Why Philosophy?

February 19, 2015

Hubert_Selby,_JrPlato famously said that the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’ (Apology 38a). But what is an examined life in contrast? Normally, I suppose, when we live our lives we do not question our fundamental principles, values or beliefs. If we did so constantly, then we would not be able to live our lives at all. I imagine this is what most people think philosophers are. People who can’t live proper lives, who have their heads in the skies, who aren’t reasonable, serious people. This isn’t a new insult. It does right back to when there were first philosophers (because there haven’t always been such strange people). Plato tells the story of Thales, who was one of the first philosophers, who we know off, who was so distracted by the heavens that he fell into a hole. This is the passage in full:

Why take the case of Thales. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty, Thracian girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy.
(Theatetus, 174a)

Well I don’t suppose such a thing really happened. It has the ring of a myth just because the metaphor is so telling. Isn’t studying philosophy just like falling into a hole, and doesn’t everyone laugh at philosophers because they don’t take life seriously enough. The joke, however, in the end is Thales’, because having spent so much time staring at the heavens, he was able to predict that the next olive harvest was going to be very good and thus he made a fortune. Perhaps it is not so useless being a philosopher at all.

I don’t think, though, that was the reason that Plato thought an examined life was better. I don’t think he was recommending philosophy as a way of making money (or getting a career as we might say nowadays). Though that might be a consequence of doing philosophy, that should not be the reason you chose to do philosophy. The reason that Plato recommended philosophy was that he thought that it would make you a better human being.

In this way he saw philosophy as a spiritual task that consumed the whole person and not just a skill one could become better at. The word ‘spiritual’ has perhaps become an overused word in our culture and in that way might be redundant unless we give it a precise meaning. What I do not mean by spirituality in this context is a pseudo-religious activity or practice, as when someone might say that they are spiritual but not religious. Still less do I mean the commercial side of spiritual activity, like faith healing, crystals and reincarnation. All these are a kind of watered down mysticism that is the opposite of what Plato means by an examined life.

At the end of another dialogue, The Symposium, Plato tells us a story about how philosophy was born from Poverty and Resource (203a). Someone who has everything and desires nothing cannot be a philosopher, but equally someone who has nothing and cannot desire anything will not be able either. The philosopher is someone who exists in between the two. She knows that there is truth but that she lacks it, and it is because she lacks it that she desires it. Wisdom, the love of wisdom, which is what philosophy means, is this continual search for the truth and Plato seems to suggest that this search is unending. The philosopher is always looking for the truth and is never certain that she has found it, whereas the non-philosophers are always those who know that they have found the truth and it everyone else that is wrong. The fundamentalist and the philosopher, then, would be two very different people.

Is all of this still too abstract? How would we apply Plato’s dictum to our own lives. Most of the time, I think, if we were to be honest we don’t think for ourselves. Rather we think like everyone else. We have the same opinions, the same likes and dislikes, and we act in the same way. It is when we question this common opinion that we begin to ask ourselves how could we really be ourselves. Now this might seem to be the easiest thing of all to do. Since aren’t we all ‘selves’ aren’t we already born a ‘somebody’, an individual? Yet this self that everyone is isn’t the self that we are after, because we want to be uniquely ourselves. This isn’t something that we born to be. Rather it is something we have to accomplish throughout our whole lives, something it is very possible to fail at.

The courage to be oneself, the courage to just be, is very difficult indeed. To conform, to be like everyone else, is, in comparison, very easy and what we always tempted to do instead. Philosophy isn’t about learning about philosophy just for its own sake, though it can become like that in a university sometimes, but how one faces the question of one’s own existence and how one gives meaning to one’s own life. This means being able to look inside of yourself and reflect about what is important to you, what are you values and desires and from that be able to choose the best life for yourself (which might not be the same as what other people might think is the best life for you), and once you have chosen to have the strength and commitment to carry it through.

