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February 21, 2023 7:57 pm

Why Do We Need Philosophy If We Have Science?

By Mugees Ul Kaisar  

TO answer the question posed in the title above, one recalls Wittgenstein here who basically said that all the things that we can describe through science are not actually the things that matter most in our lives; the things that are actually most important are beyond discursive language and science. This is the whole Wittgenstein’s critique of positivists who misinterpreted his early work. Ethics, religion, wisdom, art/aesthetics, joy, humility, poetry, meaning, beauty, openness to being/reality, etc which are beyond totalizing reductive linguistic and scientific descriptions are in actual fact the highest ends of human life which make our lives worth living. These things essentially depend on one’s (existential) orientation towards life/reality rather than abstract speculative & calculative truth finding as critics like Dawkins wrongly conceive.

Why is philosophy important? Why do we need it? Well, the point is that what is going on in one’s “head” is far more important than the gadgets one possesses in one’s “hand”. We need philosophy/thought/psychology over and above mechanical robotic science & technology simply because we do not want people to bomb each other out with atom bombs! “Thought” is more important or dangerous (depending upon how one looks at it) than technology. Technology comes in service of “thought”, asking for its use. Moreover, it is philosophical discourse that drives the wheel of history. Industrial revolution and science/renaissance were themselves stimulated by philosophical ideas/outlooks. Influence of, say, Locke’s philosophy on French & American revolutions is hidden from none.

People ask: why do we need philosophy? What will it do? Well, philosophy as hikmah is wisdom which teaches the art of living. And it is here that philosophy (as traditionally understood) intersects with religion. Traditional philosophy/hikmah, for example, says that selfish action invites misery; this is hikmah; this teaches us how to live life such that suffering is transcended and joy erupts from one’s own being. What is more urgent than that? It is a reorientation towards life. It cannot be achieved by merely multiplying scientific calculations. Physics, chemistry, technology, etc do not help when we are loneliest at the lowest points of our lives – in the darkest pits of our lives; when life asks us pinching questions of meaning & suffering; when we face inner turmoil; it is one’s meaningful orientation towards life that helps and not fancy gadgets.

The world needs wisdom more than ever today. It is more relevant than technology which has suffocated both humans and the environment with its pollution and meaninglessness. Technological mindset reveals the world through a certain ontological commitment under which the world is perceived as an “object” i.e. everything, even human beings, is seen through the category of “resource” to be tapped into. This ontological attitude towards reality has been & continues to be disastrous for both the environment and the human race.

People say we need science because it is practical. Well, what is more practical than the question as to how to live daily life in a joyous way or how to find meaning, beauty, joy & contentment in a world that is fraught with suffering & alienation; how to develop virtue; how to avoid psychological suffering generated by ego pathologies; doesn’t matter where human beings live, in whatever age they live – ego-energy is there; ego tantrums, selfishness, greed, arrogance, meaninglessness, loss of joy, frustrations, etc are eternal problems of mankind. Human being is not mere “calculation” but is an existential & aesthetic interface with reality; the immensely rich art and literature that human beings live by is a testament to that fact; the intangible bread of poetry – is fundamentally part of human life. This is why we can make the case that most of the human “truths” are “phenomenological” & “hermeneutic” rather than merely scientific.

At this point, however, an important clarification is in order. Philosophy is not to be narrowly reduced down to mere abstract speculative ratiocination. One of the most commonplace misconceptions that has gripped the popular discourse about philosophy is that it is equated with pure rational speculative enquiry. Such a perception fails to realize that this is purely West’s definition of philosophy that is too post-Aristotelian (as even pre-Socratics in the Western philosophical tradition would not agree with such a definition). This is not how Islamic philosophy or traditional philosophy understands philosophy to be. Equating philosophy with mere “reason” is a mistake simply because traditional philosophy does not reduce human beings down to mere ‘reason’. Human beings have higher noetic gnostic intuitive intellectual faculty (what is referred to as “fitri” intelligence or ayn-al-qalb). This is what Iqbal criticized Kant on who had reduced human episteme down to mere “twelve categories of understanding”. Even in the modern Western philosophical tradition we find thinkers like Spinoza, Wittgenstein, Henry Bugbee, Gabriel Marcel, Unamuno, Heidegger, Levinas, Jaspers, American Transcendentalists like Thoreau, Emerson and various others who move beyond the narrow constricting definitions of philosophy as mere rationalism.

