Monday, February 06, 2006

The Carpenter and the Mathematician

I have often floundered in attempts to explain the essential difference between philosophy and the hard sciences. Today, Aristotle provided an eloquent and simple solution.
“The carpenter and the geometer both look for the right angle, but
in different ways: the former only wants such an approximation to it as his work
requires, but the latter wants to know what constitutes a right angle, or what
is its special quality; his aim is to find out the truth.”
(The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chap. 7, para. 19.)

Another way I have heard it put is this – the scientist wants to know what is probably true, while the philosopher seeks what is necessarily true. Modern science only wants to know what works. They aren’t so much concerned with pure theories, unless they produce mathematical tools for experimentation. Who cares if quanta do or do not have both location and momentum? As those of the Copenhagen school of physics might say, “Shut up and do the equations!”

Philosophers do care about such things. Logic is our tool, and like the master woodworker, we use it to painstakingly carve away what simply cannot be true, until we are left with a final work of rational art. Does it give us technology or generate practical, control-over-nature utility? No. Shut up and do the logic.

It could be said that the philosopher aims at a higher goal than the scientist, but I won’t say it. It might appear arrogant. It is at least a different goal. We study the right angle, but we want to know what it is, ein sich. We aren’t concerned with particulars, but with universals.

I have a feeling that my hard-science friends won’t find this at all persuasive.


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