Does science have all the answers?

No, says Susan Haack, but scientists are generally better at producing answers than philosophers

There has always been a creative tension between philosophers and scientists and for the past 30 years Susan Haack has followed the currents of that debate, playing the role - in her own words - of "the cannibal among the missionaries".

Haack, an English-born philosopher now based at the University of Miami, has little patience for those in the humanities who see the rise of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) as a threat. But she also warns of the modern trend towards scientism – an undue deference to all things scientific.

The tension arises acutely in investigations of the mind. Can the mind be understood purely through neuroscience, or do other disciplines have a role to play?

Haack argues for the latter, and insists that looking beyond the brain for answers does not mean smuggling in non-physical or quasi-religious concepts like “the soul”.

As she puts it, “all the stuff there is is physical” but what’s going on between our minds and the world around us “is not all physics”.

The Irish Times caught up with Haack on a visit to Dublin where she was awarded the UCD Ulysses medal, the university's highest honour.

Scientists can get annoyed at the mention of scientism. Is it really that prevalent?

“I’m not necessarily saying this is a position mainly or even significantly taken by scientists. No, mostly it’s an attitude of people from outside the sciences, including in philosophy.

"At the time I wrote Defending Science – Within Reason (2003), the big danger I thought was people who were down on science and trying to denigrate its achievements. Now the tide has turned and we have people who have the idea that somehow there is no truth to be found in any other area except in the sciences. I think in large part scientism is a misunderstanding of how the sciences work.

“You can’t understand the mind simply by looking at the individual brain. There is a role played by culture which you just miss if you look at it that way.”

But if you start looking at culture and morality, for example, are you inevitably moving in the realm of lower-order truths to scientific truths?

“I don’t really buy higher- and lower-order of truths. I think there are just truths. Some are important for certain purposes. Some are important for other purposes.

“I’m not uninterested in how people come to have the beliefs they do but a problem which I’ve devoted a lot of time to is: what is actually happening when someone believes something?

“The thought is this: we have a way of thinking about belief as a one-dimensional thing, and it’s not, it’s a three-dimensional thing. The first element is: how do you tell if someone believes something? You watch what he does and you listen to what he says . . . So there is a behavioural element. And I take it, because all the stuff there is physical, that this [behaviour] is somehow realised in his brain – in some set of complicated connections in his brain.

“Then at the third level something gives these beliefs content . . . That is where culture comes in because none of this makes any sense without the human culture within which there are languages.

“[This theory] is perfectly compatible with everything being physical but what’s going on could not in principle be explained by physics unless physics could explain the whole mystery of the world which I don’t expect to happen.”

How do you measure progress in philosophy?

“I’m not sure you measure it at all, and I’m not sure you measure it in science either. The sciences do not progress evenly or steadily. Sometimes fields stagnate; every now and then they go backwards. But if you look at the sciences as a whole over history as a whole there’s no question they’ve made progress, whereas with philosophy, oh boy, you don’t get the same sense.

“You get a really sinking feeling about constantly recycled problems. I find that very depressing because I don’t think it has to be that way.

“There can be progress and there has been progress but there is one important habit that the sciences and scientists generally have that we don’t; they build on both success and failure. The culture of philosophy is not like that. It’s so much a matter of wanting to be a name and it’s too easy to make a reputation by doing something flashy, and it’s not so easy to make a reputation by building on something someone did 100 years ago.

"I am something of a Peirce scholar. I think Charles Sanders Peirce still remains the best philosophical mind the United States has ever produced, and I believe he made progress on a number of problems on which we have not been building on.

“Instead we have been going backwards because everyone has been starting again from somewhere else. I want to pick them up by the shoulders and shake them and say, ‘Go back and look at what he did; if you start from there we might get somewhere’. But the incentives are all wrong for doing that.”

ASK A SAGE

Question: How does Donald Trump know that he'll "make America great again"?

Charles Sanders Peirce replies: "It is easy to be certain. One has only to be sufficiently vague."

philosophy@irishtimes.com