Failures to Philosophize

Failures to Philosophize

I’ve been thinking a lot about the failure to philosophize over the past couple of years. As a molecular biologist, it has come as a bit of a shock to my system to realize the importance of philosophy. I avoided philosophy in college primarily because it made my head hurt to read most philosophy-related texts. I much more preferred the concrete activities and formulas of chemistry, mathematics, and molecular biology. But I realize I’ve crippled myself in a sense—maybe not as bad as having my head cut off, but it’s a pretty severe disability all the same.

If someone pursues science academically and is diligent in her studies, she may one day earn a doctorate of philosophy in science (or more specifically, in a particular field of science). Many may consider her an expert in her discipline of science at that point. But it is possible to earn a doctorate of philosophy in science without being philosophically aware or in tune, or even remedially educated in philosophy. I know this because I earned a PhD in molecular biology but had a dearth of knowledge in philosophy. Doctorate of philosophy? Talk about a misnomer or oxymoron!

My friend and colleague Greg is a philosopher (he has a doctorate of philosophy in philosophy). He and I have considered developing a curriculum of Philosophy of Science for Scientists. That may sound redundant, but what you need to understand is that the vast majority of science programs never teach philosophy or philosophy of science, nor do they require it from their students. And many who are well trained in the sciences, even those with PhDs, fail to philosophize and don’t recognize their failure to be philosophically astute or even philosophically self-aware (i.e., aware of their underlying philosophical commitments and how that might affect their formation of hypotheses).

Philosophy Matters

Your initial response to this observation might be, “So what, AJ? Scientists don’t need philosophy to do research.” But that’s just not true. Philosophy matters.

Why? Well, for starters, the greatest conflict between science and faith in our culture today persists because of an ignorance of philosophy. Science and faith are pitted against one another, and faith is made to be the nonrational, unreasonable polar opposite of science in a philosophical play by naturalists. But many who employ science to attack faith don’t realize they are making a philosophical move, not a scientific one. Faith, like science, can be based on evidence and reason. A commitment to a physical or naturalistic view of the universe, one that says only physical entities exist, like faith in the spiritual aspects of humanity, is a philosophical commitment, not a scientific fact.

So scientists, or anyone who claims that only the physical exists, are making a philosophical claim. No one can prove mathematically or scientifically that only the physical exists. It is possible that nonphysical or spiritual realities are part of our universe. In fact, much of the evidences and experiences in our lives would support this conclusion, as would the existence of the universe itself. A basic understanding of philosophy would keep people from making such logically inconsistent claims such as, “Science has proven that only the physical exists.”

A Solid Christian Theology Facilitates Scientific Inquiry

Research at a very foundational level must be done by asking questions such as the following: What is real? How much certainty do I need to claim something is true? Are my or others’ scientific theories biased or hindered by considering only the physical and chemical aspects of reality? These questions are all relevant to science research and all are philosophical questions.

When science gets trapped in a particular dogma, it may take a long time to break free. Examples are theories of an earth-centered universe and a spontaneous generation of living beings from nonliving materials. When the dogma is inextricably linked to a particular philosophical commitment, freeing science requires a paradigm shift. As you can see, a failure to think deeply about how philosophical commitments can hinder scientific inquiry is not good for science, or anyone for that matter.

We should not let all these philosophical or political issues . . . dominate. It’s counterproductive. There are real serious open evolutionary scientific issues to discuss and there are real serious alternative ways of looking at them. It’s extremely important that science move forward in new and unexpected directions.1

–James Shapiro

As James Shapiro’s quote reflects, I’ve only recently begun to realize that nontheistic scientists who adopt a form of an expanded evolutionary synthesis share this critique of those trapped in a neo-Darwinian paradigm. The neo-Darwinian philosophical commitment is stifling scientific pursuits, discovery, and dialogue. And that’s definitely not good for science!

A solid Christian theology actually frees science from such paradigmatic restraints. Since God created life on Earth with a capacity to adapt to changing environments, we must experiment to discover what underlying mechanisms may contribute to similarities and unique differences in order to know how various organisms function. We cannot (nor should we) assume that God was limited to a gradual accrual of complexity through unguided changes at genomic or epigenomic levels via common descent. Although that is a very fruitful way to understand aspects of molecular adaptation, such as microbial evolution (to an extent) and even species radiation events, it fails again and again in forced applications to account for life’s origins or the vast diversity of Earth’s orders, classes, and phyla. A Christian mind-set opens wide the door of scientific inquiry without necessitating erroneous conclusions, such as believing that the vast majority of the human genome is nonfunctional, evolutionary artifacts. It’s time to shed the shackles of the neo-Darwinian paradigm of life’s diversity and history.

Note: I first posted a version of this on my personal blog in 2014. But it’s even more relevant today as I consider what a colossal blind spot this is for so many, and how critical it is to understand one’s own and another’s philosophical starting points for meaningful dialogue.

  1. Suzan Mazur, “James Shapiro: The Evolution Paradigm Shift,” chap. 1 in The Paradigm Shifters: Overthrowing ‘the Hegemony of the Culture of Darwin’ (New York: Caswell Books, 2015).