P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 39
25th August 2002
I. 'Science and Reality' by Martin O'Hagan
II. School Students' Exam Success
III. Philosophical Society of England London Group
I. 'SCIENCE AND REALITY' BY MARTIN O'HAGAN
Browse through daily newspapers and you are sure to come across the imprimatur
of science boldly going where others would not dare.
It is one of the enduring myths of our age that if science says so then it is.
How often have bow-tied boffins stood before those children of lesser gods
proclaiming the new scientific testament which so many now take as gospel.
Truth, once the preserve of a now deceased God, is enshrined for example on
celluloid sheets crossed with tiny dark smudged specks which modern scripture
informs us is DNA, the genetic material of all creatures. Or gleaned from one
end of a telescope pointed into the endless cosmos.
Ironically many are quick to point to the triumph of science over religion as
concrete evidence of bourgeois man's superior cognitive qualities and
understanding of the world around us. For while the general mood today may be
one of scientific pessimism, the veracity of scientific canons are rarely
doubted. During the 19th century and in much of the 20th, the so-called
scientific hallmark allowed us to go behind the scheming facade of reality and
discover in degrees the Kantian 'thing in itself'.
Even the social sciences slavishly followed the positivistic method, only to
end up in a cul-de-sac of dozens of perspectives and unable to move in any
direction. In fact, trying to understand society is like trying to understand
and predict accurately next month's weather.
It is fair to say that the new high priests and priestesses of science are now
accepted as the truth designers who set out the template on which is inscribed
everything we know to be so. And yet does science per se provide us with a much
better method for understanding the basic certainties of our lives? Are we
pushing forward the frontiers of such knowledge or are we merely continuously
modifying wisdom that has been around for thousands of years?
In comparison with the certainty of mathematics, science is a poor relation.
Descartes recognized mathematical certitude when he locked himself up in a
stove room and considered if he existed at all. Descartes' theory of knowledge
rests on his method of doubt which led him to the famous 'Cogito ergo sum'.
This attempt to place philosophy on some sort of scientific basis failed and
led to much debate. But the method wasn't lost on those in the social sciences.
On the other hand, mathematical proofs begin with a series of axioms, that is,
statements which are taken to be self-evidently true. To argue logically is to
move by clear steps from premisses to conclusion. If the axioms are right and
the logic is flawless then the conclusion cannot be denied. By this method
Pythagoras was able to prove that the square on the hypotenuse of a right
angled triangle was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
What we now know as Pythagoras' Theorem was known by the Chinese and the
Babylonians hundreds of years before the Greeks. But the greatness of
Pythagoras - or whoever among his cult followers actually worked out the
theorem - was that it was right for all triangles and not just some particular
triangle, or pyramid under construction. The Pythagoreans reasoned and proved
mathematically that it was not necessary to measure all right angled triangles
in order to prove the theory.
The Pythagoreans highlighted the universal truth of mathematics and bequeathed
to the world a powerful and vigorous conception of the truth by comparison with
the less exacting concept of truth used in everyday discourse, or indeed in the
more specialized language of the physicist.
Scientific proofs, by contrast with mathematics, are based on hypotheses put
forward to explain a phenomenon. Yet scientific proofs are fickle and can be
scrapped if a better description comes along.
But hypotheses don't merely describe a phenomenon, they also predict the
results of other phenomena. Experiments can be designed and performed to show
the predictive power of a hypothesis. If the prediction is successful then it
evidence for the truth of the hypothesis.
When evidence is overwhelming, the hypothesis becomes accepted as a scientific
theory. But it should be remembered that the theory can never be proved to the
same absolute level of a mathematical theorem. A scientific theory will always
be considered, at most, 'highly likely' based on the available evidence.
So-called scientific proof relies on observation and perception which are
fallible and provide only degrees of the truth. English philosopher Bertrand
Russell recognized this declaring that all so-called exact science was
dominated by the notion of 'approximation'. All accepted scientific proofs
always have an element of doubt. While we feel that this element is
continuously being reduced, it can never disappear completely.
