Friday, April 1, 2011

A false dichotomy.

As some of you may know, William Lane Craig engaged in a spirited debate with Lawrence Krauss yesterday evening.  I very much enjoyed the debate; not only for the intelligence of its participants but also because it accomplished what I always hope for debates to accomplish- it made me think.  One issue rose most prominently to my attention during their debate.  There seemed to be a bit of a miscommunication between them; Krauss, of course, is a physicist, while Craig is a philosopher.  These are slightly different ways of looking at the world, and they both turn their attention to different things.  Both scientists and philosophers, however, both seek the same thing: truth.  These differences, however, are getting in the way of the peaceful coexistence of these two groups- there seems to be quite some enmity between the two.  We've all heard a philosopher complaining about how uneducated scientists are about the simplest logic or theology, and we all hear scientists dismissing philosophy as a dead science that only helped us when science had not surpassed its ability to learn about the universe we live in.  Even Stephen Hawking, possibly the greatest scientist in the world, briskly announced the death of philosophy in his latest book, The Grand Design.  Now, I must disagree.  I believe that philosophy is alive and well; there are, however, differences that must be addressed and understood if science and philosophy are to coexist (which would be much more beneficial to us all).

Science is observational.  It is based on empirical data; on falsifiability.  It is not concerned with the human side of things.  It simply gathers data, creates a hypothesis to explain the data, and tests it.  If our attempts to falsify the hypothesis fail, and we can accurately make predictions based on our hypothesis, then it becomes a tested theory.  A theory is a tested explanation of the world around us.  Science presupposes logic and the reliability of human cognition and deals with the physical- which is it getting quite good at.  Essentially, science is concerned with the world in itself- the world independent of human consciousness and perception, untainted by our languages and definitions and emotions.

Philosophy, however, deals with a completely different realm.  Philosophy focuses completely on the human side- our cognition, our knowledge a priori, our own powers of inductive and deductive reasoning.  It focuses on the powers of our perception, our ability to make sense of the world around us, and what we make of the world with what we have.  A rough generalization is to say that science deals with the physical and that philosophy deals with the conceptual.  For instance, science can tell us that morality has evolved in us as instincts which improve the probability of survival (or at least did so for our ancestors), but it cannot tell us whether we should ignore these instincts or adhere to them.  Such matters are a matter of choice, which there is no objectively right or wrong path to take.  It is simply up to us as humans to make certain decisions for ourselves.

While the aforementioned differences are admittedly only a rough summary, the basic point is made- there are two different methods used, and two different kinds of truth that are being sought after.  Philosophy and science complement each other; they do not conflict.


  1. Hi Leo Behe. I've got a question about philosophers of religions. I mean, for me there no sense discussing the "sex of the angels" like William Lane Craig do. His teleological arguments is very flawed. So, is it ok for you to really call him a philosopher?

  2. Leo, you say: "Such matters are a matter of choice, which there is no objectively right or wrong path to take. It is simply up to us as humans to make certain decisions for ourselves." But in a purely mechanistic ("cause and effect") universe, there simply is no room for choice. You might be experiencing the illusion of free will/capacity for choice, but if you follow your syllogistic reasoning, you'll see that you're just living out the code programmed since the beginning of time.