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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Science Cannot Answer Philosophical Problems, and Philosophy Cannot Answer Scientific Ones

Peter Winch, in The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy, writes:
Burnet puts the point very well in his book on Greek Philosophy when he points out (on pages 11 and 12) that the sense in which the philosopher asks ‘What is real?’ involves the problem of man’s relation to reality, which takes us beyond pure science. ‘We have to ask whether the mind of man can have any contact with reality at all, and, if it can, what difference this will make to his life’. Now to think that this question of Burnet’s could be settled by experimental methods involves just as serious a mistake as to think that philosophy, with its a priori methods of reasoning, could possibly compete with experimental science on its own ground. For it is not an empirical question at all, but a conceptual one. It has to do with the force of the concept of reality. An appeal to the results of an experiment would necessarily beg the important question, since the philosopher would be bound to ask by what token those results themselves are accepted as ‘reality’. (pp. 8-9)
The same considerations apply to the notion that neuroscience has something to say about whether or not the concept of "free will" applies to human beings. What do people who think neuroscience can answer (or more mysteriously, "contribute" to the answer to) such a question believe neuroscientists will do? Do they think neuroscientists will suddenly discover the "free will" neuron? Do they perhaps think that showing that everything occurring in the brain has a biochemical cause would illustrate that there is no free will? (If they do, let me note that I suspect pretty much every philosopher who says it is correct to consider human beings as having free will already believes that all brain activities have a biochemical cause.) Do they expect that one day neuroscientists might see a little ghostly soul waving up at them from somewhere in the brain?

What a muddle these folks have gotten themselves into! It as though, because everything that happens in my automobile engine is "automechanically caused," they believe that automotive engineers have something important to say about whether people do or don't freely choose their destination for car trips!

Neuroscientists are to brains as automotive engineers are to car engines. When it comes to what goes on inside an internal combustion engine, I defer without question to automotive engineers. When it comes to what goes on in a brain, I defer without question to neuroscientists. But I don't look to automotive engineers to give me any special insight as to whether my drive to Milford was freely chosen, and neuroscientists equally have no special insight to offer as to whether, given I just chose to have a glass of wine, I could have chosen differently.