Friday, June 17, 2011

What happened to philosophy?

As you may have noticed, I've been nearly obsessed with the topic of psychiatric drugs lately. You can breath a sigh of relief because I doubt that there will be another post about this topic, though I might touch on it once in a while.

Now, I can say this (putting it in most nonintellectual terms). Though the drug companies may be dishonest and manipulative, I was picking on them. I had put it out there that I didn't believe there was a conspiracy, but that the "conspiracy" was nothing more than capitalism. This is true. Pharmaceutical companies do nothing different than sellers of breakfast cereal. All companies use manipulative tactics for profit. Unfortunately, in the case of drugs, the consequences of believing one must have the product are more marked (to say the least) than having decided that Special K cereal is "good for you."

In analyzing the way in which we come to believe we must have the product called drugs, I discovered just how much we place our faith in science. I am going to make no attempt to discredit science. I do have faith in science, but my faith (for lack of a better word) is in hard science. Hard science is science we can prove.

Let me illustrate my point with this story: Some years ago, I met a woman who believed she was going to hell because she was a lesbian. She had given up trying to change her predilections, which she wished she could do. She had also tried, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the thinking she had been brought up with, brought to her by born again Christian parents. In the end, she was simply resigned to her terrible fate.

Her belief in the bible as the truth and the law was solid. I pointed out to her that the bible could be interpreted in multiple ways, but that did not help. She believed the fundamentalist view that the bible was the word of God. End of story.

I tried to argue with this assumption by pointing out that there were non-canonical religious writings that seemed to have been intentionally left out of the bible. I thought this might shake her certainty in the infallibility of that good book. I knew, if one truly believed man's actions were always guided by the unseen hand of God, that this argument was fallible. Her counter to my suggestion, however, was a surprising one. She questioned the certainty that the non-canonical writings were actually written in the past. When I brought up carbon dating, she countered, "I do not believe in science. It is all theoretical."

I explained how the scientific method works, and how hard science is provable. This was fruitless, for it all hinged on believing that the observations of human beings were always fallible, and furthermore, would always be influenced by the unknown and unseen hands of both God and the devil.

I gave up, of course. It is not possible to win arguments of this kind. I must admit that I thought her arguments were wrong, and more than a little bit sad. What is sad, of course, is this woman's belief that she was damned to hell.

However, at this point in my thinking, I believe there is some truth to her assertions, though I do not think any gods or devils play a part.

I do think, as I wrote, that there is hard science, and that science is true. We have learned what things are made of. Their names may be a human invention. Organic and inorganic chemistry, for instance, is eminently provable. The fact that the names of things is irrelevant and man-made makes the truth of both these sciences even more irrefutable. You can call water any name, or even say water does not exist, but water will always be composed of two atoms of hydrogen bonded with one oxygen atom. If there are two atoms of water bonded with two atoms of hydrogen, you will no longer have water (or 水的, ilma, dwr, tubig. . .)  No matter what one's belief system or language is, H2O2 will always be hydrogen peroxide. Water has certain predictable, provable, and re-producable properties. Belief has nothing to do with it. You can click your heels, hold your breath, pray to any God of your choosing, or believe in nothing at all, and water will continue to have the same properties. You may perceive water differently than someone else. You will certainly perceive water differently than a fish, for to whom water is like air to us, but still, water has laws unto itself that are irrefutable, no matter how much one refutes them.

This is the nature of hard science.

The problem that arises is our desire to find the nature of all things, including human behavior. It is alluring to believe that such a thing is possible. There is, indeed, a theory that explains it all, and that is called religion.

For those of us who do not believe that everything is created by God, there must be something, right? I've come to believe that the answer is "no, " and that, furthermore, our quest to find this any answer had lead to some seriously poor consequences. More on that another time.

What I've come here to write about today is the idea that there is, simply, no such thing as a "social science." We once had ideas of philosophy to counter religious world views. But philosophy is known to be inherently arguable. That is one of the delights of philosophy to the philosopher. The words philosophy and debate go hand in hand.

This poses a difficult problem for philosophy. People distrust it, as they know, on a gut level, that all philosophies are open to discussion.

Philosophy, in the universities, is it's own study. However, (according to Wikipedia), the "social sciences," in the university and research setting include "anthropology, archaeology, business administration, criminology, economics, education, geography, linguistics, political science, government, sociology, international relations, communication, and in some contexts, history, law, and psychology."

