There is a widening interest in philosophy, but this does not stop significant intellectual currents in our society flowing against the subject. One result is the way in which, even in the formation of public policy, ethical questions are often dealt with through an appeal to what people actually think, as evidenced, say, in opinion polls. There is little attempt, even in complex matters, to question the reasons for the judgments being made. Ethics becomes a branch of sociology, and the settling of ethical issues is regarded as a mere matter for political negotiation.
Two trends, in particular, erode the influence of philosophy. They can be dubbed ‘materialism’ and ‘relativism’. The first is the product of the prestige of science. As scientific knowledge increases it is easy to assume that it will go on increasing until nothing eludes its grasp. The rational study of a reality beyond science (traditionally called ‘metaphysics’) becomes a contradiction in terms. Rationality becomes identified with the practices of contemporary science. This has meant that science has had to be justified in its own terms, needing no metaphysical foundation. Yet this is a precarious position for any intellectual discipline, since it then has no resources to withstand attack once it is challenged. This is particularly important nowadays when science is no longer universally admired, and when many are worried about its effects on our environment.
Perhaps, so far from being in a position to challenge metaphysics, it needs a metaphysical foundation itself. It cannot just discover order in the world, but has to be able to generalise from the particular to the universal. Its discoveries are taken to be typical of the wider whole. Matters are not helped by the fact that in English ‘science’ has a narrow connotation, referring exclusively to the empirical methods of observation and experiment. This contrasts notably with the Latin ‘scientia’ (‘knowledge’). The German ‘Wissenschaft’ also covers a much wider range, even including philosophy itself. The effect of this English usage is to narrow in scope what can be regarded as established knowledge, and to encourage the ‘scientistic’ view that empirical science is the sole source of knowledge.
The result is to maintain that reality is only what can be observed or measured. Philosophy appears to have very little to do, and is certainly not concerned with what the world is like. That issue, and the question of how we can know the world, become empirical questions to be settled by a rigorous use of scientific method. The current concern with so-called ‘evolutionary epistemology’ is evidence of a continuing trend, even within philosophy, of suggesting that traditional philosophical questions about the basis of knowledge can be settled by an appeal to science. In this case, the appeal of neo-Darwinism is strong. The idea is that humans could not have evolved to live in this world unless they saw it as it is. People who do not see holes fall in them. Those who have survived and reproduced must have been attuned to reality. This argument depends on the theory of evolution through natural selection. Yet that is itself a scientific theory. Much depends on whether it is true. Does it describe the workings of the world accurately? We cannot, though, assume that the theory gives us knowledge, unless we think we are in a position to gain knowledge. Yet that is precisely what evolutionary epistemology was supposed to demonstrate. It is involved in a massive begging of the question, which is an inevitable result of trying to replace philosophy with science. A similar conundrum is likely to face any attempt to replace philosophy with a scientific account of the functioning of human reason.
The idea that the material, or physical world is all there is, cannot be under-written by science. The view that science can explain everything may presuppose it, but is not going to be empirically proved, since it a philosophical position, making metaphysical claims about the nature of reality. Saying what reality has to consist in will always go further than the actual scientific discoveries we have made so far. The term ‘materialism’ summarises this position, but philosophers realise that ‘matter’ is increasingly difficult to define. They often prefer the term ‘physicalism’, referring to the need to define reality in terms acceptable to actual (or possible) physics. They may otherwise talk of ‘naturalism’, turning to the whole of natural science rather than just physics as the defining agent. An embarrassing question will always be to ask how far physicalism or naturalism could be shown to be scientifically correct. Since they are themselves philosophical positions about the nature of what can be real, this is going to be impossible.
