Philosophy and Science



What is the relationship between philosophy and science? There are numerous views on this question. Some treat philosophy as constituting a queen of the sciences in and of itself, either treating philosophy as a discipline with the sole purpose of grounding science (which tends to be associated with positivism) or adopting a view that completely eliminates any substantive distinction between philosophy and science. Others consider science to essentially be at the same level as any belief system, with science and its methods being treated as nothing more than a social convention that has no more inherent weight than any other social convention, which is a view that can be found in elements within postmodernism. Still yet, there are other views that are more subtle than these extremes.

Of course, this question partially hinges on what on considers philosophy and science to be in the first place. What constitutes science and not-science? If science is defined so broadly as to essentially refer to any search for knowledge, then the distinction between philosophy and science would seem to dissolve. On the other hand, if science is defined more narrowly as a particular discipline or set of disciplines that deals with a certain scope of questions and employs a certain scope of methods, then philosophy could possibly be distinguished from science. Generally, epistemology is understood to be the discipline within philosophy that addresses the fundamental questions of “what is truth?” and “how do we know anything?”, questions that are prior to the enterprise of modern science.

If science is viewed as being dependant on the prior establishment of an epistemology, then it would seem to follow that science is not foundational or stand-alone, that science could be said to need and stand or fall along with philosophy at least insofar as epistemology is concerned. And from a historical standpoint, what we now call science or “the scientific method” did in fact arise from epistemological inquiry in western philosophy. In fact, there was hardly any distinction: what we call “science” was “natural philosophy”. But in consideration of this, some questions arise: if we consider the philosophical foundations of science as already being established, what further use do we have for philosophy? Why can’t philosophy just end there and we can push forward using nothing but science?

Indeed, in the context of positivism, this is exactly what many analytic philosophers have attempted to do: resolve the problems of epistemology so that we can do away with philosophy and get on with the business of doing hard science. But all of these attempts have encountered some strong objections. For one thing, it is based on the attempt to establish a fully self-justifying and closed system (and we would at least like to think that science is a dynamic, malleable system). It can also be objected to on the grounds that it inherently presupposes values or value-laden notions that its own system would have to consider outside of the scope of scientific (and hence epistemically justified) inquiry. In short, the very attempt to establish its rules necessarily has to break its own rules.

The presupposed notions of scientism that such an enterprise involves are also questionable. Scientism refers to the belief that science and its methods, particularly the natural sciences, constitutes the totality of possible or justified knowledge (and this has nihilistic implications with respect to other areas of inquiry, such as social sciences, ethics, and aesthetics). It can also be thought of as the treatment of science as an ideology, an ideology in which science is attempted to be applied in contexts beyond its proper scope or treated as an authority to appeal to. Another way to put this is that science is treated as a metaphysic in the name of opposing metaphysics.

Some may go even further than this and question the enterprise of epistemology as “first philosophy”. Is epistemology itself not circular? Is it not the search for the truth about truth or knowledge about how knowledge is acquired and justified? In other words, are we not inherently presupposing something, the very thing that we are inquiring into, in order to even make the inquiry? How is it possible for us to step outside of an episteme or a conceptual scheme in order to establish an epistemology? These kind of questions have led some to speak of the death of philosophy (at least philosophy as normally understood), not in the name of supporting the enterprise of science, but toward the end of leaving us in a state of a total relativism between worldviews in general.

This later notion, which is more closely associated with recent trends in continental philosophy (with the glaring exception of Richard Rorty), seems to do the opposite of scientism in a sense. It doesn’t simply reject scientism, it rejects the notion that natural science can be any better of an explanation for things than mysticism, or at best it treats science and its methods (and all disciplines for that matter) as purely conventional beliefs that come and go according to the particular needs and agreements of people within an intellectual community or participants in an ongoing discourse. It tends to treat scientific (and philosophical) theories as texts to apply hermeneutics to, or as pure “social constructs” that can be analyzed strictly in sociological terms.

I say that this is the opposite extreme of scientism because while scientism is a totalizing ideology on the behalf of natural science, such (largely postmodern) claims seem to represent another totalizing ideology that applies the lense of certain methods of literary criticism and various disciplines within what is deemed “the social sciences” to everything. If scientism does not properly limit the scope of natural science, this does not properly limit the scope of “social science”. This can be considered ironic in that postmodernism tends to be associated with an opposition to totalizing ideologies, and yet it appears to contain a movement towards certain totalizations within it.

Due to such considerations, there is a sense in which I view some of the conflicts between analytic and continental philosophy, particularly in the context of the question of science, as a conflict between an emphasis on different disciplines in the sciences. In my view, each of these disciplines have a proper context or scope. This isn’t to say that there cannot be valuable interdisciplinary relations, but that problems arise when a particular discipline sets itself up as a metaphysic or a totalistic explaination for everything. Perhaps one way to put it is that I think various disciplines can deal with different aspects of the same phenomenon and I object to attempts to completely reduce a particular phenomenon to its treatment within the context of a particular discipline.

To be clear, this is not an expression of relativism so much as a vibrant contextualism. I do not think that all disciplines and methods are equally valid or can always be applied simultaneously to the same thing. But if you appeal to the natural sciences in the name of debunking moral and aesthetic judgements, or if you appeal to literary criticism and sociology in the name of critiqueing theories of physics and biology, I think that you are engaging in a serious error. You are overextending a discipline beyond reasonable boundaries. My philosophy of science is pluralistic, but not to the point of abandoning basic standards of reason. I reject positivism and scientism, but I don’t reject the idea that science is a more reliable means to knowledge than mysticism or any old social convention that someone happens to adopt. I reject postmodern excess, but I don’t reject the idea that science is limited in its scope, does not represent the totality of possible knowledge, and that knowledge is not a purely linear accumulation that solves everything. And that may be a hard pill for the partisans of analytic and continental philosophy to swallow.


~ by brainpolice on April 16, 2010.

2 Responses to “Philosophy and Science”

  1. Elsewhere, I suggested that the object of study on science is always a class, a sub-class or member os classes. Properties are attributed to these objects. On the other side, but keeping a specific relation with the objects of science, philosophy has as its object concepts (intensional objects). Properties are attributed to these concepts (epistemic, logical, semantic properties, etc). So, despite the fact that scientists and philosophers use different methods, they have different objects of study.

    I hope this can enrich the discussion…

  2. I agree with the statement, taken at face value, that scientists and philosophers have different objects of study. And it seems like the kind of objects of study that philosophy faces are much more abstract, while science deals with something more concrete. This abstract-ness is probably part of what leads some people to (mistakenly, in my view) dismiss philosophy and promote science, or relegate philosophy to philosophy of science.

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