By Frank Remele
The intersection between conventional science and philosophy is a topic not nearly addressed to the extent it must be. Ideally, the discussion would take place voluntarily across all academic disciplines, in which we would have our Stephen Hawking’s cordially conversing with our Bertrand Russell’s. Contemporary discussions regarding science and philosophy, however, are generally reserved for our physicists and biologists making disparaging comments towards the field that has actively attempted to interpret the world long before the concept of modern science came to prominence. Take, for example, this quote from Hawking: “Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead.” Individual scientists do not generally wield a tremendous amount of influence on the public sphere, but when they do, power rests in a select few. As such, Hawking’s comments are disseminated upon budding academics, undermining the perception of philosophy. The physical properties of the universe at the smallest scale sever our logical intuitions at the neck. As physics, biomedicine, and cognitive sciences inevitably push towards an increasingly smaller domain, philosophy emerges ever more into relevance, despite what our popular science stars would have us believe. This false dichotomy being further stratified only lessens the probability of preemptive discussion—which is helpful at least, necessary at most. Nevertheless, this discussion will take place—it’s only a matter of time and the most intellectually and politically adept are already considering its implications.
One need look no further for an individual that solidifies the correlation between intelligence and acknowledging the limits of science than Dr. Edward Witten. Witten is a tenured researcher and physicist at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study, an institute devoted entirely to academic investigation whose former faculty included the likes of John Von Neumann and Albert Einstein–both heralded as men possessing intellect the likes of which have never been seen. Witten himself is no stranger to these grandiose appraisals. Michio Kaku, professor of physics at City College of New York had this to say about Witten: “Edward Witten… dominates the world of theoretical physics. Witten is currently the ‘leader of the pack,’ the most brilliant high-energy physicist, who sets trends in the physics community the way Picasso would set trends in the art world. Hundreds of physicists follow his work religiously to get a glimmer of his path-breaking ideas.” Ramamurti Shankar of Yale University said: “My stay was nearly over when one day Ed Witten said to me, ‘I just learnt a new way to find exact S-matrices in two dimensions invented by Zamolodchikov and I want to extend the ideas to supersymmetric models. You are the S-matrix expert, aren’t you? Why don’t we work together?’ I was delighted. All my years of training in Berkeley gave me a tremendous advantage over Ed—for an entire week.” The physics community so highly overlaps with intelligence for comments to be awarded gratuitously as they are with Witten, barring frightening competence in the field.
It is with this competence that Dr. Witten’s commentary resonates across disciplines. Journalist and filmmaker Wim Kayzer conducted a ninety-minute interview with Witten in 2000 in which they discussed an eclectic variety of topics, ranging from Witten’s personal life to hot topics in his expertise. Perhaps the most interesting piece of the interview was his opinion on consciousness. He describes what he perceives as the future of cognitive science, and the inherent limitations surrounding consciousness. A transcribed excerpt of the interview: “I think consciousness will remain a mystery. Yes, that’s what I tend to believe. I tend to think that the workings of the conscious brain will be elucidated to a large extent. Biologists and perhaps physicists will understand much better how the brain works. But why something that we call consciousness goes with those workings, I think that will remain mysterious. I have a much easier time imagining how we understand the Big Bang than I have imagining how we can understand consciousness…” Witten’s quote encapsulates the correct approach to scientific discovery: realism. He opines that consciousness in its entirety is a subsidiary of cognitive science in which massive progression can be made, particularly in mapping the brain and understanding which portions are analogous with the key components of consciousness. But the nature of consciousness as an abstract concept and its relation to our experience of it is something that empirical studies cannot fully make clear. Despite critics pinning this as myopic, it is entirely reasonable seeing as consciousness is metaphysical and says nothing about the efficiency (or lack of) of science.
Scientific innovation has worked magic over the last few centuries. Academics can point to health and economic benefits that have directly resulted from scientific discovery. Philosophers would be hard-pressed to do the same. But there need not be war between the two, and philosophy is far from becoming a dead subject. It will rise to prominence more and more with every scientific revelation, and its literature may be radically transformed by the next generation of philosophers that contemplate the interpretations of findings that occur in our physical realm. And our next Neil Degrasse Tyson’s will be the ones that consolidate the findings and interpretations to encourage and inspire our next generation of investigators even more.