The Reinvention of Philosophy  


It seems to me that traditional philosophy has a big problem these days – the problem is science. Years ago, before it was called science, natural philosophy had a fairly minor part in the explanation of the world. It was, after all a mixture of alchemy and descriptions of how those machines worked which our ancestors were capable of making. So then it seemed quite normal for philosophers and theologians to be left to try to respond to the big questions of life and they did it in a purely intellectual manner. Experimentation was in the distant future. But from the Renaissance onwards we have seen a radical change in the world. Scientists have succeeded in describing how the world functions so well that the role of god has become very limited. Progressively, theologians have been reduced to postulating a god of ever-narrowing gaps instead of the old god who was necessary to explain everything, including how the world continued to turn. Nowadays, his role is confined to having created the universe billions of years ago and, perhaps, being responsible for miraculous interventions from time to time.

But philosophers? In parallel with theologians they too have seen their field of operation much reduced. Centuries ago, it was possible to speculate on the functioning of the mind untrammelled by knowledge of how the body actually functioned. This ignorance encouraged a variety of weird and wonderful explanations. Our ancestors couldn't have known that one day we would be able to see the brain react in real time to external stimuli. Indeed it is likely that, in the not so distant future, we shall have a good working knowledge of the brain's functioning based on experimentation rather than flights of intellectual fancy. According to many articles which I have read, however, many philosophers are still in a state of denial. They tell us that neuroscience is still in its infancy and that scientists are trying to explain the most complex thing in the world. They assert that there must still be a space for a philosophy of what lies between the ever narrowing gaps in our knowledge, gaps we shall never be able to close.

But every time that science explains something-else these philosophers are pushed further towards irrelevance. Steven Hawking asserts in his latest book that philosophy is dead because science has superseded it.  I'm not sure that this is entirely true, but there is less and less reason to believe that there is a grand philosophical theory which can explain in grand terms the big questions of life – its meaning, how to justify a moral code, how to explain free-will, what we mean by a good life, what is the question to which 42 is the answer… Philosophers are even fragmented into different groups according to their 'faith'. Like theologians. Thus notwithstanding their impressive words and mind-bending theories, it is reasonable to assume that the material world is not compatible with the type of answers given by philosophers or even in many instances relevant to the questions asked.  The great theories which they have constructed may well turn out to be castles in the air.  Certainly it's looking that way.

But can science really supply answers to the central questions of our lives? Yes and no. Science can give us a view based on experiment of what we are and how we are motivated, but it seems to me that the interpretation of all of this for how our society should function requires a different sort of competence.   Consider, for example, the question of morality.  Traditionally, it is a concept based on duty, implemented with the help of our free-will against the malign influence of our emotions. Every suggestion that indicates that our free-will is compromised in some way is seen as an excuse for the resulting wrongful action – it is seen as not being the completely free action of the individual - even though there is no definition of free will which actually makes any sense.

We have known for may years now that oxytocin facilitates the creation of the link between mother and baby. But now we have evidence that it has a wider effect.. It is a chemical which it is not easy to study because it has a half life of only 3 minutes in the body, but a series of experiments* has shown that it also accompanies a wish to act altruistically in general. The higher its concentration the greater the degree of altruism which will be engaged in. Its absence marks an unwillingness so to act. In fact its failure to appear in response to the stimuli which normally herald its appearance correlate with that person's having a psychopathic personality.  Now, therefore, we can say that this molecule in conjunction with our mirror neurones is essential for our sense of empathy.  We feel what others feel and are motivated to act morally – i.e. for the benefit of others. We see from this that morality is an emotion, or a group of emotions which interact with each other.  The production of oxytocin is much stimulated by social involvement and is associated with a higher levels of happiness in general. So then, contrary to received opinion, both religious and philosophical, to act morally is, at least in part, an adaptation which makes us contented when we act for the benefit of others.

So then
, scientists have produced this new paradigm for us, but how to explain it to the public in general? I suspect that it will not be by scientists. We need not just a bald statement of fact, but a comprehensible explanation which can set it all in context. It will be necessary at some point to explain to society how it can continue as normal but with a different view of what morality is based on and what it is for.  Perhaps this is what philosophy should be trying to do.  Philosophers must be useful for something.



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