In his introduction to A History of Western Philosophy, first published in 1945, Bertrand Russell described philosophy as a “No Man’s Land”, wedged somewhere between theology and science.
Nowadays many scientists may agree. But it wasn’t always that way.
When modern science was born in the 17th century, prominent intellectuals saw science and philosophy as two sides of the same coin. René Descartes was one of the key figures in modern philosophy but also one of the leading voices in 17th century science. Similarly, the two giants of 18th century philosophy David Hume and Immanuel Kant were highly engaged in the scientific concepts of their day.
That was then.
Today, the historical relationship between science and philosophy is on the rocks.
The bad blood and insults flow both ways.
Take, for example, Lawrence Krauss, an American physicist and cosmologist who recently published A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. He writes that philosophers now feel inadequate around scientists because they are envious at how far science has progressed in recent years. Philosophy, meanwhile, has stayed motionless, Krauss argues.
Krauss’ assumption, that philosophy is of little use to scientists, follows the late Richard Feynman’s declaration that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”.
If science and philosophy are going to reconcile – appealing perhaps to each other’s respective commitment to logic, reason, and evidence – the one person who might be able to bring both communities together is American philosopher Daniel Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.
The 71-year-old snowy-bearded, two-time Guggenheim Fellow set the stage for that reconciliation, when we met recently at a hotel just off Trafalgar Square in central London.
‘Darwin’s theory is the single greatest idea any human being has conceived’.
“In the recent past, the typical philosopher was the ivory tower intellectual who thought that everything could all be worked out from the armchair, without much attention to the details,” Dennett explains to me. On the other hand, “if you talk with physicists or mathematicians, they want everything to have equations, and even that kind of science still needs very careful tabulation, rigorous marshalling of evidence, the use of statistics and so forth. Those who are imbued with a scientific method, often look askance at philosophy. They think it’s just fluttering around the edges.”
Dennett, a forceful, outspoken atheist who relishes rhetorical combat, is not one to flutter. He is a scientist’s philosopher and scourge of the scholars of religion. He hails Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as the single greatest idea that any human being has ever conceived. His own contributions to philosophy lie squarely on the shoulders of Darwin. One also can’t help noticing that Dennett bears a passing resemblance to the sage.
For Dennett, Darwin’s key contribution was to show that the living world with its ingenious design, was produced by the unconscious, algorithmic process represented by natural selection. This has led him to clash with some of his fellow philosophers, who look at mental phenomena like consciousness as a mysterious process somehow separate from the computational nature of the brain.