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Why Science "Progresses"

James Chastek writes:

From Van Inwagen's critique of Colin McGinn (ht

Here are some things we understand, at least pretty well: planetary orbits, cell division, rainbows, electrical conductivity. Here are some things we don't understand at all: conscious awareness, knowledge, free will, understanding things. That is, we are, as a species, pretty good at mathematics and science and no good at all at philosophy. Why is this?

Van Inwagen must have realized the irony in his position: we can claim to understand things but not the very understanding by which we do so. We know all sorts of things, except for the small detail that we don't know what it means to know. This is fine as an observation of fact, but it also seems to point to the futility of trying to separate "science" from "philosophy" and claim the first is successful whereas the second is a failure. All "science" is on this account is a doctrine that grounds itself on na�ve, operationalist principles and which tries to explain as much as it can on this unexamined and provisional basis. We are pretty good at explaining the causes of rainbows, so long as we don't ask what we mean by "cause" (!); we have a total theory of the universe, but are totally confused about what theories are. For that matter, our account of the "universe" cannot determine whether it is all things or not (since whatever we mean by universe appears to allow for the possibility of a multiverse). Even if we had a theory of everything, it would only be a something-or-other about something-or-other. It might be a "better" something or other than the one it replaces, and it would certainly give us more power to do stuff, but any ultimate certitude we might feel in pondering it would be an illusion we created by forgetting the na�ve foundations that it rests on. We think we have certitude, when all we have is the consensus of the forgetful. 

The success of science rests on forgetfulness, i.e. a group of people agrees to shelve the discussion of the basis of things and work on something else. Philosophy refuses to do this, but the cost of doing so is lack of consensus and therefore of progress.

Science "progresses" because it takes as its task the easier stuff -- the measurement and prediction of limited aspects of the natural world. That is not to say that science is easy. Hardly. But by its nature science takes on that which is tractable.

The tougher problem raised by the question "How can we know the mass of Jupiter?" is not "What is the mass of Jupiter?" but "What is it to know?" Philosophy doesn't shirk the profound questions. The easier disciplines of philosophy -- natural philosophy, for example -- calve off when they make progress with the tractable questions.

Philosophy retains the disciplines -- metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of science for example -- that are not easy, yet are themselves the basis for science.

Science progresses because it has absconded with the tractable questions. That's fine, but it's no reason to denigrate philosophical disciplines that didn't take the easy road and continue to struggle with the more profound questions.