The use of the words "social" and "science" tied together, and now forever embedded in people's minds as one (unless a person is particularly prone to skepticism) has been one heck of an unhappy marriage.

The idea of the "study," using the scientific method to prove how something(s) works, and what it is composed of, is a fallacy in the context of the "social sciences." Time and again, studies contradict each other. Time and again, we come to believe in the absolute truth of a theory (backed by so-called scientific studies), and come to find out it is indeed simply wrong.

What the guilt-ridden lesbian believed due to her religion is, in essence, true, though her example may not have been. We do have hard science ways of understanding the age of things, but her questioning the very premise of modern society's faith in the understanding of and interpretation of hard science is something we all should examine.

Unfortunately, this idea has been hijacked by people wishing to disprove scientific ideas (most notably, global climate change), and those with hidden agendas for doing so.

But, that's a whole 'nother story. . .

Our collective belief in the social sciences, even amongst those who are religious, has left us vulnerable to the whims and follies of others. Is it any wonder that we believe we are "mentally ill," for instance, when science says there is, in fact, a disease called mental illness? Of course not. Most of us do not question the idea of illness.

Cancer is provable. It can be observed under a microscope, imaged with x-rays or by the naked eye, and oftentimes, can be removed by the simplest of tools, a knife. This is not to say cancer is simple, but, in a way, it is.

Other diseases are similar. Diabetes (which mental illness is compared to more times than I'd care to cite), is fairly straightforward. It can be reliably diagnosed and treated. It's mechanism in the body is identifiable and quantifiable.

Not so any of the social sciences, though we have come to believe this to be true. The fact that one uses the scientific method and studies in the social science fields does not make them sciences. The scientific method, I argue, can not be used in the social sciences. The very idea that it is possible is a dream. It is an attempt to legitimize that which can not be. It is an attempt to make philosophy a provable fact, which it can not be.

Think about it. If Descartes was not a philosopher, but a sociologist today, his idea, "I think therefore I am," would be studied. This is not an absurd notion. Many a sociologist has studied what constitutes the idea of self, in order to quantify it, and, supposedly, find a cure for what ails this self of ours, or cure the ills that plague society. But studies of philosophical ideas are always going to be self-fulfilling prophecies, or exercises in futility. Social scientists have repeatedly scratched their heads in bewilderment when a study has failed to prove the ideas that they should have, and concluded they had not designed the study well enough. People have spent entire lifetimes engaging in this futile effort to "scientifically" prove this or that essentially philosophical idea.

This may have been lots of fun for those with an intellectual bent. It may have provided a lifetime of interesting work for those in the social studies. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it has proved to be a disaster of grand proportions for the individual, who, in essence, has been enslaved to notions that our characters are shaped by unseen and little understood scientific forces. We have lost a great deal of autonomy because of this.

Once it was religion that played this role in the life of an individual. Seems we need, desperately need, to find grand unifying theories, and ultimately, this quest has again and again lead to what appears to be epidemics of thought that change the essential way a person views their experience of the world and of themselves.

I have painted these topics with a broad brush. More on this, I'm sure, in the very near future!


Dick Fischbeck said...

You might like to read this article.

What's very funny is that the verification word I had to type in to post this comment was MATER. How strange life can be.

Dick Fischbeck said...

Maybe I can't post links?? Here is a shortened version.

Dick Fischbeck said...
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Dick Fischbeck said...
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Julie H. Rose said...

Thanks for the link. Now we're both probably on some government watch list. ;-)

I'm not sure it's necessary to have 1400 pages of intellectual arguments to justify one's personal ethics.

Dick Fischbeck said...

What? Because it is Al Jezeera?? Even Hillary Clinton talks about Al Jazeera with respect!

And it's only the first 400 pages of DOES ANYTHING REALLY MATTER that really counts, it says. But that doesn't matter.

Wasn't 'objectavism' Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan's thing? I thought your post was about philosophy and you'd find this interesting!

I watched the BBC doc you told me about. So much to know, isn't there? I really liked it.

Part 1.

Dick Fischbeck said...

This verification word is 'UNKNIT.' How about that!

Julie H. Rose said...

Unknit, eh? Wooooo (that's scary background music).

1. The Al Jazeera comment was me kidding around.
2. I'm glad you're enjoying the documentary!
3. Well, if it's *only* 400 pages, I'll have to read it, right?
4. My humor doesn't come across well in print (see #3)