This apparent weakness contains the strength of science. For there is the
possibility of a scientific revolution where one theory previously accepted by
all as the best approximation to the truth is replaced by another, better
Perhaps the best example of one theory being dumped in favour of another is to
be found in physics. Since the 19th century ideas about the make up of the
world have radically changed. Atoms were once fundamental but then came along
notions of electrons, protons and neutrons forming miniature solar systems. The
ideas of that generation changed until today we now think in terms of
anti-matter, quarks and other funny sounding terms that are supposed to
designate fundamental things.
Indeed the very concept of a 'thing' or 'particle' is now being undermined by
the notion of strings that vibrate differently. Different vibrations give a
different particle in much the same way - metaphysically speaking - as the
string of a musical instrument gives different notes for different lengths.
Pythagoras died in the faith that what his school proved mathematically will be
true for as long as the concept of a triangle is meaningful. Mathematics does
not rely on fallible systems of experimentation and perception.
In comparison, science operates on a judicial system according to which a
theory is right beyond all reasonable doubt until contrary evidence is
produced. Yet the fact that the notion of science can be historically grounded
implies the possibility that as a method its time will eventually be superseded
by something more precise to go behind the veil of appearances.
(c) Marie O'Hagan 2001
Martin O'Hagan IN MEMORIAM
II. SCHOOL STUDENTS EXAM SUCCESS
Lochinver School Pupils Youngest Ever to pass Philosophy A/s Level.
13 year olds Harry Taylor and Neeral Dodhia are the youngest pupils ever to
have taken a Philosophy A/s level - a new exam between GCSE and A level - and
succeeded in achieving a grade D in Unit 3, about four years earlier than
usual, by writing detailed answers on Plato's 'Republic'.
Their teacher Michael Brett said, "It's quite a challenge for even the
brightest pupils to take this exam. I am very proud of their achievement. It's
really something to be able to discuss and explain complex ideas like those of
Plato at any age, let alone 13."
Lochinver, an independent junior school in Potters Bar, near London is keen to
develop the abilities of all its boys. "We recognise that high ability is a
special need," said Michael Brett, who runs early morning classes for the
especially able. "Philosophy is about the big questions that children enjoy.
What is the purpose of life? Does God exist? It helps develop abstract thought
as well problem solving abilities. It enriches their lives, not just their
academic work. Scholarship papers increasingly ask questions involving
philosophical ideas, such as the shape of a future perfect society. This ties
in with our study of Plato's 'Republic' at A/s level. In effect, we are
presently developing PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] for ten year olds
and upwards. Even though these classes take place half an hour before normal
registration, and last thing on a Friday, I am besieged with applications by
both children and parents."
How did the boys feel about it? Harry Taylor said "Philosophy is wicked!"
(c) Michael Brett 2002
III. PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY OF ENGLAND LONDON GROUP
The last meeting at 'The Old Star' took place on Monday 19th September, with
David Wedgwood discussing the connection between IS and OUGHT statements, in
relation to Darwin's theory of Evolution.
Next month's meeting (on 16th September) will be in 'The Globe' in Covent
Garden where we (We all, not just me!) will try to identify either what
philosophy is for, or what we think it ought to be for. If you have some crazy
idea you think will be knocked down immediately, try it on me by email first
and you or I can put it up for discussion. (Or if it is really daft I'll
announce it as an anonymous joke!) - so there's no need to be shy.
October 21st I hope to have a Roger Scruton defender to face a Roger Scruton
supporter over the issue of smoking. (See
http://www.ash.org.uk/html/press/020124.html to decide which side you're on!)
Again, if you would like to participate in any kind of prepared way please let
me know - for example, you might like to act as advocate for one side or the
(Meetings of the London Group take place on the 3rd Monday of each month,
starting 7.30 pm. Everyone is welcome to come along.)
London Group Co-ordinator
Tel: 01923 451197
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