At the risk of being hyperbolic, I recently came across the most insightful tweet I had ever seen. Further, it came from a person I would have never expected—famed parachute-pants-wearing-turned-Stanford-lecturer, MC Hammer. The tweet read:
“You bore us. If science is a “commitment to truth” shall we site [sic] all the historical non-truths perpetuated by scientists? Of course not. It’s not science vs Philosophy...It’s Science + Philosophy. Elevate your Thinking and Consciousness. When you measure include the measurer.”
Although it was a smidge dismissive (“you bore us”), I found it appropriate considering what motivated it. The tweet was a response to yet another white man emphatically claiming comprehensive expertise over subjects that their assertion made clear they couldn’t possibly be familiar with. And yet, the unfortunate idea Hammer responded to was a disgustingly common one.
“Philosophy is flirtation with ideas. Science is commitment to truth.”
In this succinct little comment we see a variety of problems. 1) Twitter, as a platform, makes it nearly impossible to develop a complex and relatively thorough position. 2) Because of point 1, successful tweets are usually ‘punchy’ slogans that embody some popular opinion. 3) The people most equipped to deliver a slogan like this, especially this emphatically, are people who often have no training in some (if not all) of the subjects being discussed. Experts, and I include anyone capable of genuine critical thinking as an ‘expert’ to some degree, will find it hard to speak emphatically because they recognize very intimately what Socrates meant when he declared that “all I know is that I know nothing.” The act and process of genuine research makes it very clear to the researcher that the best theories are aggregates of hunches and anecdotes. They should be taken seriously, but they, by no means, are scripture. The world is too complex to fit our (current) conception of it. This could perhaps be what folks mean when they say things like “Science is a commitment to truth,” but then I wonder how they can make emphatic claims about subjects they clearly aren’t familiar with or understand. Speaking on subjects you are not informed or committed to seems outside the boundaries of “commitment to truth.”
My internal masochist leapt to investigate the comment section. I found more of the same—generally white men demanding that Hammer name “one non-truth perpetuated by science,” or even worse, outright dismissing any possibility of Hammer’s comment. Again, these commenters seemed wildly confused about the earlier iterations of science. They seemed ignorant of how science led to the sterilization of Black women or perpetuated their ‘scientifically’ observed ‘inferior’ status through observations of their skulls. They seemed unaware of how statistics, the science of probability, had been used to incite the public into a frenzy over the inevitability of Superpredators. Entire libraries couldn’t contain all the bad conclusions derived from contemporary science of various historical periods.
As Hammer clearly states, science does not need to exhaustively oppose philosophy. G.W.F. Hegel, in his masterwork Science of Logic, will outline in the opening chapters that “plainthinkers” make science, philosophy, religion, and other types of thought combat each other when, in reality, they are all systems that attempt to speak on the same underlying object (‘reality’) from different perspectives. My mentor, NYU Professor Michael Ralph, once told me, “our feelings guide us towards where we need to begin empirical investigation.” Ralph’s description seems to follow suit with Hegel’s outline—subjectivity and “objectivity” (I put that in scare quotes because I am increasingly convinced that the word is never used correctly) are not at odds with each other, but instead require each other reciprocally in order to more fully develop themselves and, inevitably, each other. Put another way, the Objective consists of the infinite and exhaustive sum of subjective observations. When ideas are superseded by more complex ones, they are not replaced, but pushed to the background—they are still necessarily required, embedded in the conceptual foundation of the most advanced, or recent, understanding.1 We piece together the Truth through a series of guesses that improve in accuracy over time. Sometimes, even, our contemporary guesses have to prune old assumptions, grandfathered along through history because they were familiar or convenient. The action of “pruning” our thought with updated information may be what these Twitter commenters recognize as “Science,” but that view is a specific philosophical epistemology… It is not self-evident.
Philosophy is the study of various ways we understand interaction with the world as well as how we determine our relationship with Truth. Though I would recommend that all people become explicitly aware of their own philosophies, mere acknowledgement is not required in order to engage in philosophy. Every person who has come up with a conclusion based on information has done so by utilizing a previously constructed philosophical paradigm. More to the point, a “philosophical paradigm” does not need to be any more complicated than ‘If A, then B and if B, then C, then if A, then C,’ though, it obviously can be. A dogmatic belief in (contemporary) science is just another philosophical system, just as faith in god or some other paradigms are. The reason many people are incapable of seeing this is because, despite warnings from brilliant people like MC Hammer, they place science and philosophy in exclusive opposition. It follows, then, that good science would require a relative relationship with Truth. Instead of saying “Science is a commitment to Truth,” perhaps we should say “Science attempts to articulate Truth based on the information we have immediately available.” However, it is a philosophical operation to analyze, speculate, and conclude the deviations between the two phrases. Moreover, recognition that science and philosophy compliment each other would allow us to use their inherent strengths together and, ultimately, combine philosophy’s ability to speculate with science’s ability to optimize.
Paraphrasing Hegel, philosophy is differentiated from science because it has to prove its own categories and science, instead, takes them for granted. This isn’t to say Hegel, or I, think science is unfounded, but meant to highlight that the most current scientific ideas are not interested in gauging the validity of their basic premises (things like ‘atoms’ or ‘electrons’ or even metaphysical categories like ‘animals’ or ‘plants’). Philosophy, on the other hand, needs to clarify why it is logically coherent to believe cherries and apples are both ‘fruit,’ despite having very little in common.
A more important and controversial example of this difference is exhibited in philosophical versus scientific expositions on race. If we socially recognize races, science has the ability to take that conception and measure it without asking if the conception of race is biologically or even logically coherent. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ have some specific methodological definition in scientific work, but seem unconcerned or, at best, ambivalent to how that specific methodological definition will be ignored when read by the wider public. Philosophy, on the other hand, has to prove that the tools (i.e. concepts) it uses to explore the world are sound to begin with. If philosophy asserts that we need to use race to examine the world, it is obligated to discuss race as a concept and why its glaring deviations of accuracy are worth perpetuating it as a concept. For example, if someone’s parents are white and Black, what does that make the child? Why? How? Where science can help us measure and organize on topics within a frame of knowledge we are already familiar with, philosophy allows us to reach synthesis and conclusions. Our interpretations come from philosophy, while our measurements—the material of our interpretations, rather—come from science.
Unfortunately, twitter trolls, whether genuine or insidious, are capable of emphatic claims because it is their nature, as trolls, to be uninformed. My fear is that the popularity of platforms like twitter indicate that this style of thinking, though historically common, has infected a record-breaking number of people. There is a difference between thinking you know something, actually knowing it, and attempting to know something. Often, thinking you already know something is the most telling red-flag that you know very very little.
1 If you were to climb to the roof of your apartment building, your focus on the roof doesn’t reject the floors you’ve climbed above. It includes them implicitly in your new operation. To be ‘on the roof’ implies the existence of the floors it sits upon.
Chris Alfonso is a community organizer and social theorist. He has taught political education to incarcerated student bodies at San Quentin State Prison, where he was a lead organizer for the first academic conference within a CA prison. He will receive his MA in experimental humanities and social engagement in spring 2021. His interests include dialectical materialism, Mao Zedong thought, radical pedagogy, and liberatory studies.