How Science Empowers Philosophy

It’s pretty amazing that we can still understand Plato 2400 years later. Our world would be unrecognizable to him, yet a lot of his ideas make intuitive sense. But we know vastly more about the world, the universe, and the forces that govern things than he did. If we want, we can go back, nitpick, and make almost any philosopher look like a quack. But science is changing that.

Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our SelvesRecently I picked up Touching A Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves by Patricia S. Churchland. It is a philosophy book through and through, but her approach to philosophy is modern, empirical, and diverse. She draws heavily from neuroscience, psychology, sociology and evolution to answer questions on the soul, morality, and free will with minimal assumptions. When she makes a claim, she provides factual evidence to back it up, showing why she thinks the way she does, often with citations for more curious readers.

I’ve read some philosophy from different periods of history for pleasure, but it gets old. It’s hard to read Kant these days without getting frustrated; so many underlying assumptions, perfectly common in his time, now seem groundless and misleading. Without any recourse to empirical proofs, we’re left trying to sort through his assumptions and figure out why he thought the way he did. His reasoning is correct in spots however, and it’s easy to get caught up in the flow an accept propositions because they sound right, even when they’re totally wrong.

The Ptolemaic universe probably made perfect sense to ancient world, but Copernicus showed it was false. Newtonian physics probably clicked for many people, but Einstein proved it wrong. When the next revolution in philosophy comes, we’ll be able to go back to philosophers like Churchland and Dan Dennett and precisely analyze the basis of their claims. If future science disproves or modifies a finding, we’ll see plainly how this changes the philosophical propositions resting on it.

Churchland’s writing is personable and entertaining. She sticks to the issues and draws her material from modern science, providing us a temporal touchstone on the state of philosophy today. I’m really enjoying this book, and wish more public intellectuals had her epistemic standards and clarity.

2 thoughts on “How Science Empowers Philosophy

  1. It is very fascinating how certain philosophies can still be significant after thousands of years, yet others are corrected or overlooked. It seems as though the philosophies that have to do more with human behaviour or math tend remain true. This could be because these two subjects are easily observalbe. On the other hand, our knowledge of scientific fields such as physics and space science is forever changing. It’s interesting how this author blends these two sides of philosophy to create balanced theories that make sense, and can be supported. It’s also fun to think about how science and philosophy will change in the future, and how they will impact each other.

    • I agree, it is fun to think about. I feel like the most reliable philosophies are based on science and math. Even theories of human behavior are apt to be proven wrong in time because our methods of introspection are so faulty. I fell out of love with philosophy for a while, but people like Churchland, Dennett and Harris have rekindled my interest. There are some philosophers from centuries gone by that are still exciting, but a lot of them are plainly misguided. Not that those philosophers are necessarily to blame; religions ruined free thought for most of recorded history, and in some parts of the world, they continue to.

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