Science and Philosophy

Science and Philosophy

The Domain of Philosophy

Philosophy consists of two broad domains, ontology and epistemology, each addressing a fundamental problem.  Ontology seeks to answer the question of existence qua existence, its nature and laws.  Epistemology seeks to answer the question of knowledge about existence.  Since existence embraces everything that exists, epistemology is concerned with the nature of knowledge qua knowledge.

Philosophy must be formulated and clearly articulated and codified before we can hope to rationally study some domain of existence (such as art or science or any of their specializations).   Each of the particular problem domains of of a particular art or science rests upon its fundamental philosophical  foundations.  What these foundations are must be made clear so that we may know and be conscious of the philosophical principles that are guiding us in our study of a particular specialized domain of knowledge, and how those principles must be applied in the practice of a given discipline.

Ontology is that branch of philosophy that is concerned with the being of things.  It concerns the nature of being as such, or being qua being.  It asks: What does it mean to be? What are  categories of being ? What makes something a category of being? How many categories are there? (Aristotle says ten, including substance,  relation, quality, quantity, disposition, location, time, passion, action, but is he right?)  What is the actual versus the merely potential?  What is actualization?  What is change and what are its forms?  What is the distinction between the potential versus the actual versus the possible or impossible? What is the finite versus the infinite? Is physical existence properly characterized as a world of discrete entities versus a continuum?  Is a void possible or meaningless?  Can things come into being and/or go out of existence?  In what sense and in what ways can something come into existence or  can something cease  its being and go out of existence? What are causes and how do they relate to the nature of being?  What does it mean to grasp the essence of a thing?   Is there one world or many and what would each case mean?  What is the fundamental difference and principles underlying animate versus inanimate being? What is the relationship between body and soul (life)? What is the nature of the relationship between mind and body?  Can the world be divided into the physical (concrete) and the spiritual (transcendent)?  If so, what is the relationship between these and what is the justification for their separation?  And many more questions of this sort.

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy which is concerned with the knowledge of things or of being.  It asks such questions as: How do we know? How many forms of knowing exist,  such as sensations, perceptions, ideas?  What is certainty and how is it justified?  What is doubt and how is it justified?  What is meaning?   Can things which have no meaning exist?  What is evidence?  What is proof?  What is logic?  What are the categories of reason, faith, intuition, skepticism, ignorance?  Are there degrees of knowledge, such as degrees of certainty?  Are there levels of knowledge, such as sensational, emotional, perceptual, conceptual, mathematical?  Can thought (without physical action) cause things to come into existence, to change, or to go out of existence?   Or asked more generally: What is the essential difference between being and knowing?  And many more questions of this form.

Beyond ontology and epistemology are the areas of applied philosophy.  These include ethics, which seeks to ask: What is the nature of the good versus the evil?  What is justice?  What is man’s nature with respect to morality?  Is man born naturally good or evil nor neither?  How is morality discovered by the individual?   To name but a few of the most common questions asked by ethics.  There is also the field of aesthetics, which asks such questions as: What is beauty?   What is ugliness?  What is tragedy (in theatre)?  Are these aesthetic principles intrinsic in the world, subjective (mere opinion), or objective (dependent on man and his relationship to the world)?   Among many other questions.  There is also politics which asks:  What is the polis (city-state for the ancient Greeks, nation, for modern man)?  What is the citizen’s proper relationship to the polis?   Does man, by his nature, need a polis?  Do men have moral obligations to the polis?  What forms of political systems exist and how many more are are possible?  How is the polis best organized to achieve the best possible outcome for the citizen and the community?

Questions of philosophy are embraced by any deeply thinking individual, and, as we shall soon see, by all well-educated professionals, including (especially for our purposes in this paper) scientists.  All individuals who hold a philosophical system, are aware of it either consciously (explicitly) or unconsciously (implicitly).  In either case, their philosophy has a profound view not only of their private world but of their public and professional world as well.

Philosophy can have both beneficial or inimical effects on individuals and on human institutions.  When philosophy is in harmony with the true nature of man and existence, it allows mankind to grow and flourish almost without limit. But when philosophy goes fundamentally wrong, and produces false ontological doctrines regarding the nature of man and the world or  false epistemological doctrines regarding man’s power to know the world, it causes all of knowledge and all institutions that depend upon such foundations to be corrupted or distorted, generally turning civilization and man’s well-being backwards.   The correction of philosophic doctrines and theories may take many years, even generations.  In the meantime, both philosophy and (as we shall see) science suffer, since science depends upon philosophy for the foundations of its own discipline, its own methods, and its own theories and interpretation.

