HowTheLightGetsIn: Synthesising Philosophy & Science

In dealing with observable data science puts less importance on the first-person kind of thinking undertaken by philosophers, so it is interesting how central scientific thought was to HowTheLightGetsIn as a festival of philosophy. Importantly, it was interest in the relevance of science that kept a lot of vigorous debate going throughout, allowing philosophical engagement of the kind advocated to show its value in connecting science to people’s emotional realities.


One of the debates I attended, titled “The Return of Metaphysics”, asked the question of whether the ‘return’ of metaphysical thinking (that is ‘meta-‘ meaning ‘after, behind, or among’ and ‘-physics’ - ‘the study of ‘the natural’) was a good thing in light of whether physical science can, or is even concerned with, providing answers about the fundamental nature of reality. Without taking any position, it is important to note that during the debate (which will be available on iaiplayer) argument focussed on what relevance science has to ‘truth’ and people’s lived experience – impressing it’s importance in improving people’s lives regardless of a connection to fundamental ‘truth’. Indeed, the first workshop I attended at HowTheLightGetsIn was a discussion of ‘How to Revolutionise the Academy’ with the aim to “reinstate that idea of wonder and openness to the world” argued dissipating from a higher education system more focussed on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) for their economic value than education as a good in itself. If it is the case that higher education is becoming more STEM and market oriented, inquiry that challenges this by showing the value of other subjects is more important than ever.


Of course, one of the biggest and most important goals of the Philosophy Foundation is to bring the benefits of engaged philosophy to all of society, so anything that can show the practical benefits of philosophy is welcome for this goal. Philosophy can and should be capable of demonstrating a real connection to the world and, seeing the kind of philosophical questions arising from scientific thought, this relevance is clearly seen by how HowTheLightGetsIn applied meaning to scientific inquiry. ‘The Universe, Fixity, and Flux’ for example, explored recent scientific challenges to the question, once thought solved by the success of empirical science, of whether the physical laws of the universe are “static” or in “flux”. Reignition of this debate gives significant reason to reanalyse relevant earlier philosophy to inspire potential avenues of research and philosophy, along this vein, can justify itself by providing the ability to illuminate the driving mechanisms behind science. As, whilst the methods of science may not favour specific outcomes, science is driven by non-neutral ideas of what kind of research is worth doing and further influenced by assumptions inherent in the questions we ask. Doctors in the 19th century for example, refused to deem research regarding hand-washing as valuable, due to taking offence at the idea people of their social class could spread disease – or in more recent times, science surrounding normalcy in children has often been driven by a desire to produce economically productive adults (for more on this, see work by Mitzi Waltz).


Practically HowTheLightGetsIn provides a forum for interdisciplinary debate, whilst also opening this up to issues that hold relevance for the public in an engaged fashion. This means that not only can this kind of activity help to engage the public with academia, but it can also help to engage academia with politics and itself. ‘The Civilisation Trap’ provided a forum for debate between politicians and scientists on the question of whether agricultural civilisation was a mistake for the human race, given that paleoanthropologists such as Yuval Harari and Jared Diamond have argued hunter-gatherer life to be more leisurely and free than our current circumstance - And ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ allowed scientists and philosophers to debate whether science will continue to have supremacy over philosophy in its importance for the public. Without commenting on the content of either debate, which are certainly worth watching when made available on iaiplayer, it is worthwhile to look at how these debates illuminated the biases inherent to different fields. Unsurprisingly scientists, politicians, and philosophers put significantly more importance on their own fields from the outset, but it was clear that during debate each individuals’ biases were challenged and that connection between their fields had significant importance for how they had to present their arguments to onlookers. Whether or not this means  specific individuals involved in debates will challenge their own assumptions is unclear, but certainly these debates were more engaging for the onlooker due to being taken from multiple fields – and surprising connections between research should lay the ground for new innovative areas of study. Indeed, when we consider the influence of ‘Neurophilosophy’, a field which applies neuroscientific findings to philosophical questions and has been advanced by attending philosopher Patricia Churchland, it is difficult to not see the value in connecting science, philosophy, and academia in general – because doing so allows us to give better answers to and take seriously the questions people care about.


So, does HowTheLightGetsIn represent a new era for philosophy and science? Probably not - but the festival does give us reason to be more optimistic about the future of academia being more accessible and interdisciplinary. We at the Philosophy Foundation believe that the benefits of philosophy should be felt by everyone, so anything that helps to better practically connect the subject to the problems of our time and to people’s lives should be encouraged – and this is what HowTheLightGetsIn tries to achieve.

If you are interested in watching any of the festivals debates and talks, they will be released on iai player over the coming months, which can be accessed here.

Caleb Forward, The Philosophy Foundation 

Posted by Lucia Araniyasundaran on 5th October 2021 at 12:00am