Another source of erosion in faith in the contemporary world is the concentration on the fact of people’s beliefs, and their variety, and not the content of the beliefs. We have seen an example of this in the treatment of ethical issues. The stress on science has led to an inevitable reaction to all forms of so-called ‘modern’ thought. Post-modernism has decried the Enlightenment idea of the universality of rationality, as illustrated by modern science. It has preferred to see human reasoning as the product of particular times and places, relating it to its context (as in the case of ‘Enlightenment’ reason). The universality claimed by scientific truth thus becomes the product of a historically situated view. The idea is that we have passed into the ‘post-modern’ era and can see the inherent limitation of the claims of modernity. There is no ‘God’s-eye’ view, it will be said, and no rational ‘self’ able to transcend its historical situation. We are, instead, all moulded by our history, and the result is a debilitating relativism. Yet the mere claim that there are different historical contexts, like the ‘modern era’, itself looks like a claim to truth. It has to talk about what is the case. In fact, it seems impossible consistently to espouse a relativism relating truth to the beliefs of a precisely demarcated group. Even describing the situation involves at least recognising the non-relative fact of a variation of belief.
Apart from its internal incoherence, relativism also poses a problem for philosophy itself. It may appear to be a philosophical theory, but its effect is to redirect our attention away from whether people’s beliefs are justified, to a mere acknowledgment that they are held. We are back again with the current penchant for settling ethical controversies by counting heads. What matters, it seems, is whether beliefs are held, and by how many. There seem to be no intellectual resources left to judge whether the beliefs are right or wrong, justified or unjustified. This may seem all very democratic, but it certainly removes any possibility of philosophical discussion of the issues (and any possibility of justifying democracy). Ethics provides just one example, but the same situation will occur whenever there is a variation of belief. Even science is not sacrosanct. The point of post-modernism is to challenge the monopoly claims of scientific rationality, in a manner that in effect demolishes the idea of rationality. Science is placed in a context. It becomes ‘Western’ science, and is one set of social practices amongst others. Arguments about its standing, like all other philosophical arguments, are changed into political negotiations between different sets of people, and different power groupings. The demise of any respect for a disinterested, philosophical, rationality has radical consequences, which are as destructive as a mindless echoing of the contemporary preoccupations of empirical science.
Neither materialism, resulting in uncritical worship of science, nor relativism, underwriting the beliefs of every possible grouping, leave any role for philosophy. We are left with a cacophony of views, since we cannot provide a rational basis for scientific knowledge, or adjudicate between competing positions, Our only way out is an appeal to power, and even force, in order to settle disputes. It is no coincidence that the stirrings of the Eu ropean Enlightenment, and the foundation of modern science, took place in seventeenth century England at the time of the Civil War. Reason could seem a welcome alternative to the strife and destruction that swept through the British Isles at that time.
Yet materialism, or physicalism, is itself on a collision course with relativism. The former appeals to the view of objective truth, which the latter denies. Matter, or physical reality, is claimed to be all there is. This is a point about the nature of reality, not people’s beliefs about it. Yet the two agree in fundamentally challenging the role of philosophy and leaving little place for it. Indeed, the two were identified by Plato as threats to the possibility of knowledge.
The very fact that Socrates and Plato upheld a distinctive view of the possibility of a detached rationality, independent of particular beliefs or of the material processes, shows how restricting it is to see the Enlightenment as the source of a belief in human reason. Yet one does not need to agree with Plato’s metaphysics, or his philosophical outlook, to see the relevance and importance of a view of reason, and its role in philosophy. Philosophy is not an empirical theory, and it is very different from cultural studies. Indeed, those who argue against the practice of philosophy, from the standpoint of science, or the history of ideas, are doomed to undermine their own positions. Even materialism and relativism become recognisably philosophical theories, once they are explicitly articulated. They both make general claims about the nature of reality. When the consequence of an argument for holding them is to remove any basis for rational discussion, that only serves to demonstrate their ultimate incoherence. They give reasons for not having reasons. In the case of a scientistic attitude, they uphold reasons why causal explanations are the only kind of explanation possible. In the case of relativism, they argue that all our beliefs are culturally constructed and not the product of reason. There is no doubt about it. In the face of an attempt by science to claim a monopoly of reason, and the simultaneous, and incompatible delight in cultural differences, philosophy matters now, just as it has always done.
Roger Trigg is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, and the author of Philosophy Matters (Blackwell, 2002).
This article was originally published in The Philosophers’ Magazine.