The other day I listened to a debate the took place at the University of Manchester back in October between philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig and chemist Peter Atkins. I was listening to this while camping somewhere up in the mountains of the North Cascades. Now leaving aside the obvious question, (what sort of weirdo listens to academic debates while they’re camping?) what really struck me about the interaction between these two is that Dr. Atkins’ empiricism leads him to believe that philosophy is useless, while Dr. Craig asserts that without the necessary assumptions that philosophy gives to science, science would be incapable of telling us anything. It seems the fundamental difference between the philosopher and the pure scientist, is that the scientist only wants to understand “how”, but the philosopher desires to go a step further and understand “why”.
While walking with my girls through the woods yesterday, we came upon one of my favorite native flowers. It’s a little pink/purple orchid called a fairy slipper (calypso bulbosa). I don’t see them very often. They’re easily missed because they’re so tiny, and typically standing alone. You can see one in the photo I took that accompanies this article. If you look at it carefully, you can see why it is called a fairy slipper. It resembles a delicate little shoe. It’s seemingly intricate design is impressive. It’s a little natural work of art. Botanists and biologists probably have all sorts of impressive things to relate to us about how this little flower came to look this way; how it develops and reproduces; how it’s appearance lends to its functionality; etc. What science fails to explain to me, is why. Not why does this flower do anything it does, because they would tell me that it’s appearance is merely part of the mechanics to aid in its survival. The “why” I’m really interested in though, is really a more profound why I think. Why do I find it beautiful?
I don’t think empiricism can adequately answer this question. Sure Dr. Atkins and his scientific colleagues may be able to tell me some things about the neurochemistry of the brain and how I find it beautiful, but why I find it beautiful, or what beauty even is, seems a deeply philosophical question. I believe there is a lot to be learned about reality, not only through testing and observation which is clearly a valuable epistemological pursuit, but also through self-reflection and metaphysical realities I observe from within my own mind.
Some people, like Dr. Atkins, will say that the pursuit of philosophical knowledge, by those like Dr. Craig, is a worthless one and that nothing can be known that can’t be tested and observed using the scientific method. This is a patently absurd self-defeating statement though, since the statement itself is, in fact, a philosophical one! Until these philosophical naysayers show me the experiments that prove empirically that the scientific method is the only way to knowledge, I’ll be skeptical of their ability to even handle the question of “how” properly, let alone “why”.