Science, philosophy, and the Mountain of Ignorance

mountainofignoranceThere’s been a lot of debate online recently (like here and here) about whether philosophy is a waste of time. Here’s my metaphor for thinking about this question.

Imagine that ignorance is represented by a mountain. The mountain is big and in plain view of everyone. Even small children can see it clearly, and love to ask questions about it that their parents can’t answer. You know the kinds of questions I mean.

For thousands of years, humans walked around the base of the mountain, scratching their heads and having conversations like this:

“Dude, see that mountain?”
“Yep. Big isn’t it?”
“Sure is. Wonder what’s at the top.”
“No idea. Maybe God?”
“Yeah, reckon so. Know anything about God then?”
“Nope, let’s just make some stuff up.”

Then the Greeks came along and started to make some headway climbing up the foothills near the base of the  mountain. The Romans were quick to stamp out that sort of time-wasting nonsense, and then not much happened for a thousand years or so.

Then came the Enlightenment, which meant that people were allowed to start asking questions again, and with it came science. Science was cool, because for the first time, people had a method for climbing the mountain, step by step. Some people thought that science was boring. Others said it would lead to trouble. But the great thing about the scientific method was that it worked. Step by step people climbed the mountain.


In the 21st century, we’ve climbed quite a long way up the mountain and we can enjoy the view.

But hold on a moment. How far have we climbed, and how much further is there to go? Science doesn’t tell us. Does this mountain even have a top? Science can’t tell us, perhaps not even if we arrive there. If there is a top, can science get us there, or will we get stuck somewhere? No one knows.


Unless, maybe philosophy can help us out. Because these are exactly the kinds of questions that philosophers ask. Philosophy asks fundamental questions about knowledge, about science, and about us. Some of these questions can be answered and can give us important clues about the mountain and our journey to the top. And even the questions that can’t be answered need to be asked, because if we don’t ask them, how will we know what the range of possible answers might be?

And if asking questions isn’t the right way to replace ignorance with knowledge, then I give up.

19 responses to “Science, philosophy, and the Mountain of Ignorance

  1. Science cannot answer the questions of philosophy and vice versa. For either group to dismiss the other is arrogance. Science is much better at generating precise data about the objective world. But the objective world is only one abstraction from lived reality. When it comes to the subjective aspect of lived reality, when it comes to values rather than facts, philosophy has the edge. Every scientist should be able to appreciate, at a minimum, Plato and Hume and Kant. It is philosophy and not science that considers the conditions within which science and its objective data have a value for those of us living concrete human lives.

  2. Thanks for the link!

    Cool metaphor. I’d say philosophy is learning about the mountain by thinking and assessing what is known about it. Science is learning about the mountain by physically exploring it. But the mountain is vast and attempting to explore all of it physically is not feasible, so philosophy helps decide where to explore.

  3. Most early mathematicians were also philosophers. Mathematics and Science go hand in hand. Science can answer and has answered many of the questions of philosophy posed by these early great thinkers and by even more recent philosophers. Science doesn’t always get it right, just as philosophy doesn’t always get it right. Asking questions and looking for answers does help replace ignorance.

  4. hesacontradiction

    Great post! Out of the 3, I enjoyed yours the most.

  5. What about the other mountains? Nobody has mentioned them.

  6. Neil deGrass Tyson started this debate (if I’m not mistaken) with his comment on how useless philosophy was. I think we own Tyson a debt of gratitude because he’s sparked a lively and important debate that we really needed to have.

  7. good one…loved your perception….enjoyed reading it Steve..especially the ending line

  8. Years ago, my sister went back to college in her late 40’s and earned a master’s degree in philosophy just for her own enjoyment. Over time, she has shared with me a few tidbits she learned, which I found both thoughtful and insightful.

  9. When the scientist finally reaches the top, he or she will find a philosopher sitting there. The philosopher will ask, what took you so long?

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