Massimo had an interesting post on his “Rationally Speaking” blog last week about the rift between science and philosophy.

He feels that too many of the “new atheists” are being over enthusiastic in their support of science as the only means of understanding our world. This enthusiasm is often accompanied with an open disdain for philosophy. He argues science and philosophy should inform each other and work in complementary ways.

It just so happens that the next two posts on my planned Wednesday column addresses this very issue. So I thought I’d add my 2 cents to the discussion.

First, I Wanted to point out that when Massimo says “philosophy,” he is implicitly referring to the western tradition of philosophy. There are other philosophical traditions that exist in parallel to the Western one. There is dialogue between these traditions, from time to time; but not a merger. As humanity we do not have a single unified philosophical tradition.

Contrast this to the scientific tradition. The history of scientific and mathematical discoveries are scattered all across the globe. Yet, there aren’t different parallel scientific traditions. As humanity we have a single history and a single tradition of science. Every basic biology class on the globe will teach the same principles.  Not the case if you are taking a basic philosophy class.

There is in science an aspect of universality that we don’t find in philosophy.

Scientific theories are always tentative, and they are always either improved upon or abandoned in favor of new ones.
So how come we are willing to live with uncertainty and constant revision in science, but demand some sort of definitive truth from philosophy?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

We tolerate the constant revision in science, because there is in science, unlike in philosophy a formalized process to declare winners. Science is a competitive and brutal sport. For all the cultural reputation of mild mannered scientists, science is not in the business of fostering dialogue. It is a process of picking winners and designating losers.

Every scientist who puts forward a new hypothesis is acutely aware that his ideas could be very short-lived. A hypothesis exists only until “the evidence is in.” Once it is, reluctantly, begrudgingly someone has to step aside, someone has to concede.

The philosophical tradition, on the other hand is one of dialogue and respect. Philosophers engage each other in an extended volley of arguments. In order for a philosopher and his ideas to prevail he must gather the most adherents. This can be a slow and prolonged process, much like a political campaign in slow motion. Which means philosophers and their ideas that fall out of favor can persist for a lot longer than they deserve to.

Whether we are talking about philosophy, politics, or science, to have a constant flow of new ideas challenging existing ones, is the human way. And with this ceaseless churning of ideas comes our greatest challenge -how do we decide which new ideas win and which ones we should be discard. On what authority do we, as a society tell someone that their ideas will be on the losing side? It is a nasty but necessary thing we have to do, to tell someone to step off the podium. Progress is impossible if we cannot pick winners and designate losers.

In philosophy and in the culture at large the process of generating new ideas and purging old ones is slow and informal. It is an organic process that unfolds through discussions and the slow gathering of adherents.

Though science originated from philosophy, and structurally both involve a similar mechanism, somewhere along the way, something changed about the way we pick winning scientific ideas. We formalized a very strict scientific method of rigorous experimental verification for every new hypothesis. The theory that stands up to repeated testing is declared the winner and all others are discarded.

This formalized process gives us something we never had before: a decisive way to pick a winner. It also gives us the authority to demand that all others concede, thus ensuring that ideas deemed ineffective are systematically purged.

What sets science apart from philosophy isn’t that it produces definitive truths as much as it produces definitive winners in a timely manner.