On Philosophy and Science

There’s been a lot of debate lately over science vs philosophy. Many claim they should each stay out of the domain of the other. Some modern vocal naturalists are giving philosophy a bad rap by using terms they don’t fully explain to the layperson, implying implicitly more than they actually mean (e.g. Hawkings comment that philosophy is dead). Some say science starts with the evidence and follows it to a conclusion while philosophy starts at a conclusion and works backwards. I don’t find this compelling and can think of many counter-examples. Definitions exist for each discipline, but definitions follow spoken language and meaning, not the other way around. What do we mean by philosophy and science? What should we mean?

What follows is a quick rough email on this subject that I typed from my phone and sent to Pascal during my lunch break. He asked me to post it. This whole post is actually from my phone. Let’s hope it works. πŸ™‚


I hold to a more universal definition of science which includes much of what is commonly considered philosophy. Many philosophical questions may ultimately be scientific once we know more. I do agree with the practical separation in everyday use of the terms, but I don’t think we can say science can never answer why questions, or questions about what matters or how to treat people (how we ought to act). The future is unclear and I think science may be able to continue increasing its contributions to traditionally philosophical questions. This debate seems to be more about what category or umbrella we chose to place a line of reasoning under than it is about which disciplines are capable of answering which questions. There’s a lot of overlap. That’s why, to me, I usually think of philosophy as armchair science. I also see science as a form of philosophy that uses different tools. Both involve a strict set of rules, methodological processes to follow, hypothesis, induction, deduction, logic and other reasoning, testability, and conclusions. Some experiments in each are unfalsifiable and thus given less confidence and possibly not considered real science or philosophy. In the end, though, the main difference is whether we can observe the results of our tests directly in the real world, or if we have to interpret them through a presently limited understanding of things (e.g. the theories of the subjective human mind, unknown data about the cosmos, etc.) β€” things science hasn’t yet illuminated for us. Once a certain level of understanding has been demonstrated by scientific inquiry, those experiments become more directly testable and another philosophical discipline branches off into science. I think Krauss said, “Philosophy is great for asking questions. Science is great for answering them.” I’m not convinced that is quite right, but I understand his meaning. I think they are both great for both. Science just gives us more certainty in the answers because they are more empirical, testable and demonstrable β€” because we have a better understanding of the pieces that go into the equations.

I see it like this: Are we dealing with a topic we have little scientific understanding of and little hope for testing directly because of a lack of understanding? If so, then we’re left with conducting thought experiments about it (through a scientific and logical methodology) and we call it philosophy β€” but it’s still science. Has science progressed enough in the area of interest that we can have confidence about what were testing, how to test it (the guidelines that philosophy has provided), the margin for error, our hypothesis, repeatability, falsifiability, etc.? Then that topic has progressed past philosophy and into science. In my (probably erring) view of what the traditional definitions of philosophy and science really mean, every concept starts as a philosophy and only when we know enough does it become a science. Both fit on a continuum of experimentation that leads us to ask better questions to get better results that more accurately reflect reality within the ranges and domains we expect. They don’t conflict. They overlap (though Gould may disagree, especially when it comes to the religion-side of philosophy). If you’re talking about philosophy in this sense, the phrase “Philosophy is dead” could never be correct unless we have absolute knowledge of every mechanism, law, and substrate that the mind could possibly imagine. Philosophy will never be dead in that way β€” and of course nobody I know of seems to be claiming that it is dead in this sense.

Philosophy may be less suited to a certain area than science given our scientific knowledge on that topic, but there are always tangents of said discipline and other areas of interest for philosophy to thrive. For example, we don’t need a philosophy of air conditioning because science has explained all the pieces satisfactorily. We do need a philosophy of mind, behavior, morality, etc., because we don’t yet have a “certainty” in the physics, components and there workings, etc., that lie behind all these questions. We may never understand such topics well enough to say philosophy is less appropriate than science in these areas. However, that does not justify the claim that science is, in principle, unable to take over these areas. Neuroscience, for example, is in its infancy.

