Why Atheists Need Philosophy

by Matthew Sitman

In the wake of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s rather dismissive comments about philosophy’s usefulness, Rebecca Goldstein defends its enduring value – especially for the non-religious:

Philosophy is important because it’s unavoidable if you want to live a coherent life. To live such a life is to use standards to justify your beliefs and actions; it’s to try to bring as much internal consistency into your various beliefs as possible; it’s to consider which of our seemingly intuitive views about the nature of the world and our place within it are compatible with what science has to tell us, which are incompatible, and which are absolutely necessary.

Now whether one likes it or not, such coherence-making thinking involves one in issues of philosophy. Secularists, in particular, who want to counter the false claim that without God to ground morality there can only be nihilism, should be particularly interested in moral philosophy, since that’s where they’ll find the counter-arguments.

Goldstein goes on to clarify how she views philosophy’s relationship to science:

I think there’s often a misunderstanding about the nature of philosophy. Some seem to think philosophy to be in competition with science in the project of describing reality—in other words, ontology. But that’s not really the proper job of philosophy at all. It can’t, and shouldn’t, compete with science in this domain.

And how does one know this? From good philosophical arguments, that’s how. Science, even in making out its case for ontological superiority, has to rely on philosophy in order to make it coherently. It has to step outside of itself and offer a clear criterion for what makes some description scientific and others not, and offer a defense that its methodology actually gets us closer to knowing reality. It relies on philosophy to render its own claims coherent.

More generally, if you want to know what the role of philosophy is you should think of it more in terms of maximizing our overall coherence—including our internal moral coherence—than in terms of describing reality, as science does.

Also responding to deGrasse Tyson, M. Anthony Mills elaborates on how philosophy and science differ:

[T]he division of labor is not that philosophy is speculative while physics is not; rather, each discipline looks for different kinds of answers. Modern physics can ask speculative questions such as, “When did the universe begin?” or more practical questions such as, “How can we infer the existence of a planet by observing gravitational effects?” In either case, the answers depend on empirical and experimental evidence.

Modern philosophy, by contrast, asks questions such as, “What does it mean to accept the truth of a scientific theory?” Crucially, philosophical answers rely on different forms of evidence: not observations, but sound reasoning. A philosophy of science isn’t a theory alongside scientific theories, but a framework for evaluating such theories.

DeGrasse Tyson is right that such questions are not usually germane to the working scientist. But that doesn’t render them superfluous or counterproductive. Scientific progress not only requires the day-to-day work of “practitioners,” but also those who see the proverbial forest. Revolutionary thinkers break out of accepted paradigms and question received wisdom; they engage in precisely the kind “question-asking” for which deGrasse Tyson would banish philosophy.