Once upon a time, we understood that reality, in spite of our disagreements with each other about it, mattered among all else. We would then use science, or the process of observing reality, to figure out what reality is, and then use philosophy, or the process of analyzing science and applying it practically, in order to determine what to do with this new information.
It’s commonly forgotten how connected science and philosophy were for many centuries. The Enlightenment, the philosophical revolution from the 17th to the 19th century which created ideologies like classical liberalism, social contract theory, socialism, and much more, actually came out of the Scientific Revolution from a few centuries earlier. During the Scientific Revolution, humanity learned that it could use various forms of imperial observation to observe the physical world. The major question of the Enlightenment was if the same could be done to the philosophical world, and the answer, according to most, has been yes.
This is no longer the case. Instead, over the past several decades, a new idea I have dubbed “philosophical supremacy” has taken hold. Basically, this is the idea that philosophy is not about analyzing science, but instead must be completely separate from science, and in fact if philosophy contradicts science then it is philosophy that is right.
The citizens of Florida are learning the end result of philosophical supremacy as we speak, with their governor, Ron DeSantis, being one of its strongest advocates. On Monday night, DeSantis sent the Florida state police to raid the house of a doctor who regularly posted statistics going against the Republican narrative on COVID-19. This same doctor had been fired by DeSantis previously for refusing to fudge data in order to make his response look better than it objectively was — rather Orwellian one might say. The week beforehand, DeSantis had compared those who were against school re-openings to “modern flat earthers” in spite of the fact he gave all the parents of Florida the option to engage in fully remote learning. (DeSantis is also a 2024 GOP hopeful, and one of the most likely of any of the names being passed around.)
While many may derive DeSantis as an idiot, I do not believe that is the case — I believe he is a very smart ideolog. DeSantis’s pre-existing philosophy stated schools must re-open no matter what, the data, however, was telling a different story. As such, he had no other option but to attack the data, in this case, by arresting those who were publishing the other side of the story.
Over the course of this year, Donald Trump has attacked Twitter for one major reason, they fact checked his claims about subjects such as mail-in-voting and COVID-19. Once again, this is because Donald Trump is a philosophical supremist, he believes that his abstract philosophy must take priority over reality itself whenever possible. As such, whenever somebody makes a statement that contradicts their philosophy, it is reality and not their philosophy that must change — hence the move to break up Twitter for “bias”, again, as if reality and the tools used to understand reality are on the same playing-field, they are not.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the worst of this group, who have been valuing their philosophy over the lives of the people. You might remember early on many top politicians were talking about “breaking the medical supply chain with China,” which was basically the nice way of saying denying medicine to people during a pandemic. Of course, none of these people got their anti-China views as a result of the pandemic, almost all the politicians pushing this was were anti-China long before the COVID-19 pandemic, instead they were hoping this would provide a chance to implement their views. The fact that what they want to do would involve denying medicine to the people they claim to represent is irrelevant. Their philosophy is anti-China, no matter the cost and no matter the risks, and they will make sure to impose that on you however possible.
Of course, the fact that the Republican Party believes COVID-19 is both no big deal and the reason we should dramatically change foreign and trade policy is one so obviously is astounds me that so few people have noticed it. While I could go into concepts like cognitive dissonance or belief in belief, the fact is expecting consistency from these people is to miss the point of what they do. These people are so entrenched into their ideology that nothing, not even the same ideology they are dogmatically arguing for, could prove them to be wrong.
From this crowd, you also hear a large number of utterly nonsensical statements. G.K. Chesterton once said:
Science must not impose any philosophy, any more than the telephone must tell us what to say.
The issue at hand is that this is a false comparison because, to put it simply, the telephone is the end point while science is the starting point. A telephone allows us to say what we already know, while science is what allows to have something to say in the first. Asking to “take science out of philosophy” is on the same level as asking to language out of communication, not only should we not do that, doing such a thing would make the thing you’re trying to protect meaningless. Just as one can not say anything meaningful without a shared upon way of oral communication, one cannot meaningfully discuss philosophy without any agreed upon sense of reality.
I do not target Chesterton specifically for holding this view, as many in his time tried to merge philosophy and science into one instead of viewing them as steps of a process. During Chesterton’s time, a school of thought currently known as eugenics became rather popular (which he famously wrote extensively against), which was nothing more than philosophy pretending to be science. In his 1922 work Eugenics And Other Evils, Chesterton wrote:
The thing that really is trying to tyrannize through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen — that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.
For the sake of time, I will ignore the many false comparisons made by Chesterton in the passage above. However, no matter how ridiculous I find this statement, I cannot truly blame him for making it. Chesterton was told that eugenics was the obvious endpoint of evolution not by crazy fundamentalists (although those making this argument today would fall into this category) but by the supporters of Eugenics themselves. While this may seem like an odd rant to go on, I agree in some sense that only allowing men in white coats to determine your worldview is a silly (at best) way to go about life. I disagree, however, with what that means.
Chesterton argued we should separate the two, which is simply impossible for the reasons stated above. Instead, what we must do is remember that science does come before philosophy, but we should also remember what both of those things are. As it stands, science should be seen as nothing more than the process of understanding reality, and philosophy should be seen as nothing more than the process of understanding science and applying it to the real world. Mixing up this order, or trying to combine it, will lead to nothing except ignoring one in order to make room for another.