What might prevent you from doing so is always the opposite of philosophy, distraction and boredom. Most of the time we just fill our lives in with doing stuff, as though are time were endless and we could always put off making a decision. It’s a bit like how we think about our own deaths. We are always certain that our death is some way ahead (especially when we are young) so we don’t really have to concern ourselves with it. Of course that isn’t true, because in fact our deaths could happen at any time and we wouldn’t know at all. What would it mean to live with that realisation? It would mean that you would have to ask yourself if you were really to die in the next moment would you be wasting your time as you are doing now just drifting from one moment to the next. The American writer, Hubert Selby Jr., speaks about a ‘spiritual experience’ that he had, which is close to what I am describing here. He says that one day at home, he suddenly had the realisation that he was going to die, and that if he did die, he would look back upon his whole life as a waste because he hadn’t done what he wanted to do. He hadn’t become the person he wished to be. In that very moment of wishing that he could live his life again and not waste it, he would die. This realisation terrified him. It was this terror that was his spiritual experience, though at the time, he says, he didn’t realise that, he was just terrified. It was at that very moment that he became a writer. Not that he had any skill, or any idea of what being a writer was, but he wanted to do something with his life (at the time he was on the dole and in between doing dead-end jobs) and writing seemed the best thing (of course it could have been something else, but it was doing something with his life and not regretting it that was the important thing). He has learnt to become a writer by writing but it was his ‘spiritual experience’ that made he do it and also made him commit to it, not just give up because it was difficult.

I think what Plato means by philosophy, by an ‘examined life’ as opposed to an ‘unexamined one’ is what Hubert Selby Jr. means by a ‘spiritual experience’. I am not sure that you can do philosophy if you haven’t had one (though you might be very clever about philosophy). Notice that this experience hasn’t got anything to do with being intellectual or knowing a lot of stuff. It’s about facing oneself honestly and about a commitment to a life without knowing how it might end up.

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On the Difference between Ethics and Morality – Lecture 2

February 11, 2015

Without ethics we would not be human, everyone agrees with that. Blackburn calls this our ethical climate or environment, which is analogous with our physical one (Blackburn 2001, pp.1–6). Just as much as human beings need physical shelter so they also need an ethical one. Ethics describes the ways in which human beings, in any culture, value certain kinds of behaviour over others. The ancient Greeks, who were the first philosophers, would have described the difference between the physical and the ethical environment, as the separation between φύσις and νομός.[1] Just as much as there are laws of nature, then there are ethical laws of every society. Again, Blackburn is probably alluding to the etymology of the word ‘ethics’, which comes from ancient Greek ἧθος, meaning, a place or customs.[2]

But what is the difference between a natural and ethical law? We can understand the necessity of natural law. In nature, every event has its cause. Such a necessity is what we call law. But are there laws of ethics? Does not every culture have its own different values? Even Hitler, Blackburn argues, for example, had his values, the purity of a race; it is just that we do not value them. Are we right not to? What gives is the right to say that there are ethical laws, that there is an absolute difference between good and evil?

Is there a necessity to ethics? If there is then it cannot be the same as the necessity of nature. The laws of nature are intrinsic to the physical universe; they are indifferent to human beings. If there are laws of ethics (and maybe we should not use the expression ‘law’ to describe it), then they must belong to what we consider ourselves to be, what it is to live a human life, and not nature. Even the nature of human being is not important to ethics. It is not the fact that we are certain type of animal which makes us ethical, but what we value in ourselves and others, and the meaning of such a value does not belong to the natural world.[3]

Philosophy has always, from the very beginning, tried to describe what this ethics is in terms of rationality. It is because human beings are rational that we are ethical, and not the other way around. Kant would argue that it is because I have to give reasons for my actions that I take responsibility for them, and expect others do so. Without reason, there would be no ethics. This is why we do not expect small children and animals to be ethical. Bentham and Mill, on the other hand, would argue that it not my intentions that count, but the consequences of my actions, which again can be measured rationally through the principle of utility of the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

And yet is reason sufficient to explain ethics? Was not Ruolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, moral to his friends and family? Did he not keep promises and probably love his wife and children? How is it possible that at the same time he could send so many other human beings to the gas chamber (Rees 2011)? It is at this point, I believe, that we must make a difference between morality and ethics. Höss had his morality. Such a morality is precisely what allowed him to murder one million Jews and a hundred thousand other human beings, but what he lacked was ethics. It is morality that differs across cultures, whereas ethics does not.[4]

Morality is the codes and values we live by. They have their origin in the societies in which we shelter, and they are the ways in which we judge one another. Such a morality is what Blackburn calls our ‘ethical environment’, but I do not think in and by itself it is ethical at all. It is morality that philosophy attempts to justify rationally, though we might like Nietzsche think that this is just a smokescreen to legitimate power. A morality without ethics, however, soon descends into murder and despair, for what it lacks is recognition of the humanity of the other. This is why Höss could go home every night to his wife and children and live a perfectly respectable middle class life (it is important to recognise that the Nazis were not on the whole mad men, like Amon Goeth played by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List), because he did not see the Jews and the others he murdered in the gas chambers as human beings at all. It is precisely a morality without ethics which allows us to commit such crimes against humanity, and we see it again and again throughout human history, both in our distant and immediate past, and in other cultures than our own.

