I’ve been reading a lot of comments on articles about philosophy and science that seem to be seeking the worth of philosophy in whether or not it currently contributes anything substantive to the natural sciences. While I expect this from those who are aiming to show that philosophy is obsolete, I’m puzzled by the many defenders of philosophy who also follow this path, thereby reifying the idea that science is the be-all and end-all of intellectual inquiry – essentially saying that if a discipline is a science, it’s good, and if it’s not, it’s bad.
But philosophy’s contribution to science isn’t that it helps us find answers to specific physical questions. Its contribution isn’t that it performs scientific inquiry, its contribution is that scientific inquiry exists at all. Philosophy isn’t worthwhile because it can do what science does, it’s worthwhile because it gave us science.
That doesn’t mean, as many claim, that it’s job is over. It continues to look for new ways of thinking about causality, about subjectivity, and about bridging interdisciplinary gaps. Philosophy also gave us theology, psychology, aesthetics, logic, music theory, and more, and all of these disciplines are hugely important because they can discover things that philosophy cannot. But these discoveries don’t supplant philosophy, they actually make philosophy better.
Instead of thinking of the value of academic disciplines as a continuum that starts out at “fruitless” and culminates in “science”, I prefer to think in terms of an orchard. An orchard starts with good, fertile soil, full of possibilities. Some of these possibilities will be realized, and some will fail to find a legitimate seed, or even if they don’t, they won’t receive enough sunlight, good air, and water. But many will grow into trees which will someday bear nutritious and delicious fruit. And the fruit will be what matters, because it is what is useful, and we will value the trees because they bear the fruit, and the sun and the air and the water because those are elements we can see and feel and understand easily.
But that doesn’t mean we can forget the soil, because it’s also important. We cannot just grow trees and say that the soil has done its job and so we no longer need it. We cannot do away with the soil and expect the trees to still bear fruit.
Luckily, the soil can be nourished, either by external care or by its own offspring, reincorporating fallen fruit that failed to be productive, or by trying something new (crop rotation is the metaphor here). Philosophy can gather false-starts in science and psychology and other disciplines, and evaluate where they went wrong, taking their assumptions and reorganizing them in case there’s something to salvage, some remaining possibility, or if there’s potentially some trouble ahead for other fruit which seems – so far – to be safe and sound.
The point is that no one begrudges the soil for not producing fruit without the tree. The tree, the fruit, the sun, the water, the soil, the air, the seeds – they all work in a relationship. We don’t need to pick one at the expense of the other. Why then do we feel the need to pit science and philosophy against each other? Yes, philosophy by itself teams with sometimes fruitless unrealized possibility (and I so love this possibility), but science that neglects philosophy will eventually reach its limits. It’s only when we confuse the goals of the two that one or both will undoubtedly fail, but it’s not a necessary confusion.
I don’t need philosophy to beat science at its own game, and no, I don’t know what philosophy will contribute next. I’m ok with that. I think it’s enough to try and keep the soil nourished and full of possibility, supporting other disciplines in their theoretical approaches and assumptions, and hopefully – if we can find just the right seeds – giving rise to new ones too.