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Editors' Picks Opinion

A Mutual Understanding: The Value of Science and Philosophy

“[Hawking’s] passing has left an intellectual vacuum in his wake. But it’s not empty. Think of it as a kind of vacuum energy permeating the fabric of spacetime that defies measure,” wrote Neil deGrasse Tyson when Stephen Hawking died earlier this year. I was assigned A Briefer History of Time as homework for my high school physics class, the summer before junior year. At the time, I had no real understanding of what composed the fabric of our universe, let alone the quantum mechanics behind black holes. His writing enthralled me, but for reasons of even greater magnitude than the theory of everything. What enchanted me most about Hawking was his efforts make his work accessible, his language giving us a glimpse of what he knew about the universe.

For scientists like Hawking who reach celebrity, it is difficult not to be in awe of their place in our cultural imagination. Yet, when science’s popular heroes disagree with each other, we are left with an uncertain image of the field, suggesting that science is not quite exempt from contestation and ideology. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, for instance, was grounded in philosophical influence, but a critical part of Hawking’s work was his declaration that “philosophy is dead.” Carlo Rovelli’s recently published article in Scientific American, “Physics Needs Philosophy/Philosophy Needs Physics,” argues that vindication of philosophy represents a question central to the field of science itself. As Rovelli states, “Science is not simply an increasing body of empirical information and a sequence of changing theories. It is also the evolution of our own conceptual structure.” If we restrict ourselves to the observable, we inevitably find ourselves in need of theory to break it all down.  

Using experimental physics to determine what we believe about the universe is invaluable, but it will never be complete without understanding how science’s cultural and conceptual frameworks have evolved. Making any argument about the burden of should—including the role ethics should play in science—requires the basic ability to make a value judgment, a skill firmly within the domain of philosophy. The logic behind true scientific advancement requires a willingness to go beyond the laboratory, and it begins with valuing humanities instruction in the classroom.

In paraphrasing Aristotle, Rovelli explains that dismissing the possibilities of philosophy is in itself a philosophy of science, in which physicists “mistake a particular, historically circumscribed, limited understanding of science for the eternal logic of science itself.” While we should praise science’s ability to create material good, we do a disservice to our culture by pretending that the work of Aristotle or Schopenhauer did not provide its ideological basis, or that science is somehow beyond bias. Science grossly fails to answer all of humanity’s questions alone; knowing what exists in the universe fails to consider why or how it affects the way we perceive ourselves within it.

Believing that science can absorb philosophy is, ironically, a mindset that surpasses science itself. Instead, it points out deeper flaws in our cultural intuition, including the exorbitant weight we place on certainty. The science that transforms the way we perceive the universe dismantles our assumptions. From Copernicus’ model of the universe to Hawking’s insistence on a theory of everything, it is evident that revolutionary science is often met with backlash specifically because it pushes us back into the realm of philosophy. It forces us to confront that our grasp on truth is fluid and tenuous. As Einstein once said, “A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives [a] kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering.” In our naive desperation for objectivity, we reveal ourselves to be terrified of what we cannot see. Extolling the “pragmatic” and concrete only reinforces that ambiguity remains our greatest fear.

This privileging of “pragmatism” over the abstract is not limited to physicists, nor family nagging and unrequested career advice. It is something that has material consequences for students interested in these fields, whose study provides the theoretical basis for the tangibility we praise. The same language that pervades American college dining halls seeps into political rhetoric, as elected officials cut already limited funding for the humanities. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott incredulously asked, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” In 2013, North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory told radio host Bill Bennett, “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.” And in 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker attempted to replace the portion of the Wisconsin university system’s charter that encourages students to “improve the human condition” with one that highlights the need to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Marco Rubio made national headlines for his comparison between liberal arts and skill trades, in which he declared, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” In our incredibly polarized world, it is difficult to avoid these pervasive either-or fallacies, whether with the humanities, sciences, or skilled labor force, as though these divides are not human creations, but endemic to the universe. While Rubio has since reversed his stance on the merits of studying philosophy, the damage done is irreversible; it has become commonplace to use projected earnings as a litmus test for the value of education. Most dangerously, we remain blind to the questions we could answer by considering these fields in tandem, unable and unwilling to see how separate disciplines could be complements instead of competitors.

Marco Rubio’s initial line of thinking demonstrates the ease with which arbitrary cultural values become accepted as truth. Although defenses of abstract thinking should not be restricted to monetary benefits, that careers in these fields do pay salaries critically lower than their STEM counterparts is symptomatic of our cultural rejection of the humanities, rather than proof of their simplicity. Our economy is supposed to reward those with the most unique skills, yet we consistently undervalue the contribution of thinkers and writers who provide the foundation for STEM disciplines, at the behest of physicists who may not recognize the consequences their line of thinking has beyond their field. We grant celebrity to people like Elon Musk while deriding those who question the ethics behind his projects. In our era of instant gratification and flash headlines, we weigh the value of learning new things through the framework of what will yield us the most immediate benefits, rather than seeing theoretical study as an investment in future progress.  

Debates over the humanities’ place in science are necessarily political. Perspectives like Governor Rick Scott’s, which heavily imply that subsidizing humanities education is a waste of taxpayer money, reinforce socioeconomic barriers in academia, placing the entire education system at a critical disadvantage. Yet, while distributional requirements mandating that students explore new subjects is certainly a step in the right direction, this alone does little to dismantle the notion that these fields are only as nuanced as their label can capture. At its worst, these requirements further solidify students’ belief that having a certain amount of classes, each placed into its pre-prescribed box, guarantees a multifaceted education.

What universities should be focusing their energy on is introducing more classes that are cross-listed in multiple departments, including between the sciences and humanities, ones so fundamentally relevant that they defy simple categorization. We should be prioritizing courses like Climate Change and the Humanities, a Yale seminar being offered this semester with simultaneous listings in Humanities, History, Literature, and Environmental Science. The class description alone does something that many struggle to understand as possible—using the humanities as a lens to understand political, historical and scientific debate, without losing the integrity of its foundation. While this seminar is certainly not the first of its kind, in a more political context, its diversity of thought is rare.

Embracing the interdisciplinary should not be extraneous to students’ chosen course of study, but woven into its very fabric. Major requirements themselves should be structured to emphasize why no field can be understood in isolation. The way in which our culture assigns value to different subjects is as arbitrary as it is myopic, but it only stands a chance at being changed if it is integrated into the way we approach learning. Science and humanities departments alike should require majors to take classes that build upon the foundational understandings taught in introductory classes, both breaking down and transcending the notion that other disciplines are only relevant for one semester.

Every biologist must understand the political philosophies surrounding their work, and every English major needs to know how science can create literature’s historical context. Universities should compel students to critically engage with interdisciplinary material, analyzing the implications of their new knowledge. With philosophy in particular, this is crucial—continually reframing our choices through the teachings of those before us not only makes us better students, but better humans.

When we celebrate the legacies of people like Stephen Hawking, we unavoidably praise what their work has taught us about the universe, giving us greater agency to imagine the kind of grandeur that renders us insignificant. Yet, implicit in this adulation, we must also acknowledge that their discoveries remind us how much remains unknown, and how desperately we need every bit of knowledge we have if we are ever going to answer questions like, What is space? What is time?  

In his article, Rovelli quotes Aristotle’s argument in defense of the theoretical, “More in need of philosophy are the sciences where perplexities are greater.” Like the universe itself, the territory science leaves uncharted is only expanding, and it is up to us to discover where we go from here.