International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 39 25th August 2002


I. 'Science and Reality' by Martin O'Hagan

II. School Students' Exam Success

III. Philosophical Society of England London Group



Browse through daily newspapers and you are sure to come across the imprimatur of science boldly going where others would not dare.

It is one of the enduring myths of our age that if science says so then it is. How often have bow-tied boffins stood before those children of lesser gods proclaiming the new scientific testament which so many now take as gospel.

Truth, once the preserve of a now deceased God, is enshrined for example on celluloid sheets crossed with tiny dark smudged specks which modern scripture informs us is DNA, the genetic material of all creatures. Or gleaned from one end of a telescope pointed into the endless cosmos.

Ironically many are quick to point to the triumph of science over religion as concrete evidence of bourgeois man's superior cognitive qualities and understanding of the world around us. For while the general mood today may be one of scientific pessimism, the veracity of scientific canons are rarely doubted. During the 19th century and in much of the 20th, the so-called scientific hallmark allowed us to go behind the scheming facade of reality and discover in degrees the Kantian 'thing in itself'.

Even the social sciences slavishly followed the positivistic method, only to end up in a cul-de-sac of dozens of perspectives and unable to move in any direction. In fact, trying to understand society is like trying to understand and predict accurately next month's weather.

It is fair to say that the new high priests and priestesses of science are now accepted as the truth designers who set out the template on which is inscribed everything we know to be so. And yet does science per se provide us with a much better method for understanding the basic certainties of our lives? Are we pushing forward the frontiers of such knowledge or are we merely continuously modifying wisdom that has been around for thousands of years?

In comparison with the certainty of mathematics, science is a poor relation. Descartes recognized mathematical certitude when he locked himself up in a stove room and considered if he existed at all. Descartes' theory of knowledge rests on his method of doubt which led him to the famous 'Cogito ergo sum'. This attempt to place philosophy on some sort of scientific basis failed and led to much debate. But the method wasn't lost on those in the social sciences.

On the other hand, mathematical proofs begin with a series of axioms, that is, statements which are taken to be self-evidently true. To argue logically is to move by clear steps from premisses to conclusion. If the axioms are right and the logic is flawless then the conclusion cannot be denied. By this method Pythagoras was able to prove that the square on the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle was equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

What we now know as Pythagoras' Theorem was known by the Chinese and the Babylonians hundreds of years before the Greeks. But the greatness of Pythagoras - or whoever among his cult followers actually worked out the theorem - was that it was right for all triangles and not just some particular triangle, or pyramid under construction. The Pythagoreans reasoned and proved mathematically that it was not necessary to measure all right angled triangles in order to prove the theory.

The Pythagoreans highlighted the universal truth of mathematics and bequeathed to the world a powerful and vigorous conception of the truth by comparison with the less exacting concept of truth used in everyday discourse, or indeed in the more specialized language of the physicist.

Scientific proofs, by contrast with mathematics, are based on hypotheses put forward to explain a phenomenon. Yet scientific proofs are fickle and can be scrapped if a better description comes along.

But hypotheses don't merely describe a phenomenon, they also predict the results of other phenomena. Experiments can be designed and performed to show the predictive power of a hypothesis. If the prediction is successful then it evidence for the truth of the hypothesis.

When evidence is overwhelming, the hypothesis becomes accepted as a scientific theory. But it should be remembered that the theory can never be proved to the same absolute level of a mathematical theorem. A scientific theory will always be considered, at most, 'highly likely' based on the available evidence.

So-called scientific proof relies on observation and perception which are fallible and provide only degrees of the truth. English philosopher Bertrand Russell recognized this declaring that all so-called exact science was dominated by the notion of 'approximation'. All accepted scientific proofs always have an element of doubt. While we feel that this element is continuously being reduced, it can never disappear completely.

This apparent weakness contains the strength of science. For there is the possibility of a scientific revolution where one theory previously accepted by all as the best approximation to the truth is replaced by another, better theory.

Perhaps the best example of one theory being dumped in favour of another is to be found in physics. Since the 19th century ideas about the make up of the world have radically changed. Atoms were once fundamental but then came along notions of electrons, protons and neutrons forming miniature solar systems. The ideas of that generation changed until today we now think in terms of anti-matter, quarks and other funny sounding terms that are supposed to designate fundamental things.

Indeed the very concept of a 'thing' or 'particle' is now being undermined by the notion of strings that vibrate differently. Different vibrations give a different particle in much the same way - metaphysically speaking - as the string of a musical instrument gives different notes for different lengths.

Pythagoras died in the faith that what his school proved mathematically will be true for as long as the concept of a triangle is meaningful. Mathematics does not rely on fallible systems of experimentation and perception.

In comparison, science operates on a judicial system according to which a theory is right beyond all reasonable doubt until contrary evidence is produced. Yet the fact that the notion of science can be historically grounded implies the possibility that as a method its time will eventually be superseded by something more precise to go behind the veil of appearances.

(c) Marie O'Hagan 2001

Martin O'Hagan IN MEMORIAM http:---



Lochinver School Pupils Youngest Ever to pass Philosophy A/s Level.

13 year olds Harry Taylor and Neeral Dodhia are the youngest pupils ever to have taken a Philosophy A/s level - a new exam between GCSE and A level - and succeeded in achieving a grade D in Unit 3, about four years earlier than usual, by writing detailed answers on Plato's 'Republic'.

Their teacher Michael Brett said, "It's quite a challenge for even the brightest pupils to take this exam. I am very proud of their achievement. It's really something to be able to discuss and explain complex ideas like those of Plato at any age, let alone 13."

Lochinver, an independent junior school in Potters Bar, near London is keen to develop the abilities of all its boys. "We recognise that high ability is a special need," said Michael Brett, who runs early morning classes for the especially able. "Philosophy is about the big questions that children enjoy. What is the purpose of life? Does God exist? It helps develop abstract thought as well problem solving abilities. It enriches their lives, not just their academic work. Scholarship papers increasingly ask questions involving philosophical ideas, such as the shape of a future perfect society. This ties in with our study of Plato's 'Republic' at A/s level. In effect, we are presently developing PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics] for ten year olds and upwards. Even though these classes take place half an hour before normal registration, and last thing on a Friday, I am besieged with applications by both children and parents."

How did the boys feel about it? Harry Taylor said "Philosophy is wicked!"

(c) Michael Brett 2002




Dear Philosopher,

The last meeting at 'The Old Star' took place on Monday 19th September, with David Wedgwood discussing the connection between IS and OUGHT statements, in relation to Darwin's theory of Evolution.

Next month's meeting (on 16th September) will be in 'The Globe' in Covent Garden where we (We all, not just me!) will try to identify either what philosophy is for, or what we think it ought to be for. If you have some crazy idea you think will be knocked down immediately, try it on me by email first and you or I can put it up for discussion. (Or if it is really daft I'll announce it as an anonymous joke!) - so there's no need to be shy.

October 21st I hope to have a Roger Scruton defender to face a Roger Scruton supporter over the issue of smoking. (See http:--- to decide which side you're on!) Again, if you would like to participate in any kind of prepared way please let me know - for example, you might like to act as advocate for one side or the other.

(Meetings of the London Group take place on the 3rd Monday of each month, starting 7.30 pm. Everyone is welcome to come along.)

Ben Basing
London Group Co-ordinator

Tel: 01923 451197 E-mail:

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