When Science meets Philosophy (Part 1)
Illustrated by KAITLIN ANNETT
“What do you want to do in life?”
“I’m in General because I wanted to leave all my options open.”
“I’m studying to become a doctor, an engineer, a teacher.”
These are all things we frequently hear, snippets of conversations which make their way to us amid the incessant humming of the Atrium. Everyone, it seems, is worried about their future. Everyone is busy studying, writing exams, talking about R-scores and university programs. But rarely do people stop and ask what it all means.
The present article attempts to provide some answers to these confusing questions. At the heart of this project lies a desire to overcome the traditional antagonism between the sciences and the humanities, and to uncover the essential similarities uniting us. Our hope is that this piece proves informative yet entertaining and, above all, thought-provoking.
A CAFÉ DOWNTOWN — EARLY EVENING
A lone figure is seated on a sofa near the rear wall. He quietly observes the room and the handful of other customers, occasionally taking a loving sip of hot chocolate from the steaming mug in front of him. Outside, a cold autumn wind is blowing.
A stranger enters. He is tall, impeccably dressed, with black hair and a carefully-trimmed mustache. His eyes quickly scan the small space before resting upon the man in the far corner. With a smile, he advances towards him.
Why, if it wasn’t for that hideous sweater you insist on wearing, I would have hardly recognized you! Evander, you really should let me reorganize your wardrobe one of these days.
The seated figure looks up with an expression of genuine surprise.
EVANDER (clapping his hands)
A truly welcome visit!
He rises and the two share a warm embrace.
Must you always be such a savage, Basil? Or are you simply unaware of any civilized way to begin a conversation?
BASIL (overly serious)
Come to think of it, that beard of yours is also terribly unfashionable.
Both burst into hearty laughter.
BASIL (regaining his composure)
In all seriousness, though, you look well, my friend.
As do you.
They sit. Evander gestures to a waiter for some water.
So, to what do I owe this great honour?
To tell you the truth, I’ve long been meaning to take a break from work, and you were the first person I could think of coming to see. I walked all the way from the University to find you. It’s a shame you don’t own a cell phone: it would’ve been much simpler to call you.
A cell phone! What a thing to say! Dreadful, noisy things they are. And a sure cause of headaches if I ever saw one. I’m glad to have no such contraption in my possession. In any case, you found me just the same without one, and got some fresh air in the process. But enough of that. Tell me about your work: what new devilry are you busy concocting in the Chemistry Department, these days?
The waiter returns with two glasses of cold water.
WAITER (addressing Basil)
Will you be having anything, sir?
Hm? Oh, one croissant if you please. Actually, make it two: that walk of mine has stirred my appetite.
He waits for the man to leave before resuming his conversation with Evander.
What were we saying? Ah yes, you were asking me about work. For the past months, my colleagues and I have been developing a plant-based, high-energy battery for industrial use.
Impressive. Any breakthroughs?
One, last week. The trick now is to find a way to mass-produce the compound.
Why, that’s splendid news! Why do you appear so grim?
If you only knew, Evander, how many such projects I’ve had to leave uncompleted, how often I’ve had to abandon my research for want of funding, or because it risked hurting the pocketbooks of some puffed-up corporation, blind to any inkling of progress! People just don’t have any respect for the sciences, anymore. Sure, they’ll congratulate you on your present contributions, applaud loudly at your lectures and, twenty or thirty years down the line, will even honour you with the title of “visionary” and give you a medal for your efforts. But until then, you’re left to deal with reality, and with the miserable fact that others are far more interested in becoming lawyers or philosophers to pay any real attention to your work.
Is it not?
No, I mean it’s outrageous that you would ever think such a thing. Do you not realize that science and philosophy are sister disciplines?
That has to be the strangest statement I’ve heard in a long time. I’m afraid I disagree entirely.
In that case, I’d like to draw your attention to the flaws of your position.
There you go again, philosophizing about everything! I really should have been more careful with my words.
Indeed you should. Truth is more valuable than unfounded opinion.
Oh, well! I guess I must bow to the inevitable. Please proceed.
The first thing you will care to notice, Basil, is that if one were to study the history of science and philosophy, he would soon discover that the two fields were originally quite similar.
There is certainly a case to be made there.
What’s more, similar to modern science, the claims of these early thinkers often subverted the dominant religious beliefs of the time.
That’s not surprising. Science and religion have for centuries been contending with each other for supremacy over the human mind, though I must admit that I am all too ignorant concerning the form that this conflict took in ancient times.
Ignorant? Nonsense: you know much that you yet don’t realize. For instance, surely you’ve heard of Democritus, today most commonly recognized as the father of the atomic theory?
Of him I have indeed heard much. But I must say that I am aware of only the most basic elements of his thought.
Well, I know that he believed that everything in our world is composed of indivisible units of matter which he named atoms, that in addition to these there exists a type of negative space he called the void, and that it is within the latter that the atoms are constantly swirling and colliding, thus producing all manner of visible phenomena. How’s that?
A splendid summary.
But what does it have to do with the subject at hand?
Don’t you see? Why, you said it yourself: Democritus claimed that everything is composed of atoms. Necessarily, then, he included the gods in this scheme. And in the 5th century BC, teaching that the gods, being but products of the world, could not possibly exert any physical power over it—well, there’s no need for me to tell you what a dangerous opinion that was to hold.
Was it really? I thought the Greeks were rather liberal in their beliefs.
Certainly in other respects they were. But when it came to fundamental religious doctrines, they proved to be quite intolerant. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, for one, was tried and accused of heresy in Athens, all because he taught that the sun and the moon are not divine beings but that the former is made of fire and the latter of stone.
You’ve lost me. How is this relevant to our discussion?
The point I’m making here, Basil, is that science and philosophy share a common history and, more than that, a common point of origin.
And that would be...
That, my friend, would be the belief that the Universe is not just one big, chaotic melting pot, constantly subject to the whim of the gods, but that it is governed by fixed laws which can be apprehended by reason.
Whereas, if I follow your line of argument, religion promotes the opposite view, namely that there are some things which can never fully be grasped and, consequently, must be accepted on a basis of faith.
Precisely. As I see it, science and philosophy—contrary to religion—operate on the level of rational enquiry, and that is why the three will never find a common ground of understanding. It is like two people from completely different cultural backgrounds speaking two mutually unintelligible languages to each other. Naturally, neither will understand what the other is saying, nor will he be able to appreciate the customs of the other person. It is in such situations that friction arises.
It certainly is.
However, unlike as with languages, where it is always possible for the two parties to resort to a third tongue known by both, a so-called lingua franca, the dialogue between science and religion has no third alternative: one must either enter the mind frame of the scientist or of the believer, or he must simply refrain from judging one according to the standards of the other.
Yet, in the case of science and philosophy, you maintain that both share the same language, so to speak?
That is my position.
BASIL (falling back in his seat)
Ah, my friend! That is where you and I differ. For I fail to see—and pray excuse the harshness of my words—how the abstract musings and lofty, ungrounded ideas of an armchair-sitting idler can have anything to do with my field of work, consisting as it does in clear-grounded thought and rigorous empirical verification.
EVANDER (scratching his beard)
I see, to my dismay, that you have been infected by that old stereotype which so plagues the trade. I have hope, though, that I’ll be able to convince you out of it.
And how do you plan on doing that?
You accuse philosophy of being too “abstract” and “ungrounded”, the refuge of the lazy. What if I was to prove to you that, in fact, it is not only hard work but also quite objective, with a whole host of practical applications?
That would be quite a feat.
Let us pursue our investigation, then.