Philosophy and Science



9 Responses to Philosophy and Science


    It has been reported Stephen Hawking one of the greatest living physicists said philosophy is dead and its realm is now occupied by science. Any Opinions?

  2. admin says:

    The natural sciences first emerged as a branch of philosophy(to this day one with a terminal degree in science is called a PhD or “Doctor of Philosophy”). But without doubt science has truly achieved extraordinary things in the last 500 years which have revolutionized every aspect of human life.

    But precisely for that reason we have to be careful of the temptation to overvalue the sciences and make them the only source of reality and truth. Science is great at answering questions within its own sphere – what can be verified empirically by the senses. But philosophy still asks the most important questions facing human existence – what is a good life? Does life have a meaning or purpose? Is there a God? What is beauty?

    None of these questions can be answered in a laboratory.

    Of course you could answer that because these questions can’t be addressed by natural science they are meaningless, since physical nature is all that there is. In fact some philosophers – the logical positivists – defended exactly that position. But the position that physical nature is all that there is, can’t be defended by the methods of science. It would have to be defended philosophically.

  3. sceptical scot says:

    Not being an expert I would say that the scientist position is a bit extreme. Even if you take things from a purely rational point of view; ignoring possibility of metaphysical sphere, then surely the basis of the scientific knowledge we have just now follows and based on a philosophy: e.g the process of empirical observation etc. What do you think admin?

  4. admin says:

    Skeptical Scot,

    Yes – absolutely that was part of my point. Science itself evolved from and is based on a certain philosophy – empiricism. The scientist bases his approach to reality on a confidence that knowledge can be gained empirically through the scientific method.

    In fact even the extreme position – that ONLY scientific knowledge is valid – is when you start to think about it a philosophical position.

    Logical positivists pretty much held to this view; they argued for the so called “verification principle” – that for any proposition to be meaningful it had to be subject to empirical (e.g. scientific) verification(or falsification). So to be a meaningful a proposition had to be of a type like “the boiling point of water is 212 degrees fahrenheit” -something that can be determined by empirical observation.

    But this of course rules out most of the traditional propositions in philosophy.

    A flaw in their position is this: how can the verification principle itself be verified by empirical science?

    You see really a proposition like “only scientific empirically verifiable statements are meaningful” is not itself a scientific statement but a philosophical one.

    So when you start to look at the foundations of any world view you see it has to be argued for on that deeper, more foundational level we call philosophy.

  5. Ted Roedel says:

    I think philosophy is best characterized as the practice of radical inquiry – i.e., it is a process of questioning undertaken by an unfettered, critical imagination. Its practice of posing questions entails that the inquiry proceeds by dialogue; hence philosophy is about discovery, not intuition. Discovery is the consequence of the disciplined, repeated application of the ‘Why?’ question. Humanity has a most general faculty for posing the question, “Why?” and philosophy is simply the practice of making this disposition to question, more refined and more rigorous.

    It is precisely because of this discipline, that philosophy was able, over time, to give birth to the special sciences. The sciences are characterized by having established methodologies that are tailored to the discovery of facts in the domain of the subject-matter that they each specially treat of. Insofar as the special sciences are rooted in the habits of rigorous inquiry, they could be said to all belong to philosophy itself (as is implied by the early term for science, “natural philosophy”). But though we may want to distinguish the sciences from philosophy, we are still left with the question of just how philosophy was able – in the course of Western history – to give birth to the several sciences. For the answer to this question, will be crucial for our understanding of how the special sciences relate to one another – which is especially of interest to scientists in our cross-disciplinary age. Philosophy, then, is ultimately about method, ITSELF. It is a radical, general (general because radical) inquiry into just what are the sorts of questions that we can intelligibly pose.

    Since we have a general faculty for asking an almost infinite number of questions – including questions that range far afield from those dealt with by the special sciences (e.g., What sort of object is a logical relation? What is the difference between fact and value?), we need a method that is capacious enough to include all the questions that are not nonsense, a method that gives us a criterion for distinguishing between answerable questions and non-answerable ones. Philosophy inquires into what such a synoptic method might involve – or whether, indeed, if in fact “the center holds” and such a method is even available.