Philosophy, as traditionally understood, means ‘cultivating love for wisdom’. Hikmah/philosophy and kitaab/law, both stem from the same revelatory source. The Prophet comes to teach both “kitaab” and “hikmah” (yu’allimuhumul kitaaba wal hikmah). Therefore, philosophy is not what Descartes or Kant said – that is just a portion of Western philosophical tradition rather philosophy as traditionally understood is Sophia/wisdom/hikmah which every Prophet comes with and which then is explicated upon by the followers of Prophet i.e. the sages/hukamaa within a tradition, fleshing out the deeper essential truths of religion. Hikmah is the final fruit of religion rather than being antagonistic to each other. Due to the limitation of space, readers are requested to go through the works of Pierre Hadot on Ancient philosophy to see how philosophy, in its traditional understanding, is actually an art of living. Wisdom, however, should not be confused with the popular uncritical obfuscating platitudes which Žižek rightly critiques. Wisdom has nothing to do with utilitarian sophistry. Wisdom is where metaphysics intersects with ordinary practical ethics.

Now, philosophy, even conceived as merely rationalistic speculative analysis, cannot be ignored at all. Philosophy as a rationalistic, linguistic, conceptual analysis is an inevitable necessity and cannot be avoided in any discipline at all. Philosophical analysis is highly important in second order investigations like Philosophy of Science where one studies the first principles and theoretical presuppositions on which scientific method rests. The theoretical frames of physical and social sciences cannot be conceived of without foundational philosophy.

When a young enthusiastic science student claims that ‘I only believe in empiricism – nothing more and nothing less’ one realizes the dire importance of re-playing the whole projectile of the British empiricist tradition with David Hume at its logical dead end followed by Kant’s critique. Without antecedent theoretical tools, bare experience is simply blind and useless as Kant showed. This was later on re-played within logical positivist tradition in similar tone when Neurath critiqued Carnap’s protocol statements (bare experiential sense data). Carnap, like Hume, asserted that all we have is basic pure elementary sense data whereas Neurath clarified that we already are drenched in theoretical presuppositions without which our observation, data collection and interpretation lose all meaning. This is well established now, for example, again reiterated by Davidson and Sellars. The notion of bare elementary sense datum theory called as phenomenalism has long been debunked. Present day great physicists like Carlo Rovelli are successfully reacting against naïve scientism (that posits anti-philosophy attitude), by showing how science is intimately connected to philosophy. Any basic book on Philosophy of science can cure the fever of scientism.

Similarly, in addition to second order philosophical studies like ‘Philosophy of Science’, there are literary theories, sociological theories, political theories which are conceptual philosophical paradigms of the basic foundational principles on which these physical and social sciences stand. Without philosophical tools we can never get around the edifice of any subject. Scientists are not empty vessels, going around collecting data; there are antecedent theories which condition & determine data collection, data acceptance or rejection and then its interpretation.

The world today needs – what people even condescendingly refer to as – “speculative philosophy” as Žižek notes, not only for the critical examination of the scientific method & implications of technology but also for deeper engagements in political & social theory. As long as human society exists, political philosophy shall remain relevant. People who do not appreciate philosophy fail to see that all the major political and ideological debates that pose significant influence on the world we live in today, say for example identity politics, is a direct end result of certain philosophical vantage points; for example, postmodern relativism, free voluntarism, fluidity in gender (I get to be what I “choose”) is a direct end result of Cartesian and Kantian philosophy with cogito/self at the centre, in addition to celebration of Ockham’s nominalism where all we have are particular individualities/identities & not any “universals”, not to mention “self” being at the centre in the 20th century World War engulfed Europe’s existentialist & absurdist thought where subject makes/constructs reality. This is why philosophy becomes important; it decides how people think, how they conceive their interface with the world and consequently the nature of their social and political engagements.

How to organize our societies; how to bring about a just distribution of resources; what is justice; these are all fundamentally philosophical questions. Moreover, we need to note with Žižek that even if philosophy may not provide grand answers to our questions but nevertheless it helps us see that sometimes the very way in which a question is framed is itself the part of the problem; philosophy in its foundational meta critique helps us see the hidden presuppositions which then definitely contributes towards the solutions.

In today’s technocratic world, where the sole unilateral focus is on simply “doing”/getting things done, we need to pause for a while and “think” as to where we are heading towards. Whether it comes to environmental crisis, existential crisis, disproportionate deprivation of marginalized people, nuclear crisis or other political crises, humanity needs – what popular culture condescendingly refers to as – “idle speculative thinking”; humanity has never been in such a dire need of just clear “thinking”.

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