Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Science, philosophy, ideology

Previously I have discussed* the implications of studies which indicate that a person's basic political (and religious) orientation is influenced greatly by genetic and early developmental factors. We generally only engage in political or religious debate because we have strong ideological or religious convictions, and those convictions set the general tone and direction of our contributions. Rationality comes in only later - to help us elaborate and defend that general position which feels so true to us (but strangely not to our antagonists).

These facts (as I take them to be) are rather inconvenient. It takes all the fun out of argument if one feels obliged to be skeptical towards one's own deeply felt convictions!

But on the plus side, it allows one (I believe) better to understand what is really going in much ideological, religious and philosophical debate.

In my previous post on this site, I touched on these issues, suggesting that platonists and anti-platonists in the philosophy of mathematics may be caught up in a debate which is superficially rational but ultimately driven by non-rational factors - deep convictions similar to religious or political convictions.

If progress is to be made in any of these areas, I think there has to be an acceptance that we are less rational than we would like to think; and so we need to depend more on scientific methods (which incorporate mechanisms to counter individual biases etc.), and less on convictions (or the elaborate arguments which we have built upon them).

A boring conclusion, I know. Especially for those of us who have strong convictions and a taste for argument and debate about the big questions.

Within the (rather ill-defined) area of philosophy, history certainly seems to indicate that arguments and debates are most fruitful (albeit somewhat constrained) when the dividing line between philosophy and science is blurred or non-existent, and most pointless and futile whenever philosophy is disengaged from science.

I recognize, however, that we are inveterately ideological creatures**, and there will always be a role for those who can identify, articulate and criticize the ideological frameworks we inevitably create and seek to live by.

Could this be what will replace the bits of philosophy which are not swallowed up by the various sciences: the scientifically-informed critique of ideologies?

* For example, here and here.

** There are problems with the term 'ideology', I know. I am using it in a very broad sense to mean something like a system of beliefs involving values and prompting certain forms of action, often in concert with others who share the ideology and sometimes in opposition to those who don't. It may be that I would do better to speak of us being inveterately tribal. 'Ideology' may be just the intellectual's (way of rationalizing) tribalism.