Events: Science versus philosophy

Spanning neuroscience, free will and ethics, Julian Baggini and Clio Bellenis explore the role of philosophy today — yet only one of them comes out of it with panache

-Kathryn Bromwich

It has been an ongoing battle since 1959, when C. P. Snow gave a lecture on The Two Cultures. He posited that the intellectual life of western society was split into two: the sciences and the humanities. This talk continues to be relevant today. While science is rightly perceived as one of the most valuable ways we have of obtaining information about the world around us, the humanities are, worryingly, often dismissed as a superseded luxury that deserves no further discussion, and certainly no funding from the taxpayer. Among the humanities, philosophy is often singled out with cries of irrelevance, conjuring up images of mildewed Oxbridge dons dusting off their tweeds.

In two separate East London talks, public intellectual Julian Baggini and child adolescent psychiatrist Clio Bellenis attempt to redress the relevance of philosophy in today’s world, with particular regard to the discipline’s relation to science. Both speakers tackle similar topics: truth, knowledge, neuroscience, the limitations of science when it comes to ethics, and philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. However, while both speakers cover an impressively wide range of topics, only one of them comes out of it well.

Julian Baggini, Why Philosophy Matters, 20 September 2012, Bishopsgate Institute

Having written eruditely about the thorny issue of Philosophy v science: which can answer the big questions of life?, Baggini is well placed to defend philosophy against ever-increasing accusations of obsolescence. Rosy-cheeked, charming and eloquent, he remains objective, open-minded and interesting throughout his talk; challenging yet clear. He talks about many of the issues covered in his latest book, Philosophy: All that Matters. This spans a range of essential philosophical topics such as narrative, identity, animal minds and atheism, and eventually he even has a convincing go at defining the meaning of life.

He tackles these issues in a tone that is straightforward yet not simplistic, structuring his arguments around a recent survey of philosophers’ world-views. The idea is that, although the fundamental questions of life are set to remain unanswered, some views are more likely than others: for example, 82% of those interviewed agreed that the world exists. Other common views are believing that science can tell us about how the world works (75%), not believing in the existence of a god who created and controls the universe (73%), and a belief that moral values are real (66%).

The main distinction that he perceives between different philosophical schools of thought is of certainty versus uncertainty. On the one hand, he argues, philosophers like Plato and Descartes have a rigid view that any knowledge worth having needs to be beyond questioning. In the other camp Baggini includes Aristotle and Hume (and himself), who agree that in most fields ‘true’ knowledge is impossible, especially in those fields that are most directly applicable to our lives, so we should be realistic in our expectations and try to be content with a probable or educated guess. Science, therefore, is not seen as being at odds with philosophy: its findings can support some philosophical viewpoints, but neither can provide definitive answers. Both science and philosophy, Baggini argues, are useful sources of knowledge, and should work together rather than against each other.

Dr Clio Bellenis, Is philosophy relevant to science?, 24 September 2012, Hackney Attic

As part of the ‘Hackney Skeptics (sic) in the Pub’ series, ‘medical doctor’ Clio Bellenis attempts to establish that philosophy can be of worth to scientists and sceptics in developing critical thinking. The previous talk by Martin Robbins on pseudo-medical practices such as homeopathy in the developing world was, by all accounts, fascinating and well-researched. Which makes it all the more baffling when Bellenis delivers a talk that an undergraduate should be embarrassed about. This blog post on Hampshireskeptics.org gives a good idea of Dr Bellenis’s unlovely and aggressive style of rhetoric. Essentially, there is a good idea lurking beneath it – although hardly a novel one – but Bellenis dismisses anyone who disagrees with her by just calling them ‘stupid’. While Baggini concedes that many religious people are well-educated and intelligent people, Bellenis presents atheism at its most intolerant and unhelpful, adopting the same kind of condescending tone as saying ‘oh dear’ to rubbish someone else’s claim.

Bellenis’ presentation jumps around a lot, starting with a sweeping dismissal of all continental philosophy (singling out ‘awful’ Derrida for no apparent reason), then there is a bit about equality and John Rawls, then some vague stuff about religion, and at one point she asks the audience whether they ‘have ever heard of Noam Chomsky’. Superficial yet patronising, the talk meanders around without a structure, objectivity, causal links between the different sections, an ultimate direction or even a clear ending. Although she calls on Daniel Dennett as a figure she admires, at this link you can hear him completely disagreeing with Bellenis over the importance of neuroscience to philosophy, free will and ethics. A couple of times she loses her plot, and starts several sentences with an unpromising ‘oh yes, I also wanted to mention this’. Essentially, I agreed with most of the things Bellenis said, but her talk needed a better structure and a less aggressive tone, otherwise many of the points she makes risk backfiring.

However, don’t let this put you off. This initiative organised by the Hackney Attic is clearly worthwhile and inspires lively debate. The last Hackney Skeptics in the Pub was thought-provoking and well-received, and the next talk by physics teacher and writer Alom Shaha, Science versus Religion in the Classroom sounds like it will be an interesting discussion of a vitally important topic.

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