The Domain of Science:

Science is a systematic method of acquiring knowledge about the physical world.  As a methodology for knowledge acquisition it is concerned with epistemology.  As an intellectual discipline having a distinct body of interest, namely the physical world, it is concerned with ontological roots of its fundamental conceptions of the physical world as viewed from the perspective of each of its scientific specializations (physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology).   Only when science is fully aware of its epistemological and ontological foundations, can it hope to deal, in a non-contradictory manner,  with theoretical problems aiming at understanding the physical world and identify which aspects of those problems are essentially ontological (concerned with the nature of the physical world as such) and which are essentially epistemological (concerned with how science formulates, tests, validates, and classifies its observations, conclusions and theories).

When science ignores or forgets its philosophical foundations, it inevitably goes fundamentally wrong, and produces theories, doctrines, methods, practices or explanations that are fundamentally incoherent and do not properly reflect the nature of existence.  It can take many years (sometimes decades or centuries) for science to correct its false concepts, methods or theories.

Yet science and philosophy learn from each other and are actually (or properly should be) partners in the quest for the shared goal: knowledge of the world in which we live.  Science (ideally) offers more and more precise as well as integrated factual knowledge about the physical world, as a result of its careful methods and instruments of observation, experimentation and testing of its data, hypotheses and theories.  Science in this way yields more facts for philosophy to think about and assess from the point of view of the science’s underlying epistemology and ontology  We see this today most clearly with regard to the nature of quantum mechanics and its philosophical problems.

The Current Disharmony Between Science and Philosophy

It is a common phenomenon in our technically advanced intellectual culture to see attacks by the disciplines of science and philosophy against one another.   Science is commonly embraced by scientists and laymen as well as the only reliable source of and path to truth. This is the doctrine of scientism, the notion that science can and should properly stand alone, independent of philosophy. Or put another way, science does not need philosophy to establish truth. Philosophy is commonly disparaged by scientists as ‘mere metaphysics’ having nothing relevant or worthwhile to say about either the real world or the world of science.

In an attempt to resolve this seeming disharmony, and to remain both complete and relevant, modern philosophies hold that they must embrace, as philosophical doctrine, widely accepted scientific theories , and that they must engage in debates regarding the validity or interpretation of scientific theories, thus allowing them to participate as co-equal partners in scientific conferences.   In applying this harmonizing attitude, many philosophers believe that they need to take stands for or against scientific theories such as Darwinism, Quantum Mechanics, Cognitivism, Emergentism, or Reductionism in order for philosophy to be relevant and valuable to the scientific world.

In the same spirit of harmony, many scientists today believe that science has important scientific knowledge to offer the the various schools of philosophy.   Going even farther, many physicists today believe that scientific concepts should replace philosophical concepts, specifically the concepts of real, reality, time, space, motion, infinity, the void, continuity, quantization, potentiality, actuality, causality, probability, chance, certainty, and relativity, to name some of the most common.  Biologist, in particular, believe that they have better definitions of life, death, procreation and evolution, to name but a few,   Psychology believes that philosophy should adopt and replace concepts of consciousness, mind, perception, sensation, emotion, and cognition with modern behaviorist or materialist definitions of these fundamental concepts.  But science does not stop its etymological ambitions here.  Psychology, for example, goes on to argue that even ethical and social concepts in philosophy should be replaced by scientific ‘equivalents’.  These include the concepts of justice, freedom, and dignity (see in particular the Darwinian psychologist B. F. Skinner).

The Proper Partnership Between Science and Philosophy

When it comes to assessing scientific theories, philosophers must separate scientific issues from philosophical issues.  When dealing with issues such as Darwinism, Mind/Brain reductionism, Quantum Uncertainty, I would say that these are, on the one hand and from one perspective entirely scientific questions which must wait on science for complete answers. On the other hand, where there are philosophical issues deeply involved in these questions (such as ‘What is mind?’, ‘What is reality?’, ‘What does it mean to say that something exists?’, ‘What is the Universe?’, ‘How do we know?’ or, more generally, ‘When is it necessary for Philosophy to integrate scientific theories into philosophy?’).   On the other hand, it is quite properly the job of philosophy to grasp the evidential bases of scientific theories and then to concern itself with whether the methods used by scientists are valid from the standpoint of epistemology and ontology (and in some cases, as in the case of eugenics, ethics as well).

