This might be a short post or a very long post. I have no clue. This is my first time writing one of these. However, I feel like for once I have something interesting to say. Maybe this has finally come with the maturity of age or maybe this has come with my increase of status from a mere number in undergrad to Christopher Schoene. Either way, bear with me for a bit. Especially through the nonsensical ramblings and tangents that are sure to crop up in the stream of thought.

Now, what inspired me to write this post was a debate I had attended at the Oxford Union a couple of weeks ago. The debate carried the proposition of whether Science has killed Philosophy. The proposition was led by Professor Lawrence Krauss (this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjAqcV_w3mc) and Professor Sir Roger Penrose and the opposition of the motion was led by Professor Peter Millican and Professor David Paineau. The debate took the format of a roundtable discussion as opposed to the standard debate structure seen previously.

However, it was not only the debate that inspired to write this post but what I heard afterwards. While walking out of the front gates I heard the voice a young man probably only 19 or 20 who claimed that all scientists are always rude. From what I saw, the two girls that accompanied him seemed to agree or at least give no counter-argument to his statement. Now, I have noticed that there is a distinct lack of scientists in the Oxford Union, but I never expected there to be any animosity towards them. Especially considering that this young man is probably well educated and bright (most people I know here tend to be just that). It honestly shocked me to hear such a sweeping generalization coming from somebody who is attending the University of Oxford one of the members of the golden triangle (which includes Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge) making it part of the supposed pinnacle of university education in Europe if not the world.

I did overhear an interesting argument emanating from this young man’s mouth afterwards though. Philosophy is there not only to answer how things work but how things could be made better. He then quoted Gandhi, which is something that most naive men do when they still think that they can change the world by setting an example (believe me, I was there). I will get back to this later. First, let us ask ourselves “Are scientists in danger of alienating themselves from the rest of society?”

Now, the first thing I ask myself was, “Did Professor Krauss do anything fundamentally wrong?” Since the debate took an unusual format from previous debates (formal discussion as opposed to a structured debate) this allowed for interruptions.¬† Interruptions that Professor Krauss took advantage of. Now, this is not wrong in and of itself but I believe that there was also a cultural barrier that Professor Krauss might have been unaware of. In the USA debates take a more aggressive stance and this is especially true in a less structured format such as a panel discussion. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I believe that this approach makes for a more interesting and entertaining debate as opposed to watching a bunch of like minded individuals just agree with each other. On the other hand, Professor Sir Roger Penrose took a very passive approach to the debate which made him somewhat forgettable. However, I can see how this combination might be detrimental to the way that the public views Scientists or at least the British public. They are either forgettable or arrogant and rude.

I have to say though, as a Scientist, I felt insulted at certain points of the debate. Foremost, Professor Papineau stating that Scientists cannot think. Not only had I seen him pull snarky faces at several points during the debate (something that Professor Krauss had been called out on by several voices whispering among the audience) but he stated that Scientists cannot think. Is this at all true? Am I unable to think? If I cannot think, surely I cannot create conjectures and theories with respect to my field -something that no current day Philosopher has the possibility to do. Of course, how can you expect somebody that has studied Philosophy to understand something like Protein Engineering or Synthetic Biology. There are only so many hours in a day. You cannot study everything. So, how can progress be made in Science if Scientists cannot think? Surely, you can see the flaw in this statement. Just the rambling of what I would call a “Fachidiot”. Someone too proud of the knowledge of their own field that they deem any other discipline as a lesser endeavour. Sadly, something that seems to be far too common in Academia.

Therefore, I believe that Professor Krauss did not do anything fundamentally wrong. At least, he did not make worse statements or acted less gentlemanly that Professor Papineau. I believe that it is the fault of the Scientific community that we are seen with such mistrust. How can we blame the public if we are stuck all day behind the lab working on “inexplicable” concepts?

First of all, there is nothing that is “inexplicable”. If it were really beyond the grasp of a human mind then you yourself would never have gotten as far as you have. Science thrives on the sharing of concepts and theories. Science thrives on communication. Isolation of ideas due to poor communication leads to stagnation both in Scientific progress and Social progress.

Moreover, the fact that I usually see such a low turn-out of Scientists and Engineers to Oxford Union just strengthen the convictions I had about the isolationist approach we (I am a Scientist too) tend to take. I believe that this is a pity. We have a lot that we could contribute to the World besides our technology. The Empirical nature of Science brings with it a set of skills that can be put to use in Social contexts to great effect.

This brings me back to the statement that the young man made. Philosophy asks “How can we make the World better?” To this I rebuttal by stating that it must be quite a sad state of affairs if the only way to figure out that major Social issues like disease and famine are only evident to those that have studied Philosophy. Moreover, Philosophy might be asking “How?” but Science and Engineering are coming up with the answers.

I would like to direct the readers of this post to the most recent letter written by Bill Gates with respect to the progress made by the Gates foundation (www.billsletter.com). In this hopeful letter we can see the applications of Engineering and Scientific principles and methods to Social issues. Throughout the letter, Bill Gates stresses the need of feedback in order to determine what is wrong with the current approach and how it can be improved. This is a feedback loop, a concept that is present in many natural systems studied by Scientists and present in a lot of system built by Engineers. This feedback loop requires observation (good data collection and analysis) and then the tinkering of variables (nothing too different from the “troubleshooting” approach required to get to the underlying problematic variable). This is a very empirical approach and extremely powerful if done correctly This leads me to believe that Scientists and Engineers have a lot that they could contribute to the World even outside of the lab. However, we need to realize this fact and act on it. We need to communicate better. We need to be less isolationist and less afraid of the World outside of the lab.

I would like to conclude this post with the roles that I believe that Science and Philosophy fulfill. Pure philosophy has given birth to many different disciplines in the Sciences and Social Sciences and it is important to remember its contributions to the foundations of human knowledge. However, at this stage of the evolution of knowledge it is almost impossible for an individual to create new knowledge without a very firm grasp of all the Scientific knowledge which has been spun from the universe through the empirical process of observation and experimentation. Pure Philosophy, I believe, now fulfills the role of the maintenance of past knowledge and is in a similar niche to that of the fields of History and, to some extent, Literature. This is a very important role since without the innate human ability of being able to catalogue past knowledge in the form of words there would be no evolution to the creation of knowledge since every generation would have to start again from nothing. However, human understanding has reached the point that simply “thinking” is not enough to obtain answers. We require experimentation as well.

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