Values 1: Philosophy, science, and their relationship

This is hopefully the start of a short series of posts in which I attempt to relate the concepts of value and value creation, in particular as they were understood by Friedrich Nietzsche, to the modern world, in some kind of way. Comments of all kinds are encouraged!

In the beginning (understood as ancient Greece), there was philosophy. That is to say, most systematic inquiry into matters worth thinking about was collected under this umbrella term. Ethics, politics, epistemology and metaphysics went side by side with physics, biology and astronomy. As millennia passed, the collective human knowledge and scholarly labour grew, and some philosophical disciplines got their own name, cut the umbilical cord, and got to stand on their own feet.

There are many definitions as to what a philosopher is; one definition would be those who study the academic subject of philosophy in academic institutions. The German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote at length about what a philosopher really is; in his definition a philosopher is someone who creates values. Nietzsche rejected morals and universal truth as laid down by a God or higher authority; instead they are created by subjective human beings, and by philosophers in particular.

Perhaps [the genuine philosopher] himself must have  been critic and sceptic and dogmatist and historian and also poet and collector and traveller and solver of riddles and moralist and seer and “free spirit” and almost everything in order to pass through the whole range of human values and value feelings […] But all these are merely preconditions of his task: this task itself demands something different – it demands that he create values.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, s. 211, Walter Kaufmann transl.)

We may understand a scholar to be a person who processes knowledge. Good scholarship entails marshalling what has been written and studied previously, perhaps with a view to settling a question or supporting a perspective. Scientists and philosophers can make use of scholars in their work. To the extent that the scholar does more than merely process knowledge, he or she is something more than a scholar.

In contrast, a scientist, as we understand him or her today, is someone who combines scholarship and primary investigation (in the form of calculation, experimentation, measurement and so on) in order to create models of nature and the world, in order to gain the power to explain. The classical scientific process involves repeated refinement of hypotheses until one that cannot be proven wrong has been found.

Today, science, which formerly was known as natural philosophy, has grown enormously large, and to most people probably appears to have much greater value than philosophy. The scientific mindset is widely appreciated and respected throughout the world — perhaps too respected. Scientists learn as one of their highest virtues to be skeptical and to reject assertions that are made without a basis in measurement or theory. Paralysis by skepticism is very much a possibility. To see the danger in this, we have to recognise that a great deal of valuable things in human history have been created without such a basis – by people who have been something like the ones Nietzsche describes.

The dangers for a philosopher’s development are indeed so manifold today that one may doubt whether this fruit can still ripen at all. The scope and the tower-building of the sciences has grown to be enormous, and with this also the probability that the philosopher grows weary while still learning or allows himself to be detained somewhere to become a “specialist” – so he never attains his proper level, the height for a comprehensive look, for looking around, for looking down. […]

Indeed, the crowd has for a long time misjudged and mistaken the philosopher, whether for a scientific man and ideal scholar or for a religiously elevated, desensualized, “desecularized” enthusiast and sot of god. And if a man is praised today for living “wisely” or “as a philosopher”, it hardly means more than “prudently and apart”.

(Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, s. 205, Walter Kaufmann transl.)

In fact, scientists today do not, in my experience, work like the ideal scientist described above. Scientists often use their own judgment and their own values in order to influence how their science is to be used. Einstein and Oppenheimer had opinions about the use and misuse of the nuclear bomb. Creators of vaccine may have opinions on how it is to be distributed and may be able to influence this. Sometimes these value statements made by scientists are pure judgments, applications of an ethic that the scientists already believe in. However, sometimes the situation is so new that the scientists effectively have to create values. To the extent that they do this, these scientists dabble in ethics, morality and philosophy, but this is often overlooked, as is the fact that scientific method itself was created by philosophy.

Nietzsche calls for philosophers to make use of scientists and artists, and create values in the service of mankind. He calls for a new recognition of the true role and dignity of philosophy, which does not at all need to mean a reduction of the value of science, but rather an expansion of the whole system. Philosophy stands naturally above science and scholarship and uses them as its tools. The activity of creating values based on philosophical insight by necessity goes on constantly and should not be confined to little nooks in the margins of society. The full extent of and need for this activity needs to be acknowledged.

Has the situation changed since Nietzsche wrote Beyond Good and Evil in 1886?

Category: Computer science, Philosophy | Tags: , , , , , , 3 comments »

3 Responses to “Values 1: Philosophy, science, and their relationship”

  1. Monomorphic — Values 2: Human reason is reactive

    […] Previously I wrote about Nietzsche’s assertion that philosophers must create values, and a distinction between scholars, scientists and philosophers was made. The focus now shifts to the faculty of reason and its contrast with another mode of thinking. […]

  2. Monomorphic - Values 3: The case of Apple and Google

    […] role that Steve Jobs and his team occupy, then, is something of what philosophers could be. They are, or appear to be, creators and projectors of values, which include aspects of morality […]

  3. Monomorphic - Science and philosophy. Another angle.

    […] is an attempt at restating this old blog post in a simpler […]

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