It is this ethics, as opposed to morality, described by Raimond Gaita in his book A Common Humanity (Gaita 2000, pp.17–28) and which I would claim is universal. He tells us of an event that happened in his own life when he was seventeen years old and was working in a psychiatric hospital. The patients there seemed to have lost any status as human beings. He writes that they were treated like animals by the staff in the hospital. Some of the more enlightened psychiatrists spoke of the ‘inalienable dignity’ of the patients, but others treated them sadistically. It was only when a nun arrived and behaved differently to them that the attitude of the staff was revealed to Gaita. They had ceased thinking of them as human beings. But what is important is that it is the behaviour the nun which reveals this. Humanity, then, is not a property of someone like green is a property of thing. Rather, humanity is revealed in the relation that one person has to another. It is because the nun loved the patients unconditionally that their humanity was revealed to him. Without this love, they were less than human.

Ethics, then, is not a moral code, but this unconditional love for other human beings, especially for those who have fallen out of what society might call humanity, the poor, the sick, the destitute and the mad. Our humanity, and the humanity of the society in which we live is measured by the love we have for others, and equally our inhumanity and inhumanity of the society in which we live is measured by the lack of love we have for others. Such a love is fragile, because it cannot be justified rationally, and our own moralities can work against it (in the sense that Blackburn speaks about ethics as an ethos). We can use morality to legitimate why we should not treat others as human beings, but not why we should love every human being equally. Such a love is both what makes us human and humanises others, but it is not rational, if one means by a rational, a belief or intention. This is why Gaita stresses that it is not the nun’s beliefs that justify her behaviour; rather her behaviour justifies her beliefs. The behaviour comes first. I act before I understand, and I do so because I am open to the humanity of the other. This is first of all an openness to the vulnerability and suffering of the other, before it is a thought about this vulnerability and suffering, and it is precisely because Höss can harden his heart to such vulnerability and suffering, because of his morality, his ethos, that he could have murdered so many human beings and then returned home to his wife and children every night believing himself to be a moral human being.

It is very important that this ethics of love does not slide into mawkish sentimentality. An ethics without morality or politics is just as dangerous as a morality or politics without ethics, because it makes no attempt to change the world in which there are millions of people who are suffering. This is what Badiou warns us of in his book Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Badiou 2002, pp.30–9). There is a subtle connection, Badiou, argues with our obsession with the suffering of others in our society and the moral nihilism of our consumer society. Their suffering has almost become a spectacle we enjoy so that we can feel good about ourselves. Yet we do nothing at all about the political situation, which is the real cause of this suffering, that is capitalism. We just accept this as an economic necessity. Badiou’s argument is that our obsession with ethics, whether it is a question of rights, or the sufferings of others, is just the opposite side of this necessity. ‘Children in Need’, the BBC’s charity, could happen every year for the rest of time, but it will never change the political situation in which there are children in need, because we live in a society where it is perfectly acceptable to give billions of pounds to the banks but to let the large majority of children live in poverty and misery. Every year, we can watch on our computer and TV screens some war or disaster, and we can feel the suffering of others, and many will generously send their own money, but we do nothing to change the unjust global economic system that is the real cause of this suffering. It is as though we need our yearly fix of ethical feeling, so that for the rest of the year we can ignore the fact that it is our empty consumer lives that are the real cause of poverty, starvation and death in this world. We cannot, therefore, separate politics from ethics. If our ethics does not change the world, then it is empty gesture; a beautiful sentiment, but without any real effect in this world.

To quote Kant’s famous phrase and change it slightly, morality (or politics) without ethics is blind, but ethics without morality (or politics) is empty

Work Cited

Badiou, A., 2002. Ethics: an Essay on the Understanding of Evil, London: Verso.

Blackburn, S., 2001. Being Good : an Introduction to Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity : Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, London: Routledge.

