Is philosophy simply harder than science?

According to the “spin-off” theory of philosophical progress, all new sciences start as branches of philosophy, and only become established as separate disciplines once philosophy has bequeathed them the intellectual wherewithal to survive on their own.

There is certainly something to this story. Physics as we know it was grounded in the seventeenth-century “mechanical philosophy” of Descartes and others. Similarly, much psychology hinges on associationist principles first laid down by David Hume, and economics grew out doctrines first developed by thinkers who called themselves philosophers. The process continues into the contemporary world. During the twentieth century, both linguistics and computer science broke free of their philosophical moorings to establish themselves as independent disciplines.

According to the spin-off theory, then, the supposed lack of progress in philosophy is an illusion. Whenever philosophy does make progress, it spawns a new subject, which then no longer counts as part of philosophy. In reality, philosophy is full of progress, but this is obscured by the constant renaming of its intellectual progeny.

.. When it comes to topics like morality, knowledge, free will, consciousness and so on, the lecturers still debate a range of options that have been around for a long time.

.. Where philosophy hinges on analysis and argument, science is devoted to data. When scientists are invited to give research talks, they aren’t allowed simply to stand up and theorize, however interesting that would be. It is a professional requirement that they must present observational findings. If you don’t have any PowerPoint slides displaying your latest experimental results, then you don’t have a talk.

.. Plenty of experimentally intractable problems arise right within science. Take the interpretation of quantum mechanics, or the evolution of altruistic instincts. These are scientific questions all right, but they admit no simple experimental resolution. The problem is that, even though we have all the experimental results we could want, we can’t figure out a coherent theory to accommodate them. Philosophical problems arise within science as well as outside it.

The real difference between philosophy and science is not subject area, but the kind of problem at issue. Philosophical issues typically have the form of a paradox.

.. It should be said that scientists aren’t very good at this kind of thing. They are much happier with what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science”, working within “paradigms” of settled assumptions and techniques that allow them to focus on issues that can be settled experimentally. When they are faced with a real theoretical puzzle, most scientists close their eyes and hope it will go away.

.. One of the great scandals of modern intellectual life is the way that physicists brushed the problems of quantum mechanics under the carpet throughout the twentieth century. Led by Niels Bohr and his obscurantist “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, they told generations of students that the glaring inconsistencies apparent in the theory were none of their business. “Shut up and calculate” was the typical response to any undergraduate who had the temerity to query the cogency of the theory. (This slogan has been variously attributed to Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and others. The indeterminacy of the attribution is itself a testimony to the prevalence of the attitude.)

.. The “boo-hurrah” account of moral judgements was all the rage in the middle of the last century, but no-one any longer defends this simple-minded emotivism.