Since my post on Pierre Hadot, I’ve come to realize that genuinely philosophical thought today must include elements of the domains usually called “religion” and “science” (and that those two domains must overlap to some degree). Having done a degree in religious studies, I’ve thought through the concept of “religion” a lot – mostly to identify what a misleading category it is, though of course the phenomena it typically points to matter a lot.
But what about science? It’s intriguing to me that for one of the most highly regarded philosophers of science, Karl Popper, the central problem in philosophy of science is demarcation. That is to say, for Popper, the most important thing philosophy of science needs to do is to distinguish science from non-science.
At first this seems an oddly defensive position to take. Compare “philosophy of science” in this regard to “philosophy of religion.” As William Wainwright’s excellent book notes, “philosophy of religion” means almost entirely different things to analytic philosophers of religion (who usually belong to the American Philosophical Association and continental philosophers of religion (who are much more at home in the AAR). For APA philosophers of religion, the only real problem is God: does he exist or doesn’t he, and if so, what are his characteristics? For AAR philosophers of religion, the problems are more varied. But neither side would dream of saying that the central task of their field is to demarcate religion from non-religion! For the AAR philosophers, that task, if it matters, is a task for religious studies in general, not just philosophy of religion; for the APA philosophers, it is a trivial side matter compared to the object of religion, God.
And yet I would say there is something vital to Popper’s question, a good reason why demarcation might be more important in philosophy of science than in philosophy of religion. Asking the question “what is religion?” is generally useless and gets us mired in pointless debates that do nothing to enlarge our understanding. I don’t think the same is true of the question “what is science?”
What makes science different and important, in my view, is two things. First, it has a normative weight; to say that something is scientific is to say something epistemologically good about it, to say that we have particular reason to believe it. (I referred to this concept of normative weight or normative force before, in discussing dialetheism: to note that even Graham Priest, while arguing that there can be true contradictions, nevertheless agrees that something about contradictions is epistemologically bad.) Second, and more importantly, it seems to me that science in some sense deserves that normative weight.
This is not, of course, to say that science is necessarily superior to everything else or that it’s the only kind of knowledge worth having. Such a claim is self-refuting, as I’ve noted before, since it’s not scientific. Normative claims, including the claim that science has a normative weight, are not scientific either, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
So then what is science? And why does it have this normative weight (if indeed it does, as I claim)? That’s a question for another time – first it’s important just to establish that the question is worth asking.