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No, Science Won’t Solve the Great Problems of Philosophy

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By Julian Friedland A popular positivistic line of thinking seems to be cropping up again, declaring that the sciences are on the verge of a paradigmatic shift. One that will merge science and philosophy to finally answer all the great big questions once and for all. Questions such as the ones Philip Ball recently urged science to face in the journal Nature, which he also edits: What is life? What is consciousness? What makes individuals who they are? Why does our universe seem fine-tuned for our existence? How did it all begin? While such questions are undoubtedly important, the truth is, they are essentially philosophical. That is to say, they escape the kind of exactness required of the hard sciences. The upshot is that they are at best only answerable to a limited extent, if they are even answerable at all. Let’s address them one by one. What is life? It can seem puzzling that we’ve still not managed to define such a foundational concept. We’re currently busy scouring the heavens for it, confident that we’ll be able to recognize it once we find it, and yet, we don’t seem to have a clear grasp of what exactly we are looking for. But this is not the result of any failure of science, as Ball seems to think it is. Rather, it is largely because the concept of life encompasses far too many different kinds of things to afford any exact definition uniting them all. As a result, much of this so-called problem is largely conceptual. For as Wittgenstein demonstrates, the meaning of such words is simply a function of their everyday use. We might also ask if it is a failure of mathematics that it has not yet found a precise definition of the word ‘number’. Or if it is a failure of social science that it has not discovered the precise definition of the word ‘game’. As Wittgenstein would say, we are bewitched at such moments by the idea that there must be some essential definition uniting all the uses of such terms. That there is something hidden behind all these. . .

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News source: A Philosopher's Blog

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