. It’s part of being human. This means that as long as humans continue to think and change, so will philosophy. The greatest insight is to realise that this isn’t philosophy’s weakness, it’s its strength.
One criticism I do have of Goldstein under this heading is when she went out of her way to mention that Aristotle and Plato, while having addressed (and often created) virtually all of the central problems of philosophy in their lifetimes, were completely wrong with their accounts of reality. Plato believed in a world of perfect Forms and Aristotle thought nature was fundamentally teleological. Now, of course these worldviews are completely wrong but the mere fact that they were bringing reason and rigorous thought to bear on these questions and suggesting answers that would take almost two millennia to be improved on is, far from being something to criticise, yet another reason to marvel at their genius.
This goes hand in hand with another criticism one often hears made particularly of Aristotle, often by Christians seeking a scapegoat to explain why thought and progress seemed to come to a grinding halt and even take a few backwards steps through the Middle Ages. It lays the blame for this lack of progress at Aristotle’s doorstep because his (incorrect) teleological account of reality was (unfortunately) so dominant that people couldn’t even imagining questioning it. In other words, it’s not that the Church was burning books, closing down philosophical schools, putting heretics (that is, anyone who disagreed with the Church) to the sword, and extolling the virtues of ignorance; rather, it’s all because of that pagan Aristotle and his rigid doctrines.
Giant leaps forward always come from standing on the shoulders of giants who seldom get it all right but help pave the way. If a tyrannical authority comes to power and forbids all shoulder standing, we can’t blame the giants who came before for the inevitable stagnation that follows.
Tegmark once again throws in with the ‘curmudgeons’ (while bizarrely criticising them at the same time) when he dismisses out of hand any philosophy that questions whether reality exists independently of a consciousness to make sense of it. He sees this as an arrogant attitude to hold and even includes a fellow physicist, Niels Bohr and his infamous Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, in his criticism here. As he says, the Andromeda galaxy will still do whatever it does even if no human being is around to watch it.
Goldstein stepped in at this point to gently remind us that even these radical ideas have distinguished philosophical pedigrees we would be remiss to casually dismiss, mentioning for example, Bishop Berkeley’s esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived). She didn’t however go so far as to mount a serious defence concerning the importance of the subjective half of the reality equation.
If the question were about whether or not physical matter exists independently of human beings (for convenience I will substitute ‘human beings’ for the word ‘consciousness’ although this should be understood to mean any form of higher consciousness), then I would have no problems siding with Tegmark. But if we’re talking about ‘reality’ or ‘world’, things aren’t so simple. A world is not just physical ‘stuff’. Reality is not just quarks and electrons thrown together. The words ‘reality’ and ‘world’ come to us already full of significance and laden with meaning. A chair in a world without tables, without human bottoms to support, without customs that involve eating meals together, without high places to help people reach, etc., isn’t a chair; it’s just pieces of wood stuck together, a meaningless collection of quarks and electrons. We live our lives surrounded by physical matter which exists completely independently of us but we also live within worlds that don’t exist if humans aren’t there to breathe life, as it were, into those collections of quarks and electrons.
Another way to think about this is to imagine what the world would actually look like in the absence of an engaged human consciousness. If all humans disappeared, would that book on your desk still be a book? What is that book at its true, objective core? It, like everything else, is ultimately quarks and electrons. But hold on, the desk is also quarks and electrons, so is the ink on the pages, so is the air around the book. Those quarks and electrons only spring into being as a book because we, as embodied beings of a certain size, with a specific physical constitution, with particular sensory organs sensitive to very specific physical conditions; in other words, with the precise perspective on the physical matter around us that we have, are in just the right way to perceive those quarks and electrons as a book. It strikes me as obvious that if you lose that same perspective, you will also lose the book. But physicists don’t just want to adopt another perspective, put on a differently tinted pair of glasses, if you will; they want to see physical matter as it really is, from a true, objective, persepective-less viewpoint. If this were achievable (which it isn’t, because a perspective-less perspective is a logical contradiction), then at best all you would be left with is quarks and electrons, because that’s all the book is, remember?
The hardcore curmudgeon might still object that the quarks and electrons just are the book. There is no difference between the two. If we are left with the quarks and electrons that make up the book, then we have the book. I’ve just thought of an analogy that might help here. Imagine I give you (a non-Mongolian speaker) a book written in Mongolian. What do you see when you examine the pages? Pretty, black patterns on a white background. What does a Mongolian see? For sure, they can see pretty, black patterns too, but they also, and more immediately, see words, sentences, and meaning. You are both looking at exactly the same configuration of quarks and electrons and yet you are both seeing two completely different things. Let’s try the curmudgeon’s objection out here. But the ink just is the letters and words, he says. And yet no matter how hard you stare, you can’t see them. Why? Because you aren’t approaching them from the same perspective as the Mongolian speaker. The exact same principle holds with the book and the quarks and electrons that comprise it. A being that doesn’t have hands to hold or eyes to read books with, that doesn’t have a written language or a tradition of communicating through the written word; in other words, that isn’t attuned to physical matter the way we are, might be able to detect the same clump of matter and yet at the same time fail to see the book.
So am I claiming that reality is completely subjective and arbitrary? No. Reality isn’t moulded by an unconstrained consciousness (this would be pure idealism), but neither is it just collections of atoms existing in a void (pure realism). Rather, reality is a negotiation between these two extremes. There is ‘stuff’ out there independent of me, but without a concrete perspective and some kind of context (cultural, familial, biological, etc.), that’s all it is… stuff; hardly what we mean when we use the words ‘world’ and ‘reality’.
 And if you do happen to think ‘stuff’, or ‘atoms’, or ‘quarks and electrons’ are appropriate substitutes for the words ‘reality’ and ‘world’, I suggest you need to carefully re-examine exactly what you mean when you use those latter terms. I doubt, for instance, you spend much time looking at, and treating, your partner as a collection of atoms.