For example, there is no way that philosophy can deny the existence of the well-established and quite predictive phenomena of quantum mechanics. But philosophy can have and should have a great deal to say about how such phenomena and theories, as well as the concepts underlying them, can be made intellectually and rationally coherent, logical and valid.  For example, philosophy can clearly argue that the Copenhagen interpretation of ‘the outcome of the collapse of the quantum wave’ as ’caused by the act of human observation’ is clearly committing the fallacy of the primacy of consciousness, or that the ‘uncertainty principle’ is essentially a problem in epistemology.

Some questions that we strongly believe are fully within the domain of philosophy are often not, and require scientific study to resolve them. For example, on the topic of perception, a topic that is fundamental to both philosophy and science: ‘What is the causal basis of perception?’, ‘Does perception depend on the possession of volitional consciousness?’, ‘Can the act of perception cause entities of facts (outside of consciousness itself) to come into existence?’,  and ‘Does perception depend upon sensations?”  These are actually scientific questions with philosophical implications (such as properly defining sensation, perception and volition in both the scientific and philosophical context.)

In general, scientists often believe that science can take stands (qua science) on philosophical questions, just as philosophers often believe that they can take stands on scientific questions. Each group believes that its specialized knowledge provides the discipline with special insights not available to the other. In fact, however, (quite obviously) both science and philosophy share the common foundations of logic, empiricism, reason, abstraction and induction, as well as, obviously, a shared set of observations of the natural world. Science must develop a philosophy of science, subject to the appraisal of professional philosophers. Beyond that, science and philosophy become specialized disciplines that can mutually support each other (if properly practiced). Similarly, both disciplines must recognize the danger of overstepping their justified context of knowledge and methods and improperly straying into questions that lie outside their professional domains of expertise.

Separating Philosophical Issues and Scientific Issues

I would like to propose something that is virtually nowhere found in today’s intellectual discussions, papers, and conferences.  I propose the institutionalization of a new requirement that in all cases involving both scientific concerns and philosophical concerns or assumptions, that there be a clearly stated separation between philosophical and scientific issues associated with the respective body of work.

For example, the typical scientific paper contains the following sections: 1. Background: (usually previous scientific research and findings relevant to the current work); 2. Problem Statement and Hypothesis: a statement of that the exact problem of hypothesis is that the paper is addressing (or attempting to prove or disprove); 3. Procedure or Method: description of the full procedure and or method applied to the problem under consideration; 4; Data or Results: a set of data gathered during the investigation using the declared methods and procedures; 5: Conclusions: conclusions that can properly be drawn from the data with respect to the proof or disproof of the hypothesis.

What is missing in the above list of sections in a scientific paper is the separation of ‘Background’ into two sections: 1.a. Philosophical Background and implicit Assumptions and 1.b. Scientific Research Background.  Also the same separation must be applied to the Conclusions, declaring philosophical implications of the conclusions (including possible confirmation or questioning of explicit or implicit philosophical assumptions).   In fact all of the sections of the paper may (potentially) require separation of its topic into philosophical and scientific issues.   For example, the Methods section may involve philosophical theoretical assumptions that need to be made clear.

Similar rules should apply to philosophical papers, including declarations of which scientific theories or observations are explicitly or (more often) implicitly assumed to be true and upon which the truth of the paper, at least partially, rests.  In all papers, scientific or philosophical, clarity of definitions must be emphasized, and the context of those definitions also clearly specified.   For example, even the concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘logic’ have different meanings in science versus philosophy.  (See, in this regard the excellent book: ‘Two Logics: The Conflict between Classical and Neo-Analytic Philosophy‘ by Henry B. Veatch (1969).

I realize that my suggestion is not likely to be implemented until scientist and philosophers are each more deeply educated about each other’s disciplines.  Today, the failure to recognize and separate these to domains of knowledge and applied disciplines has resulted in far too much confusion, misrepresentation, and sad lack of progress toward the solutions to problems of common interest to both scientists and philosophers.   Here is a case in point:

A Christian Perspective on the Impact of Modern Science on Philosophy of Mind by J. P. Moreland (2003), in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, is an excellent example of how fundamental theoretical problems shared by both science and philosophy (including theology) suffer from the failure to identify philosophical issues versus scientific issues and then address each of these categories of issues in the process of arriving at conclusions or insights relating to the shared question.  In this case, the shared theoretical problem is that of the mind/body problem, or the relationship between mind and body.  Clearly there are philosophical as well as scientific dimensions to this problem.

