Fri | Dec 4, 2020

Peter Espeut | A deficit of philosophy

Published:Friday | July 5, 2019 | 12:00 AM

One of the deficiencies in our education system is that philosophy – which teaches us to distinguish between straight and crooked thinking – is not part of our curriculum. Science and mathematics are rooted in systems of philosophical thinking and reasoning (positivism, empiricism), and it is amazing that we expect students to do well in STEM subjects without a solid grounding in inductive and deductive logic.

Before our grade-six students can do really well at PEP, our teachers have to be schooled in philosophical thinking and reasoning, so that they can pass it on to others.

The word ‘science’ is rooted in the Latin verb ‘to know’, and science is ­fundamentally a method of coming ‘to know’ certain types of things, starting from data gathered through the senses, and then building on that knowledge through inductive and deductive logic. As a ­scientist myself, I am acutely aware of the power of positivism and empiricism to reveal the intricacies of the inner workings of the universe, to understand and explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world, and to accurately predict outcomes. But I am also aware of the limitations of scientific enquiry, and we scientists have to be careful not to overstep our bounds.

When Carl Sagan, the great American astronomer, astrophysicist and ­astrobiologist, stated, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” he has overstepped his bounds, for that statement cannot be proved or disproved by science. He has entered the arena of ‘scientism’, one of the many types of fake science.

When proponents of scientism claim that science is the only real source of valid knowledge, they are being unscientific, because that statement can neither be proved nor disproved by scientific enquiry. To claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist.

Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.

The fact is that there are bodies of knowledge possessed by an array of academic disciplines that are beyond the reach of scientific enquiry. When I was a chemistry student at UWI in the 1970s, convinced that science had all the solutions to the problems of the world (including poverty and hunger), and had all the answers to the questions the world could ask, my girlfriend at the time, a literature student in the Faculty of Arts, brought me to my senses. A poet herself, she asked me searching questions that science could not answer, and helped me to explore aesthetic realities, like beauty, that science could not define or explore.

DAMAGING POTENTIAL

I have been disabused of my teenage ideas that science holds the only remaining hope for the future of mankind. Science holds out positive possibilities, but left to itself, science has a tremendous potential for damage and destruction. We are just beginning to appreciate the ­negative impact of that wonderful ­material called ‘plastic’, invented in the 20th century, but beginning to be banned in the 21st. Other inventions like the atomic bomb and genetically modified food may yet do us in.

The study of philosophy trades in ideas rather than data which can be accessed through the senses. Scientific ideas are certainly the subject of philosophic enquiry, but many others besides. Science claims to be value-free, but values and attitudes (called ethics) have for thousands of years been the subject of philosophical study, long before the emergence of Christianity.

There is consensus that education must transmit to the next generation norms, values and attitudes that will build up Jamaica and Jamaicans, and to promote critical thinking, I propose that philosophy, as a subject, be added to the curriculum.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and dean of studies at St Michael’s Theological College. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.