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. 🙂
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.) — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — the rules of which are governed by philosophy — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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,