I believe in supporting the effort to understand these complex processes rather than, as some do, claiming that science can never tell you how to treat your mother-in-law. It may be true, but we can’t know that, and such phrases impede progress by reducing interest and funding and polarizing what I view as a false and unnecessary conflict between philosophy and science. It’s all science β€” the rules of which are governed by philosophy β€” which are partly justified by previous science. One group of questions requires working with sets of data that are less understood and thus are more suited to a science heavy in thought experiments (philosophy). The other group is a traditional science that needs more traditional experiments. That’s why natural philosophy became science in the first place and why every discipline that is now a science once started as a philosophy (which was originally rooted in primitive observations of various consistencies in nature β€” early science). We have more data in some areas (what most people think of as science) but more gaps remain than we started with (philosophy is the science of those gaps). We also carry out traditionally philosophical thought experiments in many scientific endeavors β€” which further-illustrates the overlap. Maybe someone should push to change the terms from philosophy and science to something else. Something like philosophical science (different from the philosophy of science which defines and constrains what science is and how it should be employed) and hard or practical science. I’m sure some alternative definitions already exists but I haven’t Googled it.

This understanding is important in our discussions because, in my opinion, religion also falls under the philosophy/science umbrellas, often on the science side. Religion is a hypothesis about reality to which we are applying reason (as we understand it) to evaluate the outcomes of the many tests and experiments of our lives in order to come to a conclusion about that hypothesis. Many of us start this assessment of the religious hypothesis from childhood β€” which means the processes we use are often not up-to-date with the latest advances in science (e.g. the benefit of skepticism in coming to objectively true beliefs, evolved problems with the way our mind interprets the input it receives, non-intuitive mental fallacies, our submission to authority’s beliefs, etc.). Religious beliefs are arrived at and perpetuated through continuous refinement of thought experiments, everyday subconscious experiments, and occasional physical experiments. In each of these tests we use the data we gleaned from the results of our previous tests. And in each test we only apply the principles of science we know and trust. Unless we’ve trained in meta-cognition or learned formal science, all this usually happens subconsciously. This makes the fact that we start this process from childhood β€” completely subject to our evolutionary mental tendencies and without the lessons that the latest scientific understandings can teach us about how to reason well in spite of our evolved-for-survival-not-truth nature β€” especially difficult. However, the process we use to come to our present religious views is often very much a scientific one. We are just, unfortunately, likely to follow different rules from the traditional “philosophy-approved” rules of science (we tend to follow our flawed natural tendencies instead of the formal rules of science). If one is scientifically literate and faithfully applies that science to their religious belief, their religious belief is a scientific one (to the extent that they do apply proper science to it). Either way, religious belief is scientific belief (hypothesis, test, conclusion), it’s just sometimes bad science (pseudoscience) because certain claims are unfalsifiable or we apply inappropriate confidences to conclusions arrived at by incorrect means (e.g. not correcting for error, randomness, confirmation bias, pattern matching, etc.). It doesn’t have to be pseudoscience, however. For example, many astrophysicists may have a religious view of nature as God without committing pseudoscientific errors.

Forgive me for this long mess of an email. I’m on my phone and was just typing what came to me quickly (lunch break). I started this email to share this article with you, but I thought I should say something to introduce it. What I’ve said so far doesn’t really do that. My ideas about philosophy and science are my own (which is a strong indication that they probably aren’t correct, but until I change them, explaining them might help you understand me when this topic comes up) and they are not discussed in the article. The article is a good read, though, and the book it promotes looks very interesting.


Gentleness and respect,
β€”Russell

10 comments

    1. I’m glad to see you back – – you mentioned that you’re working more and I hope that balance is returning. I’m thankful that you have the work, but understand all too well the competition for time with family and correspondents. So – – welcome again.

      I’m chewing on your comment before I reply to Russell. Will science give us the tool to personally answer if consequentialism is “good” beyond its expediency in advancing our genes in reciprocal altruism? I don’t know. But science did give us the ability to understand why seemingly contradictory aims (selfish gene vs. benefit of others) might not contradict.

