There’s a reasonably widespread idea that less and less can plausibly be explained by the existence of god because science explains more and more about the world we live in. There’s even a term for a theology which uses god to explain things which science has not yet understood – it’s “The God of the Gaps”. So far, so widely accepted.
Recently I’ve been listening to Nigel Warburton’s excellent podcast series “Philosophy: the Classics”. (Website – book – iTunes). I very much like listening to Warburton’s quiet and articulate summaries of the canon; I know I’d never make it through his book, and certainly not through the originals, but I am slowly becoming more educated as I drive in to work.
What strikes me though, is just how many of the questions which philosophers used to ask have now been answered by neuroscience. We know that Aristotle’s ideas on vision and matter were wrong, and we also know much more about the questions which the 18th Century philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Locke and Kant were asking about how we know what we know. These questions are being answered by neuroscientists though, not by philosophers. I am of course not the first to notice this, even though it was a conclusion I came to on my own. The 18th century philosophers were, if you like, the philosophers of the gaps.
The gap which is usefully plugged by philosophy is narrowing as neuroscientists and cognitive scientists do their job. For example, we will soon know whether or not a moral sense is innate and why it might be that some people appear not to have one. This will hardly put the philosophers out of a job – in fact we need ruthless critical thinking more than ever. To take a concrete example related to this issue of why some people have no moral sense: it was another podcast which told me that in the UK and Europe we have a far smaller percentage of our population in prison than is the case in the US, but that if you add those who are caught up in mental health institutions into the mix, then the percentages even out. In other words, in the US they imprison the mentally ill, while in the Europe we hospitalise criminals. These sorts of topics obviously give rise to questions which can be answered empirically: what is the best way to prevent offenders re-offending for example, not to mention the practical ones of how best to monitor people at large? However, they also prompt difficult questions we need to think very clearly about, and this is where philosophers and other critical thinkers can help. Do we want to punish or rehabilitate is the least of it. We can also prepare ourselves for what we do when we discover where the boundaries are between free will and biological determinism.
The gap for philosophers may be narrowing, I’ve no idea whether it is deepening. However, as technology makes us become more powerful and as science gives us answers which we may not want to accept, we certainly need the clearest possible thinking to stop us falling into the ethical and practical abyss between the two.