Science and Philosophy

For some reason, science and philosophy have recently been pitted against each other in the blogosphere and public discourse. Maybe something Neil deGrasse Tyson said in Cosmos, but I didn’t have a chance to watch it. The antagonism between those disciplines, though, seems unwarranted.

Science was a subset of philosophy (“natural philosophy”) until the late 17th century. The subset was defined as a basically empirical quest for knowledge about the sensory world, or the objective world. Science has now grown into a separate discipline, and I think all acknowledge that physicists are far more precise than philosophers at elucidating knowledge of the objective world. But the objective world is only one abstraction from lived reality. When it comes to the subjective aspect of lived reality and related values – art, ethics, love, justice – philosophy has the edge. If you’re grappling with “how to live a good life” (a favorite question of the ancient Greek philosophers), a perusal of Epicurus or Gandhi might serve at least as well as Newton’s Principia or Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And every physicist should be able to appreciate, at a minimum, Plato and Hume and Kant, who consider the logical presuppositions of empiricism as well as the conditions within which physics and the study of the objective world have a value for those of us living concrete human lives. “Why should we care about science?” is almost by definition the purview not of physics but of meta-physics, as it requires someone to step outside of science and view science as a whole against the larger screen of human values and what makes life worth living.

I think all will also acknowledge that science isn’t “the world” but is a secondary mechanism that observes and analyzes the world at an objective distance. There will always be a difference between the immediate experience of the world (e.g., the feeling of being in love) and the mediated analysis of the world (e.g., finding the chemical process that corresponds to the feeling of being in love). Science is de facto a mediated view of the world. It gains its power by limiting its scope to what can be gleaned at an objective distance from lived reality. Just as Plato’s myth of the cave and Boethius’s metaphor of the circle and Blake’s visionary poetry and Buddhist yoga practices and Shakespeare plays give us access points to lived reality that might fall outside the scope of science (i.e., vantage points that do not stand at the same objective distance as science).

So I am as fascinated as most with the yields of science, but I say let’s celebrate the scientist, artist, and philosopher all for advancing our range of fulfillment. And let’s keep some historical perspective. Pre-17th century periods, in which empiricism was not the dominant epistemology, didn’t value science quite as much because they considered the sensory world less important in the scheme of human values. Science and empiricism constitute the dominant epistemology of our age (a comparatively short 300 years so far). But who knows what priorities, what epistemologies, what new paradigms lay past the horizon line of the next age?

Pleasure and Happiness

Chided for too many hits on the snack cabinet, a work colleague shrugged it off as an epicurean temperament. It is true that Epicurus, father of hedonism, placed pleasure at the root of all happiness. But unfortunately for my gluttonous friend (who, to his credit, was offering a mock-justification and not a real one), step two in Epicurus is to realize that pleasure is best secured by tracking your lifestyle and your appetites always toward simple pleasures and never toward luxury. It may seem counterintuitive at first glance, but the pursuit of luxury is perhaps the single greatest obstacle to pleasure (and therefore to happiness). Thus Epicurus.

I always liked the twist on happiness and pleasure that dominates the novels of 18th-century England. I believe it was Ann Radcliffe (whose gothic novel, The Italian, 1797, is in my opinion still the greatest example of that genre to date) who put it most succinctly, although I can’t find the quote. Something like, “Pleasure is the excitement that comes from the gratification of an appetite; happiness is the deep contentment that comes from a life of virtue.” Pleasure is a state of sensory excitement bound to a momentary appetite; happiness is a state of being that transcends the momentary appetites. Thus the eighteenth century.

My personal elaboration for today is this. The contrast between pleasure and happiness commonly drawn in 18th-century novels doesn’t mean they’re constantly at odds. Fortunately or unfortunately for us (depending on whether you prefer that life be interesting or that life be easy), there is simply no direct correlation between happiness and pleasure. Some surface pleasures may be conducive to happiness, and some may be destructive of happiness. Some may resonate with pure joy at the depths, and some may stir up turbulence and dissonance at the depths. It all depends on whether those pleasures are consistent or inconsistent with virtue, affirming or debasing one’s core health or any human connections in play. When surface pleasure and deeper happiness go together, it makes things easy. When they are at odds, there has to be a trade-off, no way around it, a loss on one side will compensate for the gain on the other. That’s when it gets interesting.