Rees, L., 2011. BBC – History – World Wars: Rudolf Höss – Commandant of Auschwitz. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/hoss_commandant_auschwitz_01.shtml [Accessed October 21, 2012].


[1] For the Liddell and Scott entry for φύσις, see http://tinyurl.com/3a4fsaf, and for νομός, http://tinyurl.com/3yxavgo.

[2] See Liddell and Scott, http://tinyurl.com/39sveq6.

[3] There is naturalism in ethics that denies this and which would be represented by such philosophers as Spinoza and Nietzsche, but precisely for this reason they reject any morality.

[4] I am aware at the level of etymology that the difference between ethics and morality is non-existent, since morality (from mores) is just the Latin for the Greek ethos. It is not the words that matter here, but the different experience. Morality, in my definition, is always some kind of justification of human action, whereas what I mean by ethics is an immediate response to the suffering of others.


Moral Reasoning – Lecture 1

February 8, 2015

We all act morally or otherwise. We all see others and judge whether they act morally or otherwise. The question is what right do we have to do so. Is there an underlying procedure or principle that allows us objectively to declare are own or others acts moral or not? In the history of moral philosophy there have been two standard ways of doing so, and these two theories form the mainstay of most ethical courses both in schools and universities. They are utilitarianism and deontology. Both also have a long pedigree and can be found right at the beginnings of Western philosophy. They can also be found in other traditions outside of this canon. For ease of explanation, however, in this lecture we going to focus on the main representative of both theories: Bentham and Mill for utilitarianism, and Kant for deontology. At the end will we ask, despite the fact that they are very different theories, whether they both harbour the same prejudice that is it possible to make sense of our ethical and moral principles outside of the culture in which we exist.

Though we can find utilitarian arguments for ethics in Socrates’ speeches, for example, probably the best modern representative is the English philosophy Jeremy Bentham. The basic principle of his utilitarianism is the maximisation of human happiness. What determines all human action is pain and pleasure. Rationally, every human being, like any other natural being, seeks to maximise their pleasure and minimise their pain. To determine whether a course of action is moral or not is to add up the maximum amount of happiness for all. If the pleasure outweighs then the pain, then the action is rational.

What makes this moral theory attractive to many is that it seems to reduce moral choices to something quantifiable and calculable. It is not surprising that even today government policy is decided by utility calculus. At the heart of the calculus is the idea of a common currency. We can take what apparently appears to be value judgement and transform it into a cost benefit analysis. This is even clearer when we take this common currency literally and transform it into an economic calculation where we measure people’s preferences in terms of a monetary value. Thus we might say that it makes sense to force people to wear seatbelts because although this causes pain to a small number of people the benefit to society as whole is greater because of less deaths in road accidents.

Historically, when we come to look at the application of utilitarianism, we might, however worry about its moral basis. Thus Bentham argued that poor workhouses should be created for the poor, because the sight of beggars on the streets was more harmful to those who saw them, than the individual’s freedom to beg. The poor themselves would be forced to work in these workhouses so that they paid for their own incarceration so that the taxpayers wouldn’t have to forgo the pleasure of any loss of income.

Although this historical example might appear extreme to some, many people will defend utilitarianism in this way: a harm to one is a benefit to all. One such example is torture. If you could prevent a bomb killing millions of people would you not torture the terrorist to find out where the bomb was? It seems rational to say that you would, since you would be weighing one human life against a million others. The argument against this scenario is that it would be wrong to torture the terrorist because every human life inviolable. The utilitarian would respond that such principles are unrealistic, since this situation requires that we cannot seriously take the one life to be as important as the million others.

We might think, however, as Sandel points out, that we are not comparing like with like (2010, pp.38–40). For the real comparison, since we suppose that the millions who would die by the bomb are innocent, would we be willing to torture the innocent daughter of the terrorist in order to find where the bomb is, and many would not be willing to take this step even though the purely utilitarian argument would force us to do so. Those who routinely defend torture do not usually defend the torture of innocents even for the best utilitarian arguments that doing so would lead to the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

