Philosophers Don't Know What Scientists Can't Do

Article excerpt

Among many scientists, philosophers are regarded with suspicion, or even disdain. It has something to do with the way that some philosophers have mistaken their love of knowledge and their power to analyze it as a path to knowledge itself. Most famously, Immanuel Kant believed that a philosopher (him) could figure out that space must of necessity observe the rules of Euclidean geometry. A few decades thereafter, mathematicians showed that other geometries were possible in principle, and ultimately Einstein figured out that space was, in fact, not Euclidean after all. Anyone who disagrees should not be allowed to use GPS devices, which would be wildly inaccurate if not corrected for the effects of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

An equally egregious philosophical faux pas came in the 19th century from the philosopher Auguste Comte, who boldly declared that he knew for sure that there was something that science could never know. "We shall never be able to study, by any method, their [stars'] chemical composition or their mineralogical structure," he wrote in Cours de Philosophie Positive.

About the time Comte died, though, spectroscopy began to flourish, discerning the chemical composition of the sun and other stars by identifying precise frequencies of light emitted or absorbed by particular atoms. …