    When Hawking says that philosophy is useless, we are first of all presuming that physics is not itself philosophy, not just one sub-set of the great variety of methodologies that philosophy traffics in. But if we insist on the difference, what Hawking is probably getting at, is his view that the ultimate methodology must leave the methods of physics intact and unqualified. Indeed, he may want to say that the one, true method is the logico-empirical method of contemporary natural science. This puts me in mind of Nietzsche’s story about a congress of the gods, where one “grim beard of a god” peremptorily declaimed, “I am the only God!” whereupon all the other gods, laughed themselves to death…

  6. admin says:


    A very thoughtful and intriguing post. Your basic definition of philosophy accords well with something I just read in Heidegger’s little treatise ‘What is Philosophy?’ Here he takes it back to that basic Greek question ‘ti estin’ – ‘what is that?’ As Heidegger writes:

    “We ask ‘what is that’ which in Greek sounds ‘ti estin‘…we can ask ‘what is that over there in the distance?’ we receive the answer ‘a tree.’ The answer consists in the fact that we can name a thing which we do not clearly recognize. We can however ask further ‘what is that which we call a tree?’ With the question we are already approaching the Greek ti estin…It is this form of questioning which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle developed. They ask for example ‘What is the beautiful?” What is knowledge? What is Nature?…”

    Philosophy is basically (as in Aristotle’s famous definition of metaphysics) the universal science of all being. From this original Greek standpoint the other sciences are simply – as in your apt term – “special sciences” which ask “what is it?” about particular kinds of being – e.g. biology about living beings, zoology about animal beings, anthropology about human beings, and so forth.

    The problem we have to ask to in our modern historical context is whether the daughter(natural science) has in effect committed matricide against the mother(philosophy.) It is a widespread view today that ONLY the natural sciences yield genuine knowledge, while philosophy is a form of useless banter dealing with topics(e.g. ethics, the soul, God, the good life, the nature of consciousness, the meaning of human existence, etc…) in which knowledge does not exist. In other words whereas for pre-moderns philosophy was the paradigm of science, for moderns it is often deemed not a science at all.

    This paradigm shift in European culture from metaphysics to science was interestingly enough perhaps the major theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address, though it was of course missed by the mainstream media…

  7. Ted Roedel says:

    Dear Admin.,

    Say, it’s great to have found this site! There are not very many philosophy forums on the web, and those that I have found tend not to feature the quality of discussion that can attract professional commentators. Your Institute gives prospective students the chance to interact directly with scholars and develop the historically informed, big-picture perspective that is essential for today’s leaders and innovators. So, I’m glad to be part of this community…!

    It is of course fair to ask whether philosophy adds anything useful to our true understanding of the world. You mentioned Heidegger; I think a valuable contribution of the German philosophical tradition, has been its distinction between two broad classes of truth and meaning: Wissen and Verstehen. The kind that the Humanities offers is Verstehen, Understanding; that offered by the mathematics and the natural sciences, is Wissen. American culture today positively neglects the importance of Understanding; but without it, we are not ever going to understand the full import of our empirical knowledge, and we are going to end up in thrall to our technological idols. And when I say “going to end up in thrall,” I’m being charitable…

    You’re right, it is very fashionable to say that the meta-scientific/meta-physical questions are idle, because unanswerable; but you are also right to say that the claim that this kind of inquiry yields no answers, is itself a (covert) meta-physical claim. To say that a form of inquiry is idle, is to make a claim about the method of that inquiry. But the special sciences do not inquire into their own methods; they instead take them as given, and use them to guide their investigations. In the end, all those discourses which do concern themselves with method as such, truth as such, indeed being as such, belong to philosophy proper.

    Scientists may dismiss the question, ‘What is being as such?’ as meaningless. But it certainly appears to be a perfectly intelligible question; and it would be simply foolish to prejudge the question of whether it can be meaningfully answered, simply because the special sciences lack the resources to do so.

    My own view is that natural science is just a part, though a major part, of the general pursuit of the love of wisdom. Once the ancients embarked on speculative cosmology, it was only a matter of time before we stumbled into natural science. And in turn, the disciplined imagination that is the product of the habit of rigorous speculation, keeps our minds labile and able to re-evaluate our methods, able to recognize the presuppositions of our conceptual scheme; this is what enables us to “shift paradigms” and have scientific progress, in the first instance.