That Bentham’s strict utilitarianism seems to go against some of our fundamental ideas of what morality is meant that his disciple Mill looked to improve it by resolving human rights with utility. His basic conception of liberty is any individual should have the right to do what they wished as long as they did not harm others. This idea of a right seems stronger than any utility, since no society, for example could banish religion of minority simply because it did not coincide with the wishes of a majority. Mill, however, argues it can be defended on a utility calculus because it is better for a society to have non-conforming elements than supress them. Thus, in the long term, allowing dissent and individual differences prevents a society from becoming rigid and stultifying. The majority should test its views and opinions, and can only do so because it allows for a minority to exist. The problem with this utility argument, again, as Sandel points out, is that it does not sufficiently preserve individual human rights (2010, p.50). Although it is possible to imagine a society that exist with minorities, it also perfect possible to image a happy society is which every one’s needs are fulfilled but is despotic. Now we might prefer to live in a society that has individual rights, but we could not argue for that on totally utilitarian argument.

To defend utilitarianism against the idea of a common currency that all lives and all pleasure can be quantified in the same way, Mill makes the distinction between higher and lower pleasures, as he famously writes ‘it is better to be a human being unsatisfied, than a pig satisfied’. The test is that if one individual experiences both the lower and higher pleasure (let us saying listening to One Direction or going to an art gallery), then if we add up all these individuals choices, then the higher pleasure will take precedence over the lower pleasure. The only problem with this analysis is that someone can desire the lower pleasure even though they know the other choice is the greater accomplishment. The nobler life might not the most pleasurable. It might be better to go to art gallery and listen to Shakespeare, but it might be more pleasurable to slob on the settee and watch rubbish T.V. If we do think that the other life is more noble, as Mill obviously does, then it cannot be a utility calculus that makes us think that, but our ideas of what a dignified and worthy human life might be. As Sandel writes, ‘It is not desires here which are the standard but the principle of human dignity. The higher pleasures are not higher because we prefer them; we prefer them because we recognize them as higher.’ (2010, p.55)

The opposite of utilitarianism is deontology, and we are going to use Kant as our example. Like Mill and Bentham, Kant too thinks that moral choices should be determined by reason, but for Kant moral reasoning determines the principles of actions and not its ends. Kant sharply distinguishes human action from natural events. Natural events are governed by external laws of nature. A stone falls to the ground because of the law of gravity, not because it chooses to do so.[1] The necessity of moral laws is neither empirical nor natural, but ideal. I act morally because I have rational principles I act by.

What does it mean to act rationally, rather than just morally? Human beings act rationally because we act through ends and means. I want to have a cup of tea. I know rationally that if I want to have a cup of tea then I need to boil the kettle. The cup of tea is the end, and the boiling kettle is the means. Ends are objects of human desire and the ultimate end for Kant is happiness.

To act rationally therefore is to act under an imperative. If you want x, then you must do y. There are two kinds of imperative for Kant, hypothetical and categorical. The hypothetical imperative is the example we have already discussed. I have an end, and I will the means. If I want to get to the lecture on time, then I have to leave the house at a certain time. Such an hypothetical imperative Kant calls ‘technical’, since to achieve them you need certain skills, knowledge and ability. The overall aim, why I should bother to go to lectures at all, or even get out of bed, Kant calls ‘pragmatic’, and is happiness, since every human being wants to be happy.

All hypothetical imperatives are relative to the individual, since it is me who wants to get to the lecture and not you, and although we all will happiness none us is going to agree what happiness is. The only imperative that has absolute necessity Kant calls categorical imperative. Here the principles of the action are not determined by the end and the validity of law is unconditional. Kant has to prove that such imperative exists. How could there be an action, which if it were rationally willed, would have to be willed by everyone?

For Kant, the moral law takes such a form. Take the example of dishonesty. Kant’s argument is that to will dishonesty is to will lawlessness, and that one cannot at one at the same be rational and will lawlessness. To act lawfully means one can test one’s actions and see if they were lawful for every other rational being. We do so by rationalising them. First order principles are rational means ends calculations. Second order principles, which are moral tests, is where I take my maxims and see if all can follow them. This means for Kant that they are coherent and consistent.

Take then the example of finding a purse fall of money on the street. Should I take the money or should I hand it in? My maxim, then, is as follows: given the circumstances in which I can appropriate the money of someone else without being found out to make myself richer, I will take that thing (Deigh 2010, p.147). Can I universalise that subjective maxim? Kant would argue that I could not and be coherent, because if I lived in such a world in which everyone took each other property at will then there would be no property as such. My belief that I would gain from stealing is predicated on world in which people do not steal but respect private property.

