Contrary to what political opportunists and activists of various sorts would have us think, The Science™, as they say, is never “settled.”
In fact, science is never just science—if by “science” we mean a unique, and uniquely privileged, mode of cognition, a methodology that, as long as its protocols are rigorously observed, can’t but guarantee to deliver the truth.
Science, as none other than Albert Einstein himself reminded us, always implicates epistemology, a philosophy of science. This isn’t to say that individual scientists themselves are necessarily aware of the philosophical presuppositions upon which their scientific theories depend.
The point, though, is that science, constituted as it is by theories, never occurs in abstraction of the constellation of values, assumptions, and beliefs that comprise it and that are not the fruits of scientific discovery but, rather, the very conditions in the absence of which scientific investigation could never as so much as be conceived, let alone conducted.
The best scientists, Einstein insisted, are aware of this. The best scientists appreciate the invaluable role that philosophy plays in the scientific enterprise.
Charles Darwin is another example of a scientist whose groundbreaking theory, far from occurring in a vacuum or in a value-neutral domain called “science,” was animated as much by philosophy and imagination as any work of art. This, of course, is not to suggest that Darwin was not a scientist or that his account of “the origins of the species” was not scientific. Rather, it’s simply meant to say, whatever the merits or drawbacks of Darwin’s distinctive account of biological evolution, it is hard to imagine that he ever would have dreamt of it in a setting that was devoid of the ideas, the philosophical ideas, that were in the air during the 19th century.
While Darwin didn’t have an education steeped in what is customarily recognized as philosophy, there is no question that he was familiar with the work of the 18th-century Scottish philosophers, particularly that of David Hume and Adam Smith. In fact, we know from Darwin’s notebook that he had been reading Smith on the eve of formulating the theory for which he became famous.
Both Hume and Smith argued for what F. A. Hayek more than 200 years later would call a “spontaneously evolved order.” That’s an order or system of human actions that, however sophisticated in its complexity, is not the product of human design. Hume and Smith, of course, didn’t speak to the question of biological evolution. It was the formation of society, of civilization, of culture, that concerned the Scottish economists. Smith’s idea of the “invisible hand” memorably expressed the idea that existing socio-cultural patterns, despite what their detailed intricacies would have us think, have nothing whatsoever to do with the conscious intentions of any individual or group of individuals. As the economist and commentator Thomas Sowell has written, from this perspective, social order, like the order embodied in, say, a natural language, is “systemic.” It is not the product of deliberate, individual choice.
Hume had produced almost all of his works before Smith had even published his first. The two men were friends. But while Smith was certainly an original thinker, there can be no doubt that he was heavily influenced by Hume, who had been insisting long before the publication of The Wealth of Nations that moral rules, far from being the determinations of reason, were instruments valued on account of their utility.
By following these abstract rules, rules that had arisen over large passages of time and that, like the rules of any language, are imbibed subconsciously, through tradition, modeling, and use, people, without meaning to do so, are able to adjust their conduct to that of untold numbers of strangers who they have never met and of whose existence they aren’t even aware. The result is an order of countless, interconnected human activities that allows for more freedom, more prosperity, and, yes, the coexistence of an exponentially greater range of activities than could have ever been produced consciously in accordance with the premeditated designs of a committee of the wisest moral philosophers and statesmen.
As Hume remarked, “so great is the uncertainty of merit . . . that no determinate rule of conduct would ever follow from it, and the total dissolution of society must be the immediate consequence.” To this point, he added “that a rule, which, in speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in practice, totally pernicious and destructive.”
In his, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Hayek expresses “the greatest admiration” for Darwin “as the first” to have “succeeded in elaborating a consistent (if still incomplete) theory of evolution in any field.” Nevertheless, the idea of “common descent,” of evolution, had been in circulation in the humanities for at least a century before Darwin introduced his theory to the world. Evolutionary accounts of language, money, law, markets, and morality were being made from the time of the 18th century (at a minimum). Darwin was well aware of them.
As Hayek notes, even the terms “genetic” and “genetics,” today widely associated with the biological sciences, originated in the humanities with analyzes of culture.
Those who insist that “the Science” is “settled” would never make the same claim on behalf of philosophy. But what the foregoing is meant to show is that inasmuch as science is always underwritten by some philosophy, science is “settled” only if philosophy is settled.
Those who know a thing or two about science and philosophy know better.