At the philosophical  level the scientist must decide on whether to embrace a dualist, a functionalist, an integrationist, or a monist position.  Dualism: Are mind and body mutually exclusive ontological categories (á la Descartes) or is there only one relevant ontological category (matter or psyche).  Choosing dualism, one is confronted with the well-known problems of causality across the two ontological categories.  Pre-established harmony, occasionalism, epiphenomenalism, identity theory, etc.  (which must be defended against the observed facts).   Monism: Does the entire universe consist of simple matter in motion such that all phenomena in the universe are materialistically reducible to particles in motion?  Show how that viewpoint solves the mind-body problem (without tautology or other logical howlers).   One could also assume a hylomorphic position (as does Aristotle) arguing that all entities must consist of hyle (roughly some matter or stuff)  and eidos (some structure or formal realization of that stuff.  Thus man is a unified substance having a rational consciousness.

The point of the article  Impact of Modern Science on Philosophy of Mind,  is not to show what the final solution is to the problem, but to show how deeply important it is to separate the philosophical issues from the scientific issues when discussing any such topic.   The author of the above paper argues that most philosophical discussions of mind-body interaction do not actually reference any scientific data or theories:

If one reads the literature in philosophy of mind, one will find that scientific data play virtually no role at all in the analysis or arguments. In fact, it is rare for a philosophical text in philosophy of mind to include any scientific information.  As was mentioned above, a notable exception to this rule is Paul Churchland’s Matter and Consciousness. Curiously, the scientific information is contained in the last half of the book, and it plays no role whatever in the semantic, epistemic, and ontological debates discussed in the first half! – p. 11.

The author argues that the issues are fundamentally philosophical but that science can play a relevant part at the level of defining details of mind body causality:

Science is especially important when it comes to studying details about the causal relations between mind and body, and when philosophers have erred in the past, they have done so when they have used philosophical theses to answer empirical, causal questions, e.g., using vitalism or animal spirits in an attempt to answer efficient causal questions about the precise nature of mind/body interaction. – p. 11.

Comment: The author of the above paper, being a Christian, is (not surprisingly) a dualist. bioperipatetic does not embrace that doctrine, but has selected the paper because is illustrates what it believes to be a method of exposition that should be more commonly used in both scientific and philosophic papers where both science and philosophy are deeply involved in any attempt to resolve the main problem(s) representing the theme of such a paper.

Philosophy of Science vs. Philosophy of Nature

One can clearly see in so many topics surrounding scientific and philosophical debates, that there is at their base a common interest and a common point of knowledge sharing between science and philosophy.  Beyond the philosophy of science, the application of philosophy toward the development of the discipline and methodologies of science in general, there is the important area of the philosophy of nature.  Whereas the philosophy of science consists of philosophical advice to scientists on how to properly formulate scientific ideas lest they violate proper epistemological and metaphysical principles, the philosophy of nature informs the philosopher on how to properly philosophize about nature.  This latter discipline, the philosophy of nature, which is the main theme of bioperipatetic, is just the modern term for Aristotle’s physics, consisting of Aristotle’s scientific perspectives about the natural world.

Aristotle has often been called the world’s first biologist.  He is the first to study and carefully record the principles of developmental embryology, by observing and writing down, for example, the successive stages in the development of the chick’s egg.  His observations gave rise to his absolutely original view that what was contained in the sperm was not an homunculus (‘tiny man’) but rather a plan for the emergence from the sperm substance a fully formed human being.  Today, we know that Aristotle was right about fertilization constituting the transmission of a concrete plan of development, the DNA code, and not a miniature instance of the future individual person.   For his unprecedented insight, the great biologist Max Delbrück famously wrote, partly in jest, a paper entitled How Aristotle Discovered DNA.

For an overview of some of the philosophical problems of modern science, see the bioperipatetic paper Science and its Philosophical ProblemsFor an analysis of Aristotle’s physics (philosophy of nature) and its relevance to problems of scientific concepts from the renaissance to the 21st century, see the bioperipatetic paper Recovering Aristotle.

Copyright © 2012-2017 by bioperipatetic.   Published on: Apr 25, 2012 @ 13:09

Latest revision: January 4, 2019 @  12:43 pm

2 Responses to Science and Philosophy

  1. schutzhund says:

    Any thoughts (I may have missed them) about Objectivist (Ayn Rand’s) Epistemology?


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