      I’ll likely settle on the conjunction and. We need science and philosophy. The choice of or projects an unnecessary dichotomy.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think that what’s important is that we don’t just assume a priori that question X or topic Y can’t ever be addressed scientificly. In my personal, limited view (as neither a scientist nor a philosopher), to do so is to potentially misunderstand science and philosophy. As we all know, they aren’t magical, unchanging process handed down. We humans created the processes and methodology of each specifically to answer our question (why’s and how’s). We made formal science to give us better confidence in our results, and when both apply to any given question, science is the most trusted to reflect reality while philosophy is the most trusted to tell us what to do with that new information about reality. Both disciplines evolve as we learn. Overall, though, subjects tend to start as philosophical and then become scientific, but they are rarely completely one or the other. We can say that such questions as, “is consequentialism ‘good’ beyond its expediency in advancing our genes in reciprocal altruism” may be presently philosophical, but that doesn’t mean it will never be subjected to enough philosophy that a good model forms and tools of science coalesce to test the model that philosophy proposes.

        Near the top of this post I linked to Philosophy Is Dead β€” What Hawking Meant. I just skimmed it and found it to be a (mostly) more thought-out attempt to explain my position than what you find here. I’ll provide a relevant excerpt.

        When you say there are questions science cannot answer, that is like saying there are questions for which we do not currently have a means to evaluate whether or not they are true (i.e. we cannot [formally and satisfactorily] test them). I agree. There are many big questions (most do involve meaning) that we do not have a good way to validate or falsify yet. Philosophy is alive in well when thinking about these questions. But will it make [significant] progress? Can we come to a knowledge (science) of some answer without an ability to validate or falsify our on-the-couch conclusions? I doubt it. I have hope that as we think about them philosophically, and as our knowledge and tools improve, we will begin to be able to test more and more of them in small pieces until a potentially accurate picture snaps into view. We can get into Non-Overlapping Magisteria another day, but I think at least some of the questions that we are putting out of the domain of science are not unaddressable by science. In particular, science is great at falsification, even for domains in which it cannot provide positive evidence.

        I think I failed to give adequate acknowledgment to the testing done in philosophy in the post I referenced and my views may have changed slightly since then. I’m not claiming to be right in any of this. There are many ways to interpret the appropriate role and application of each discipline. My goal here is just express my understanding in the hope that it will help us navigate the nuances effectively when the topic arises.

        Gentleness and respect,
        β€”Russell

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        1. Philosophy and Science – a case for laying down the hatchet

          I just asked myself an important question. Why does the Science vs Philosophy debate bother me? Why talk about it? I want to try to briefly address that.

          Philosophy and science are just labels we put on the two ends of a spectrum of reasoning about the world. The bottom line is we have questions. We want to know things. We want to be able to understand what just happened and predict what will happen next. We want to learn how to control our world so things can go better for us. To that end there is really, ultimately, just one discipline. It’s the combination of philosophy and science. They both serve the same purpose, but in slightly different ways with different outcomes as you progress throughout the continuum they reside upon.

          What I question is why the debate is happening at all. Why has there been tension, not between science and philosophy, but between scientists and philosophers, for so many centuries – tension that seems to be escalating? Can we chalk it up to the egos of learned people in fields that take a lot of mental acumen, education and financial investment to climb? I think there’s more to it. Part of the clash is evident and expected when we examine the difficulty in demarcating where one field ends and the other begins. A large contributing factor that seems to be fueling much of what we see today is the ever increasing polarization between science and religion. Religious stakeholders (inappropriately) feel threatened by science and seek to dispel naturalism by claiming that science alone doesn’t have all the answers. Of course it doesn’t, especially if you define it in the limited inductive sense and assume that it will never grow out of its presently feeble understanding of complex arenas like the mind and morality. On the other side are naturalists who think philosophy can answer questions, but not to a satisfactory degree, and there is hope that science will one day begin to give us confidence in these formally philosophical answers. Defending themselves against what they view as the false claims of popular culture that seeks to unnecessary and unwarranted constraints upon science, they fight back by attacking philosophy and diving headlong into confidence in science as the only way forward, the only way to know. This polarizing us versus them tends to break down into two sides. Theists tend to say, “but science can’t ever address these questions.” Atheists tend to rise to the defense and ask, “Why not? Just because we can’t now doesn’t mean we can’t ever. That’s an argumentum ad ignorantiam.” Then they occasionally overstep when fighting back by saying things like, “Philosophy isn’t a form of knowledge,” or, “Philosophy doesn’t make progress,” or, “Philosophy is dead.”

