Philosophy as Science

1997-10-21

My friend David Saum notes that part of the appeal and power of objectivism is that it attempts the historically audacious task of turning philosophy into a science. And he draws some analogies between philosophy and science -- specifically, between Objectivism and physics. I'd like to examine these ideas, partly by comparing them to some ideas of Kurt Gödel (as interpreted by the late Hao Wang).

Dave proposes to find the "essence of physics". And he's right that the broad or "systematic" essence that he formulates (the basics of mechanics, electrodynamics, and quantum dynamics) does not get at the heart of physics as a discipline. But there's a fundamental disanalogy between physics and Objectivism -- comparing these two is like comparing apples and oranges. It would be more appropriate to compare physics with philosophy (both of which are disciplines) or Objectivism with Newtonism (both of which are systems of thought within their respective disciplines).

It seems to me that Dave's concept of objectivity describes philosophy as it might be -- philosophy as a science -- whereas Rand's description of the essence of Objectivism captures a certain system of philosophy (which it is hoped comes closer to turning philosophy into a science than any philosophy previously developed).

Interestingly, Kurt Gödel seems to have had some similar thoughts about philosophy as science. Hao Wang, who had the benefit of many years of conversations with Gödel, sets out in his final book (A Logical Journey, MIT Press, 1996) some of Gödel's views on philosophy and objectivism (that's objectivism with a small 'o'). Gödel considered himself an objectivist, though he also considered himself a Platonist -- that is, he strove for objectivity but also thought that concepts are real objects having some kind of Platonic existence. Part of what Hao Wang does in his book is work to develop what he calls "objectivism without Platonism".

Gödel had a concept of what he called "absolute knowledge" -- "knowledge that is feasible and applies to central and stable conceptual achievements", which he saw as "the highest ideal of intellectual pursuit" (A Logical Journey, p. 302). And Gödel's "favorite example [of absolute knowledge] is Newtonism". What attracted Gödel to Newton's conceptual achievement in physics is that it provides a framework or backbone or axiom system for theoretical work in physics -- as Gödel said, "Newton axiomatized physics and thereby made it into a science" (p. 307). Gödel even claimed that "the backbone of physics remains in Newtonism" and that "approximately speaking, Einstein filled some gaps in Newton's scheme and introduced some modifications" (a topic about which I am unqualified to speak, although I will note that Gödel and Einstein were friends for many years while both were members of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton).

Gödel thought that in order for philosophy to become a science, it was in need of axioms of the kind that Newton provided for physics. "The beginning of physics was Newton's work of 1687 ... I look for a similar theory for philosophy or metaphysics" (p. 167) or, as Wang puts it, Gödel sought "an exact theory that does for metaphysics what Newton did for physics" (p. 10).

Does the Objectivist metaphyics provide the sort of axioms ("Existence Exists", "Existence is Identity", "Consciousness is Identification") that Gödel was looking for, or more precisely that are necessary to fulfill the quest to make philosophy into a science?

And if Objectivism supplies the needed axioms, then does this mean the end of systems in philosophy, as Dave seems to imply when he said that "the first truly objective philosophy is the end of philosophy considered as a system"?

I'm not so sure. Is Newtonism or Darwinism any less a system (albeit an open system) simply because each one provides axioms of a sort? I don't think so. Perhaps the thought is that Newtonism is the last system of physics, because it successfully provides the axioms that make physics a science. Something similar might be true of Darwinism in biology. This would seem to imply that later developments are, as Gödel suggested with regard to physics, mere modifications to the original (open) system. So perhaps Objectivism will be the "founding system" of philosophy as a science, with future developments being not new systems but modifications to the system and workings-out of the axioms it provides.

Speculation aside, I would argue that the essence of philosophy (done right) is objectivity, and that the essence of Objectivism is much as Rand described by dint of the fact that it is the first truly objective philosophy (the first to consistently overcome the instrinsic-subjective alternative in all the branches of philosophy). Perhaps this is what Dave was saying and I missed it, but I found myself somewhat confused by the disanalogy between physics and Objectivism.


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