    The big question for me, is: can our divers inquiries – from aesthetics to mathematics to ecology to (natural) theology to ‘artificial’ intelligence – all be referred to a single, coherent, master-methodology? Or was Aristotle correct, that there is some incommensurablity between & amongst them? In which case, the only thing that unifies these inquiries is the fact that they are pursued by a very peculiar sort of questioning entity, one whose nature will always be a mystery?

  8. admin says:

    Thanks Ted – I’m hoping from philosophy this will grow into an integrated approach to the humanities. We suffer a lot from specialization in our time – but history,theology, literature, language and philology, the natural sciences, all have vital input into understanding the human condition.

    We seem to be in broad agreement about the direction of the intellectual revolution which turned the attention of the Western mind from philosophy to the sciences(or if you like Verstehen to Wissen). Now a crucial question is WHY was this revolution so successful?

    It seems to me that the answer rests with a major change took that took place in early modernity. It concerned a new understanding of the nature and purpose of knowledge itself. For the Greeks the very loftiness of philosophy as the highest human activity and science was precisely that it was not connected to any “useful” end or purpose beyond itself. Sciences which aimed at production and utility were in the Greek view lower because they were not their own justification. The wisdom and knowledge philosophy on the contrary has intrinsic value. As Aristotle writes:

    “It is from wonder that men now begin and at first began to philosophize…they philosophized in order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing knowledge in order to know and not for any utilitarian end….we do not seek it[philosophical wisdom] for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another’s so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake.”(Metaphysics, 982b)

    This is where we get our conceptions of the “liberal” arts which are valuable for themselves as opposed to the “servile” arts which exist to achieve some utilitarian goal(e.g. money making, house building, etc…). The Greeks indeed tended to disparage such things as Banausos – the merely “mechanical”kind of know how.

    Now Francis Bacon in the early 17th century published a treatise with self-consciously challenged this conception of knowledge. As Aristotle had written the Organon(“instrument”) as a collection of logical treatises to guide thought, Bacon would write the “New Organon” (Novum Organum) as the knowledge-charter for the new modern age. In this conception the purpose of knowledge was not to perfect and ennoble the highest human faculties but as he says in his aphorisms “…to extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe…”. Power not wisdom was the essential aim of knowledge – indeed power was virtually identified with knowledge by Bacon – Scientia et potentia humana in idem coincidunt – human knowledge and human power coincide in the same thing…” To attain this power however knowledge of the natural sciences is necessary – “nature to be commanded must be obeyed.”

    What Bacon is speaking of is essentially technology by which man through understanding the forces of nature learns to use them. Certainly Bacon’s dream has been realized beyond his imagination – when one thinks of the power we have obtained in the technical advances in transportation, medicine, weapons,media, industrial production, etc… Powers which have obviously brought great benefits as well as some dangers. But in this new utilitarian conception of knowledge what is the place of philosophy?

    Perhaps the 20th century by illustrating what power without wisdom can wreak upon the world, provides perhaps at least some thoughtful direction…

  9. Miles Smit says:

    Philosophy and science are both expressions of our desire to know. So they are invariably wound around the question of truth.

    The approach to truth may differ between the philosophy and science, but both involve a balance of power between the evidence in the reality contemplated and studied, and the credentials of the tools of inquiry used in the approach.

    Because of theirs claim on behalf of a method of seeking answers, both philosophy and science are examples of an ethos, but also of ways of establishing authority as well as of seeking answers. Therefore, both are subject to corruption in their putative quest for truth. The risk of corruption increases as they move from seeking truth, to asserting it.

    Science, it has been argued, errs whenever it strays from trying to disprove hypotheses, to trying to prove them. The risk of corruption is compounded because perceived validation in science is incentivized by money and authority.

    So when someone with Hawking’s standing is associated with the idea that “philosophy is dead and its realm is now occupied by science”, about matters very few people even pretend to understand, a claim is being on behalf of an established authority which rests on authority, not just manifest truth.

    This creates a new opening for radical inquiry, and also for philosophy.

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