How science makes me a better philosophy teacher and researcher
(inspired by Rasha Shraim’s article How philosophy is making me a better scientist published 23 April 2021 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01103-x )
To a big extent philosophy is approached and teached far apart from science.
Along my philosophy career I was seriously disappointed when becoming aware that philosophy history was set forth with none or little reference to history of science. Most outstanding philosophers, however, had been acquainted with the science of their times and in many cases had been directly engaged in scientific and/or technical developments.
Take for example Plato’s theory of ideas. As generally transmitted, it is really very difficult to understand by mere speculation, introspection or even imagination what they really are. General concepts? Ideals of perfection? But why “more real” than simple things which Plato defines as “apparent”? Why and how are Plato’s ideas “real”? Why is the idea of a bed more real than the bed on which you lie every night? One must at least admit that the statement sounds puzzling. And how may human beings gain access to ideas? Why would this endeavour pave the road to true wisdom?
The issue becomes clearer when trying to ascertain the influence of ancient Greek mathematics and medicine in Plato’s philosophy, with which he himself was thoroughly acquainted. The very word idea or eidos in ancient Greek comes from the set of symptons caused by a certain illness, as defined by Hippocratean physicians. The supposed inscription on the Academia’s frontispiece (“No trespassing he who does not know geometry”) was neither a formal nor a metaphorical requirement, but a required condition to climb to the highest degree of knowledge in Plato’s view.
Later on the anthropology, the cognitive psychology and the history of science (especially of mathematics and geometry) have given many hints about the sort of realism involved in Plato’s philosophy, which is quite different from what we commonly think. This is far from diminishing Plato’s philosophical contribution; the more understandable the more challenging, too.
Another brief example may be the questions raised along history around human nature. Is there something distinctive of being human? What is it? Reason? Language? Moral behavior? If true, is it just innate or is it a certain condition to be acquired? Are human naturally good or bad? Are humans naturally inclined to aggresive behaviors that should be modelled by culture in order to make possible social coexistence and cooperation? Nowadays many of these questions have been answered by a number of scientific discoveries in biological evolution, ethology, sociology, anthropology and neurosciences. Philosophy tumbles if it remains in isolated rambling with empty words.
Last but not at all least, for centuries philosophers have considered mind, reason and even emotions apart from body. Brain, particularly, has been taken as the organ of reason and thinking (“software” as metaphor). Advances in biological evolution, cognitive psychology and neurosciences make it clear that brain is above all directed to action and cannot be divorced from the body as a whole, starting from the sensory-motor level and its role in conceptual knowledge. No knowledge or epistemological theory can progress without taking into account the last researches in embodied cognition.
Let me conclude and propose that philosophy and science should work together for the sake of critical and creative thinking, thus strengthening cooperation and multidisciplinary research and education.
(BPhil and TTCPhil, Buenos Aires University, Argentina)
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