In terms of consistency, Kant uses another example. Imagine a rich man walking down the street who sees a beggar, why should he give that beggar any money since he believes we shouldn’t help others but only look after ourselves (Deigh 2010, p.151). We could imagine him saying to himself I doesn’t think I should have to give any poor people my money. Now this does not contradict Kant’s coherence test, because one can perfectly imagine a world in which the rich don’t give the poor money and help them, but it fails the consistency test, because one could not will a world in which one wanted to live in which no one would offer another a helping hand. Would the rich man, for example, want to live in a world, where in a flood or in an epidemic everyone would let each other die without assistance?

The problem with Kant’s ethics is its excessive formalism. It appears to justify actions most people using their common sense would not think were ethical. So for example, if I lived in a police state, and someone came to my door for my neighbour, and I knew that they would be sent to a concentration camp, then I would still have to tell the police man the truth, since not telling lies is a categorical imperative. More importantly, I think, this formalism hides a social bias in Kant’s account. The categorical imperative against stealing rests on the existence of private property, but it is perfectly possible to imagine societies without private property, and in that case it would not be wrong to steal. We are not really, then, universalising values for all rational beings. We are only universalising our own social values.

Moral theorists, as Macintyre points out, argue as though there were two levels of discourse, each absolute separate from the other (MacIntyre 2010, p.2). One, the everyday moral language that people use, which expresses their history and culture, and the other, the language that philosophers use, which is somehow meant to transcend every history and culture. Kant does not speak of stealing being wrong for 18th century Europe, but of being wrong for all time and for all culture, and for all rational beings (including non-human rational beings, one assumes). The same can be said for utilitarian theories. That one appears to be the greatest benefit for us today, might not be the greatest benefit in the future, nor might not be seen as the greatest benefit to other cultures (they might value different things).[2] What we value, and take to be right, reflect our own culture and society’s views, and that one discourse affects this other. This does not lead to moral relativism, which is merely the opposite side of the same coin of moral absolutism, but that our moral reasoning does not take place in a vacuum.

Bibliography

Deigh, J., 2010. An introduction to ethics, New York: Cambridge University Press.

MacIntyre, A.C., 2010. A short history of ethics: a history of moral philosophy from the homeric age to the twentieth century, London [u.a.]: Routledge.

Sandel, M.J., 2010. Justice what’s the right thing to do ?, London: Penguin books.


[1] Metaphysical speaking, the idea of freedom is that the heart of Kant’s ethics. We are moral because we are free and self-determining. In this lecture we only going to focus on the categorical imperative and its difference from utilitarianism. A full account would need to show this necessary relation between freedom and morality for Kant.

[2] We even might assert that utilitarianism, at least in the form of Bentham and Mill, is itself a historical phenomenon and impossible without the rise of capitalism and economic rationality.


Heidegger and The Philosophy of Science – Lecture 7

February 1, 2015

Heidegger_1_(1960)We have thought about science as being different from religion. Science has to do with facts, and religion with beliefs. Increasingly, as we have gone through the different views of what science might be, this simple opposition has become less and less believable. For a start off, it is not at all clear that science has to do with facts, if we mean by that that facts are simply lying around for a scientist to construct a theory from. On the contrary, facts are theory dependent. What is taken to be a relevant fact is given by a scientific theory, and this theory cannot be justified by appeal to them alone otherwise we would be lost in a circular argument. Is it possible then to define science simply by theories alone without recourse to facts outside of them? Popper certainly attempts to do so through this principle of falsifiability in his initial starting point. What makes a theory scientific as opposed to non-scientific, and thus what distinguishes science from religion, is that it can be falsified whereas non scientific theories cannot. But when we examine the falsifiability theory in detail, it is very difficult to show, in concrete terms, how they are falsified. Rather than anomalies causing scientific theories to collapse, they seem quite happily to carry on regardless, and because scientific theories are so complex, it is difficult to discern which hypothesis has to be falsified in order for the theory itself as whole to be so. In other words, the fact problem still rears its end, but now at the point of falsification rather than at the point of the construction of a theory. Because of these problems, philosophers of science like Kuhn will argue that we shouldn’t be arguing about science as such, or the ideal nature of science, but investigating what scientists themselves do. What we find then is not a smooth progress of science from one theory to the next getting ever nearer to the truth, but a discontinuous series of revolutions that he called ‘paradigms’.

