and what ain't
Recently, Richard Dawkins tried to explain that science isn’t a social construct because its objects are facts that don’t depend a whit on observers. It’s a great example of how complex subjects can get mangled by Twitter. He likely did not intend to make such a poor argument, one whose conclusion is utterly unsupported by his premises. His premises are true, probably, though not necessarily. It is likely that the universe and her laws have existed such as they are, and will continue to do so, without and apart from the opinions and impressions of her observers. Setting aside murky complications of quantum physics, where observation does actually and observably alter the outcome of quantum events, the laws that govern even that murkiness most likely exist independently of our construction of those laws. The problem with the tweet, besides the failed argument, is the tone.
Why raise philosophers here? What’s his point, other than to go down the road attempted at various times by people I have admired otherwise. Dawkins, Nye, Tyson, Krauss, and other public scientists have all, at various times, attempted to shut philosophers up by similar means. Usually they do so through hyperbole, strawman, or equivocation amounting to fallacies. What’s their point?
Science is indeed more successful than philosophy has been for answering many questions about the universe. No amount of philosophical musing could have observed and explained natural law the way that science has done so. But science owes its foundations to philosophy, and the practice of “natural philosophy” by people who were rooted in serious study of philosophy, is the origin of modern science. Moreover, a fair amount of modern science involves philosophical speculation as a starting point. One can argue that Einstein’s early work on relativity begins as a philosophical exercise, and only a lot of good, hard science and maths helps it to mature to the point of science.
Sure, Dire Straits gvies us a good laugh line claiming “philosophy is useless, theology is worse,” but we ought not take that too seriously. Philosophy gives us tools to critique both science and theology, and paved the way for all academic disciplines and sciences to become rigorous tools for investigating nature and humanity.
For science to work, we have to accept the truth of Dawkins’ premises. The universal truth of natural laws is a presupposition of scientific inquiry. But just because it’s a necessary assumption for science, doesn’t mean we have any proof that it is true. Absolute certainty about such an assumption is practically impossible, through accepting its truth becomes more justified with every new observation and every failure of counterexamples to emerge. This is philosophy, and it undergirds our science. Understanding and accepting the limits of our knowledge and how that relates to the progress and challenges of science is essential for scientists to grasp, even if they wish to dismiss it. Science presupposes a certain epistemology, and understanding that this is the case is also philosophy.
Philosophy is essential to science, and science is improved by good use of its tools and methods, the proper construction of logical arguments, for instance, and avoiding logical fallacies. There are at least two involed in Dawkins’ sloppy tweet, including the strawman fallacy and equivocation. A philosopher can recognize these fallacies, and even if Dawkins is absolutely right about the unerring and immutable truth of all physical law everywhere at all times, we have less reason to trust him based upon this weird swipe at philosophy in the form of bad argument.