The Need for Philosophy

Philosopher Bust

Submitted Question: Is scientific thinking more rigorous than philosophical thinking?

Interestingly, the opposite is the case.

Scientific thinking is only ever secondarily analytical or conceptual: “science” is about observation. No scientific truth can ever *truly be proven: science works by axiom, the assumption that the future will look like the last because, in the past the future has looked like the past. That this will continue to be so must simply be assumed, but “the sun sets in the West” or “all swans are white” are merely accounts of phenomena that have never (yet) been otherwise. In metaphysical fact, science can only dis-prove: the discovery of a black swan in Australia conclusively disproves the hypothesis that all swans are white.

Philosophy, like mathematics, is the only realm of inquiry that is truly pure and ‘provable’, because it deals with syllogism, with theoretical realities, stipulated to exist *if and only if (and thus not necessarily in our *own reality) certain conditions are met, certain raw materials like number or space are given to (provisionally) exist as demonstrated—again, provisionally, in the thought world—ipso facto by our very ability to conceive of them.

The problem is, “bridging” this abstract realm back onto the “actual” one is not only tricky, but necessarily idiosyncratic. There’s only one way to add 2 and 2 together; there are in fact infinite ways to design and arrange a quantity of 4 determined to be needed for the situation in question. Doing so requires authority—and authority is actually that in short supply in this modern epoch of ours (what we Kamakura-school Buddhists call the “latter day”). Science has simply filled the vacuum, because data is harder (though far from impossible), to politicize. Our goofy fetish for data resembles the decadent astrology and numerology that was all the rage in the decades leading up to the Reformation, the exoteric church mirroring the spiritual degeneration of its upper political echolon. We conduct studies into the blindingly obvious; we setup research experiments to codify truths captured in succinct proverbs in half the countries of the world; we conduct academic research into trivia about historical periods and the experiences of its people, as if compiling statistical and anecdotal data into the historical record was ‘good’ for it, as vitamin C is good for the body.

Philosophy degenerated when the European masses stopped believing in the established religion, because spiritual and intellectual authority are never dissociated; but the problem was especially acute in Europe because of what Nietzsche called “morality.” Morality (in the specific sense in which he used it) is like cheating; it is to spiritual and political matters what cocaine is to your energy level. The reaction against morality provided the all too convenient cover for anti-authoritarianism for its own sake: rebelling not against any particular authority for being illegitimate, but against the very notion that the uncultivated individual need any regulating authority in the first place.

In this respect, the Catholic Church did far too good and far too poor a job in one. It convinced the Europeans that they were good enough to save themselves, but eventually, that they were good enough not to need the (or any) Church.

The heart of the Buddha’s discovery is the (metaphysical) impossibility of something like Western science, because it is predicated on the ability to isolate individual causes from each other, let alone from their effects, which will only ever be delusion. Delusions are just fine if they work for you, and can become useful illusions by contrast, but only if one is aware of their limitations. Science has proven extraordinarily capable of creating great things by acting **as if**, but you cannot turn around and then grandfather that into a metaphysical postulate. What I usually fail to explain to my materialist, scientism-adhering academic peers is that the argument over whether science or philosophy is prior is a philosophical argument.

Michael Beraka is a passionate teacher, writer, and researcher at the University of Chicago Divinity School.