Post No.: 0145
I personally believe that philosophy or philosophical thinking contributes to the natural sciences (physical and life sciences) by guiding what questions we want to ask and ultimately want answered. For instance, where did we come from? Where are we going? What’s our place in the universe right now?
Humans evolved with a great sense of curiosity, and that has gone hand-in-hand with developing the tools, creations, languages and civilisations we see today, as well as the many different types of questions we would like to have answered via the sciences – not just uniquely today but questions that have been pondered for several millennia by humankind so far by many different and independent civilisations and cultures.
We don’t necessarily have to venture into the natural sciences to answer these types of questions – they can be approached via religious thought for instance. But the natural sciences try to answer these types of questions from a testable, empirical and more objective perspective. The ongoing development of more and more sophisticated technologies and tools allows us to do this (e.g. more and more powerful telescopes that can look even further into the past when we peer into space, more and more powerful microscopes that can look even closer at the fundamental building blocks of life, more sensitive, accurate and precise measuring devices to help us detect even the faintest phenomena).
For some of us, religious explanations given by scripture increasingly fail to satisfy our curiosity when we are increasingly able to peer into the secrets of the universe for ourselves. More and more, we don’t need to take anyone’s words for it, and as a result, sentient deities and supernatural explanations have been increasingly pushed into the margins.
There is arguably no real reason to choose to answer some philosophical questions over others though, especially if they don’t seem to offer any, at least direct and foreseeable, practical benefit to humankind. For instance, most people struggle to find any real practical justification to invest lots of funding into researching more about the origins of the universe, and what practical benefit will result even if we could or will find, or have definitely found, the answers to such questions. Many people would rather see money and time in the sciences dedicated to more practical and immediate benefits, such as solutions to poverty, medical problems or environmental concerns, such as developing sufficient, sustainable and accessible energy sources for all. Well I personally believe we should do both where possible because any unforeseen benefits could be monumental.
The ‘anthropic principle’ is an answer to why this very universe seems to be so perfectly tuned so that humans on Earth (but really it should be extended to mean any conscious and sapient life anywhere in this universe) happen to exist. It basically states that if it weren’t so perfectly tuned so that intelligent life could exist here then humans wouldn’t have been alive and able to ponder this question in the first place. It’s analogous to asking why you in particular were born and alive? Well if you weren’t alive then you wouldn’t be here to be able to ask that question at all.
And also similar to this analogy, in part – where there are and were lots of attempts of new lives (children being conceived), with some surviving to an age to ponder philosophical questions such as this and some unfortunately not – it suggests a multiverse theory where there were lots of attempts of new universes at the beginning, but possibly only those that had the right value constants, such as the cosmological constant (which concerns the energy density of space), and physical laws, could support the evolution of intelligent life; like this very universe we are in right now. Without this theory to imply some sort of inevitability for our existence at least somewhere, it’d arguably be a circular argument to claim that we exist simply because we do.
This multiverse theory has its critics for being potentially fallacious or unnecessary though because there could be just one large universe with multiple different regions. Nevertheless, those other universes, or alternatively those other regions of this one universe, that can’t support the evolution of intelligent life, don’t have anyone to ponder ‘why is life impossible where we are?’ because no one would be there to have a chance to do so.
So why is the universe the way we see it? Because if it weren’t then we wouldn’t have existed to have a chance to ponder such questions – that’s basically the weak anthropic principle. But a far more controversial assertion is the strong anthropic principle – this goes further by suggesting that this universe for some reason must have been made so that we would exist in it; as if it were made especially for our sake. This conclusion however goes against what we’ve discovered so far, such as that the universe doesn’t revolve around the Earth but the Earth revolves around the Sun, which is itself not a particularly special star, in a not particularly special solar system, in a not particularly special galaxy i.e. it doesn’t seem like the universe was made especially for our sake. The rest of the universe would appear to be such a waste if it were. It’d also be like arguing that dogs were created to give fleas a home! The weak version is barely controversial though.