Although we can speak of different paradigms, surely it is the same reality that is beneath them all? The question of reality is particularly pressing in science because the basis of modern scientific theories, since Galileo and Newton, is unobservable phenomena. If science of the 16th and 17 century posited nature as made of tiny particles of matter in motion of which all that we observed we its effects, this did not mean that anyone could see such corpuscles. How then did we now that such a theory was real? The whole of Descartes philosophy was to answer this question, and his answer, which not many philosophers after him were satisfied, was that it was God’s justice than ensured that what our theories said was real was in fact what reality was, even though we could not see it. The whole debate between realists and anti-realists in the philosophy of science is whether we can commit to such a reality or not without God or any other transcendent guarantee (or indeed whether it matters or not, whether it can be proved to be real).

At the end of the discussion of realism and anti-realism, I introduced the philosophy of Heidegger. Many will argue that he does not have a philosophy of science, but I don’t think that is right at all. Indeed, one could say that the whole of his philosophy is a sustained debate with science (Glazebrook 2000). For Heidegger, science is a restricted not a full account of experience. We take science to be describing the way that things are, but for Heidegger, it is only a certain way of approaching things, and not necessarily the truest. In Being and Time, he distinguishes between the present-to-hand, and the ready-to-hand (Heidegger 1962). Science, which has its roots in a certain metaphysics, relates to things as present-to-hand, but this is not how we relate to the world that is nearest to us. Our fundamental relation to things is ready-to-hand. We use them. We open the door to enter the room, we enter the room and sit at the chair, we place the books on the table, we look at the screen on which a picture has been projected, or we look at the words written on the board, or down at the book in our hands, and so on. What we do not look at, is little particles of matter, or atoms. Why, Heidegger, would we take this world not to be real, and the scientific world to be more real?

When we related to things as ready-to-hand, as opposed to present-to-hand, then it is clear to us that these things relate to our world. The world is the context is which making use of things makes sense (there is the world of the classroom, and this world is part of bigger world in which something like a classroom makes sense). This world is not a thing. It is not a container in which something is enclosed (like water in a glass, to use Heidegger’s example). Rather, it names the cultural context or background in which something like sitting in classrooms and listening to lecture’s makes sense. Even the activity of science itself, with its abstract picture of things, is not possible without this world, since science is something that human beings do, and can only occur where this activity already has a meaning.

In section 3 of Being and Time, ‘The Ontological Priority of the Question of Being’, Heidegger speaks explicitly about science. He says that every science has its own area of things that it studies. Thus physics studies matter, chemistry, elements, and biology, life, and so on. Yet for any of these sciences to function, they have to take for granted that the things they study actually exist. Thus, Heidegger says they all presuppose a understanding of being that they do not question. The physicist accepts that matter exists, the chemist, elements, the biologist, life. If they did question the existence of these things, then they could not actual do science at all, because they would come to a stop at the threshold of the investigation and never get any further. If I don’t accept that these things exist, then how could I do physics, chemistry or biology? What Heidegger here calls a ‘regional ontology’ is similar to what Kuhn calls a paradigm, the ‘ontical questioning of positive science’ to normal science. It is only when a science goes into a crisis does the ontology that it presupposes come into question. This is when, again in Kuhn’s vocabulary, does the existence of the very fundamental nature of the objects of a science become doubtful and only at this point does science have to turn to philosophy for its answer.

What philosophy discovers is that science is a projection onto nature. This does not mean that nature does not exist for Heidegger (if human beings ceased to exist, there would be still planets, but there would not be Newton’s laws of motion). What modern science projects onto nature is mathematics. Nature is only what can be described mathematically. Galileo and Newton onwards, this is understood in terms of efficient causality rather than final causality. For Aristotle, nature is defined teleologically. Nature has a purpose, goal and direction, whereas in modern science it does not. This is why for Heidegger technology is the essence of modern science, because it means, through its mathematical projection, nature is totally subsumed to human purpose. Because nature has no purpose or value in itself, its only value is for the sake of us. It becomes, to use Heidegger’s phrase, a ‘standing reserve’. The big difference between Kuhn and Heidegger, is though both understand science historically, Heidegger does not think that the image of nature in Newton and Galileo is that fundamentally different from that in quantum physics. Though they are a different mathematics, nonetheless both view nature mathematically. The fundamental split them is between final causality of Aristotle and the efficient causality of modern science that culminates in technology.