          My present belief is that this whole discussion tends to be polarizing, in a negative way. I’d like to see people grasp a fuller understanding of this concept. We’re pointing fingers and making a fuse about what our favorite label (which, again, is just a word used to generally describe our method for understanding the world on one end of the spectrum) can do and the opposing label can’t (us vs them). Why? If the primary cause for any individual engaging this debate is ego, they should let it go. Our overall knowledge (gained by both the tools of science and philosophy) will be better for it. If the primary cause is a religious one – possibly due to an inappropriate fear of encroachment of science upon religious claims – that person should also let it go. If one’s religious views about a deity are correct, science will ultimately illuminate how that deity accomplished his work. That is, unless that person really believes his deity created the world one way and then set about changing the laws of physics in order to trick us. If that is a person’s point of view they still shouldn’t goad science. Instead, the should recognize that science makes no claims about whether or not its observations ultimately reflect the True reality. It only provides testable, demonstrably evidence that the reality it can test seems to work this way. It’s the responsibility of the individual to decide to what degree they will accept that what science demonstrates is ultimately True.

          Having said all this I find that I tend to support science by defending it against claims that this or that question can never be a scientific one. I think I do this to raise awareness that such claims are ultimately unknowable and shouldn’t be made with certainty. They should be qualified with things like “presently” and an acknowledgement should be made that things might change. I want to be clear that this does not mean that I think all questions will ultimately, in principle, be addressable fundamentally by the one end of the spectrum that I see as “science.” I’m just trying to leave open the possibility for each question N. I believe that doing so helps us keep the rudder placed at an optimal spot for science and philosophy to tug together rather than fighting one another. Some tension will always exist, which is useful for redefining and evolving the tools of science and philosophy. However, working together by allowing philosophy to enhance our science and science to update our philosophy is the best approach to correctly answering the largest number of our questions about the nature and meaning of reality.

          Gentleness and respect,
          –Russell

          Liked by 1 person

  1. You either have long lunches in which you eat little, or a very quick mind and lightening opposable thumbs.

    I posit the latter two. Great post. This needs to be a theme that we continue. As I noted briefly to GC, my thoughts are forming toward the “and” rather than the “or”. In fact, you chose “and” in the title of the post. I’m not sure that I agree with Gould’s non-overlapping majisteria. I’m building a mental model more akin to a Venn diagram where the most interesting place to talk is in the overlap.

    I read the article too – – well worth the time. I loved the nerdy love story and the influence of Why I Am Not a Christian. Will Dr. Goldstein be another atheist that I’ll respect? Oh chagrin. Her work looks worth reading. So is yours – – thanks for elevating our lunch-time e-mails to a public discourse. There are others like us. I’m convinced.

    Pascal
    –1:16

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Ands” over “ors.” Venn diagrams over disparate circles. “I don’t knows.” The charm in nerdy love stories. Public chagrins. β€” I couldn’t agree more.

      My friend, for two people who come at the world from significantly different points of view, we sure do seem to be processing and filtering it in remarkably similar ways lately. πŸ™‚

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  2. Reblogged this on Hailey's Comments by the Cosmic Authoress and commented:
    The origins of critical thinking extend back to philosophy; philosophy cannot be compared to science just like apples cannot be compared to oranges- they’re both fruits, but both have very different and complex characteristics. It would be foolish to debate which is the tastiest.
    However, and perhaps I’m biased, but I think science gives us a practical understanding of our cosmos. Science is intended to find answers, philosophy proves that there isn’t always one.
    Philosophy has always peaked my interest. I value the opinions and perspective of others, but I cannot debate about a subject when which something cannot be proved or disproved.
    Science tries to get humans to understand the cosmos, and philosophy tries to make the cosmos understand humans.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. I had to come to it several times today to get it all read, and I haven’t read your comments yet. I have, on average, a 1000-word attention span. It’s actually probably significantly longer for Pascal and significantly shorter for you (because I have to read your sentences over and over again to figure out what the hell you just said)–but this topic is something I’ve been thinking about lately, and something I want to think about more. I’ll come back to this after I’ve read the comments and thought some more. Give me a week.

    Liked by 1 person

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