Anyway, it’s logical and shouldn’t be surprising or remarkable that observations of this universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. The questions ‘why does this universe seem as if perfectly designed for us?’ or ‘why this planet out of all the planets in the solar system/galaxy/universe?’ should have obvious answers because all we have to do is imagine the alternative. It also indicates that this universe doesn’t necessarily need to have been intentionally designed by a sentient creationist deity. Chance is sufficient. So it’s not necessarily the case that this universe was intentionally designed and fine-tuned specifically for us to exist and be sapient, as if that was the goal from the very beginning – the alternative is that if all the conditions for life weren’t absolutely right in this universe by chance then we simply wouldn’t be here and thus couldn’t be talking about it.
So all the conditions aligning to sustain sentient life on Earth right now doesn’t necessarily mean it must’ve been purposely designed to be this way. No intelligent life on Jupiter is asking questions why that planet was not purposely designed for sentient life to exist there right now because no one is there to give such countering thoughts – thoughts that would actually apply to most of this barren universe. This is an example of the ‘survivorship bias’, which is a form of selection bias – the views of those who are dead or didn’t ever exist are usually neglected because they can’t have their say even though they’re a part of the fuller picture.
The different observations about the sorts of observers we are reflect our place in the physical world; and in particular, the sorts of observers we are allow us to make inferences about the physical conditions we are likely to observe. The universe we are likely to see is likely to be a universe that’s conducive to the types of beings we are likely to be. I would like to extend this to say that the type of beings humans evolved to be, with the innate curiosity and penchant to explore new possibilities and learn new things, means that humans were always likely to ask the sorts of philosophical questions humans like to ask.
We are carbon-based, we live on a planet that just happens to be the right distance away from a star so that water can naturally exist in gas, liquid and solid forms, and all the furry fundamental constants seem ‘fine-tuned’ for us to exist in this universe. Humans in particular are also a certain type of animal, evolved with exceptional curiosity and the ability to ask questions about life and death itself, and not just the issues that directly help or serve the immediate survival and reproduction of the species. Humans wouldn’t be asking questions such as the birth and death of the universe if humans didn’t evolve with the curiosity to do so. Now this doesn’t mean that humans specifically evolved with a goal to ask these philosophical questions, as if this was the grand purpose of the specie’s entire existence and everything was designed for and leading up to these moments – it’s far more likely that it’s a side-effect of having a great instinct to explore and having the ability, time and means to ask and potentially answer these sorts of philosophical questions.
Curiosity is not exclusive to the human species, but arguably humans express this trait the most within the animal kingdom, on Earth at least. This trait has been advantageous in allowing humans to inhabit almost every type of land environment on the planet (and even a station or two in space), to invent and create technologies and build cities and complex cultures. The ability to imagine what’s beyond the horizon means that humans can even imagine a multiverse and even more dimensions than four according to string theory (not that this is easy!)
Many will object to the way many scientists are investing so much of their bright minds, time and public money on seemingly frivolous questions and experiments, especially during a time when austerity is still present in some countries. But to ask these types of questions seems to be human nature. So philosophical thinking contributes to the natural sciences by guiding what questions we are curious about and want answered in the first place. We can ask many different questions but the biggest questions many people, not just scientists, really want answered are ones like how the universe and life came to be, and what will likely become of the universe and life in the very far future. Scientists can look to answer many different issues, but many choose to ultimately wish to answer deep philosophical issues where the results might not bring a practical benefit to their own lives, at least in their own lifetimes, but satisfy great intrinsic intellectual benefits.
Woof! As a magical, shape-shifting, most-of-the-time puppy and some-of-the-time human, I too feel that if I didn’t explore such philosophical inquiries then it’d be to merely exist rather than live. I’d go as far as to say that satisfying our deepest curiosities is one of the things some of us actually primarily live for.