For Heidegger, the basis of mathematical projection of science is the experiment. It is therefore a fundamental misunderstanding of science that it simply experiences things as they are and then comes up with a picture of the world (a picture which is meant to be what things really are). On the contrary, through the experiment, the scientist already interprets experience mathematically. It is the mathematical model that gives meaning to the experience and not experience meaning to the mathematical model. This again is the big difference between Aristotelian and modern science. For Aristotle, science is based on experience, for modern science it is not. Mathematics is first, not experience, but we still speak about science as though it was about experience, and somehow the things that we directly experience around us were the diminished and restrictive one, and not science. As though we were living in the abstract world and the mathematical projection of science were the full blooded one.

That meaning is the subject of science is what the history of science teaches us. We see that the world of Aristotle, Newton and Einstein, is not one and the same world a series of ruptures, breaks and discontinuities. Although the reference of these theories is one and the same, the meaning of the reality they refer to is not. What mass means in Newton, therefore, is not the same as what it means in Einstein. To use Kuhn’s word these worlds are incommensurable, since there is not a perfect translation between one and the other. You will only think that objectivity is threatened by this picture, if you believe in a metaphysical reality that is beyond human experience but which at the same time we can know. Reality is not outside of us, it is something that we construct through our institutions and discourses. The difference between astrology and astronomy is not in terms of a method, as Popper might have us believe, that one is tested by facts and the other is not, since when we investigate the history of science, we see that a theory will ignore those facts that do not fit its paradigm, but it does not have the virtues or practice of objectivity. The problem with astrology is that it explains too much and not too little. Truth, if we might put it this way, is a practice, a way of being, rather than a mirror to a reality that stands outside of us eternally the same. It is the creation of concepts to problems that are forever changing, and it is through problems that we grasp reality.

Rather than grand narratives, the study of the history of science concerns the details. What scientists say and do. For this reason we cannot impose an image of science on its own reality. What we discover is that reality is not identical through time but constructed from different aspects that are only relatively stable and which can always dissolve into a new regularity that might take elements from the previous paradigm but would transform their meaning by placing them in different relationships. It is not reality which explains how science changes, but the changes in science that explain reality, just as it is not the chair that defines sitting, but sitting the chair. The correct question is therefore not what reality is, but how do we understand and interpret reality. What changed in the nature of scientific experimentation such that reality was perceived in a different way? What changes is not reality, but how we perceive and understand, and what changes this perception is the practice of science itself, its discrete methods and discourse that would be only visible to us through historical investigation. The subject of such a history is what scientists do. We reject the idea of hidden telos, as though all scientific activity were heading in the same direction that reveals a reality that had already been there from the beginning but simply unknown by us. Science is made up of actions of scientists and nothing more. The meaning of reality does not belong to some intrinsic definition but to a practice that leads to a certain and definite objectivity over a period of time, but which can subsequently dissolve as a new objectivity emerges. Reality is only a correlate of a practice and only has a meaning as such in relation to it. We can therefore distinguish between the practice of science and non-science, but there is no absolute ahistorical meaning of science, and still less a reality that is eternal and unchanging. Science is not about reality per se, but problems.

What Heidegger calls ‘projection’ Feyerabend calls a ‘belief’ (Feyerabend, 2010, 10). We think that science is just an explanation of what common sense already knows. But the opposite is the case. Science, since Galileo, moves in in another direction than common sense. It is by moving in the opposite direction to ‘contemporary reason’, that the new science develops new instruments and new experiments. If it had not done so, if it stuck by the old rules and methods, it would not have developed such a new way of looking at and understanding reality. It is only subsequent to the emergent of the new beliefs that evidence can be found to support them. We tend to think the opposite. That the new beliefs emerged because the evidence demonstrated their truth, but the opposite is the case: it is the new beliefs that made the evidence even visible. This is why subsequently we can say that ‘Galileo was on the right track’, because now there is enough evidence to support the theory, but if we had waited for the evidence before hand, the theory would never have got off the ground. As Feyerabend continues:

Theories become clear and ‘reasonable’ only after incoherent parts of them have been used for a long time. Such unreasonable, nonsensical, unmethodical foreplay thus turns out to be an unavoidable precondition of clarity and of empirical success. (2010, 11).