On What There Is, Research Time, 21/12/2017

When Neil DeGrasse Tyson opens his mouth about philosophy, he usually doesn’t know what he’s talking about. If I was going to make this a pissing contest, I’d tell him what a better grasp many philosophers have on the core concepts of the sciences and scientific knowledge.

I could cite him plenty. I’ve known several specialists in philosophy of science who also have bachelor’s degrees in different sciences. An old McMaster colleague has a degree in physics, the department has run a joint degree program in philosophy and mathematics, a friend from my doctoral program has a biology degree, and my old friend Johnny Five has a colleague with a degree in microbiology.

These days, I feel like Bill Nye has simply lost his
touch. He's less an advocate for science, and is now
just one more talking head.
Nice poster, though.
We don't fuck around.

Maybe that’s why philosophy is such an unpopular subject, a tradition that Tyson and Bill Nye shit on. Philosophers don’t even fuck around enough to do children’s entertainment and become national icons of education.*

* John Dewey would be enraged. He might even furrow his brow.

Gilles Deleuze has plenty to say about science, which is actually very insightful in his weird way. Remember that extended riff I went on about his idea that philosophy was about catching hold of chaos? In What Is Philosophy?, he contrasts science.

Scientific thinking is rooted in mathematics – as Deleuze terms it, functions. You use mathematics to plot and describe quantities, intensities, and differentials. You end up with specific measurements. Even in the many situations and disciplines where you deal in probabilities, you’re still dealing in ranges or numbers.

A mathematically indefinite limit is still an infinitely more sane number than the kind of thinking Deleuze calls chaos in this context – ideas changing so infinitely fast that they change completely in the moment of grasping.

Deleuze says philosophy is thinking in terms of what a process can do – its potential, its virtual existence – the limits and frameworks for all that a process or machine** can achieve. Philosophy’s domain is purely about the structure of potentials. At least that’s one reading of this very complex book.

** Same difference, really.

Science, as he contrasts it, is about the actual. Sciences are mathematical ways to describe different domains of actual existence – how things are right now, what they become, what they can become, and the likelihood of their becoming.

Properly speaking, philosophy and the sciences are partners. Historically, they were united in a single, multifaceted discipline. But the different sciences proliferated, differentiated, developed more complex knowledge in more unique domains.

We understood enough about the world to realize how many unique approaches to knowledge were needed to understand more of the world. So now we don’t have ‘natural philosophy’ anymore. We have a discipline that’s purely conceptual.

Rather, we have many disciplines that constitute together a human knowledge practice more profound than any single tradition within it – whether you start with Parmenides, Kongzi, Moses, or the Vedas. The creation of frameworks for understanding and thinking.

Now we also have the sciences – the detailed, mathematical knowledge of what is. They can exist in a positive feedback loop, each informing different aspects of the other’s practice. In philosophy, that’s what a lot of us do explicitly. How about the sciences?

1 comment:

  1. Neil knows most of the things about science and research. I think, mathematics is the best way to decribe science and physics as most of it revolves around the calculations and statistics.


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