Has Science Replaced Philosophy?

03 September 2015

As someone who makes her living as a philosopher, it’s probably already obvious that I don’t think science has (or could) replace philosophy. While both aim at the truth, they clearly have different methods and tackle different problems.

Yet the question whether science has replaced philosophy raises a number of interesting issues, so it’s worth giving it some thought. Moreover, in the last few years a number of scientists, like Stephen Hawking, have been very vocal in pronouncing the death of philosophy. They seem to think that science can or will answer all the important questions there are. If there are any questions that science can’t answer, then they’re just pseudo problems, not worth thinking about.

You might wonder what kind of empirical evidence Hawking and these other scientists have offered for such a radical claim. Perhaps they’ve done some experiments to prove this hypothesis? Or, they’ve shown that the claim can be derived from, say, quantum mechanics? The truth is, the claim that philosophical problems are just pseudo problems, not settled by empirical facts, is itself a philosophical position that is not settled by empirical facts, which is sort of ironic, if you think about it.

Philosophers call this view that Hawking and others espouse positivism—the view that any claim that can’t be verified or falsified scientifically is just nonsense. Positivism was popular in the early twentieth century, but was fairly unanimously rejected—in philosophy, at least—because it obviously fails its own test, which makes it an incoherent position. How wonderful of Hawking to resurrect this long-since abandoned view! He’s obviously given it a great deal of thought. And they say philosophy doesn’t make progress…

Speaking of progress, I think a big part of the dispute between some philosophers and scientists stems from a difference in opinion on whether philosophy has actually made any progress in its over two thousand years. Indeed, philosophers themselves can’t seem to agree on the question. The answer depends, of course, on what counts as progress and how we would measure something like that.

In science, progress might be thought of as convergence on the truth. We know a lot more now about the world we live in than people did two thousand years ago; each successive theory scientists agree upon comes closer and closer to the truth, so we are making progress. That’s certainly one way to tell the story. Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, tells a different story, where one scientific paradigm is displaced by another, incommensurable paradigm. As there is no theory-neutral (or paradigm-neutral) way to say what is true, the idea that science progresses by converging on the truth becomes untenable. If Kuhn is right, then we have to come up with a different conception of progress in science, one that doesn’t assume the naïve realist position that our theories are getting closer and closer to The Truth.

But let’s leave aside these philosophical worries about science for now. Let’s just assume that science does indeed make progress. The question, then, is whether philosophy makes similar progress, whether it gets any closer to the truth. Or are we philosophers just engaging in a game of mental acrobatics?

On the one hand, the suggestion that philosophy has made no progress seems quite implausible. Philosophy has played an important role in the birth of science, from mathematics in ancient times to physics in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to psychology in more recent times. It’s only in the last few hundred years that science has even been considered a separate discipline from philosophy. What we now call science was for centuries called “natural philosophy” and all the major thinkers from Aristotle to Descartes were just as much scientists as they were philosophers. Descartes, for example, did a lot of important work on optics. Physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, mathematics, linguistics, computer science— all of these disciplines were once under the larger umbrella of philosophy. So, if any of these disciplines have made progress, if any of them have gotten closer to the truth, then ipso facto so has philosophy. Just because we don’t call these modes of enquiry “philosophy” anymore doesn’t mean that no progress has occurred in the last two thousand years.

On the other hand, if the measure of progress in philosophy is that it has developed sciences that do better at answering our old problems, then maybe scientists like Hawking have a point. How much progress has philosophy made on distinctly philosophical problems, like the existence of God, or free-will, or the nature of right and wrong? And is there a way to make progress within philosophy, or is all progress ultimately a move away from philosophy?

That’s a big question that I’m not going to attempt to answer right now. But I do want to say that I think it’s a mistake to assume that philosophy ought make progress in the exactly the same way that science does (however that is). Sometimes progress comes, not by solving problems, but by reformulating the questions. We may get clearer about issues as time goes on, even if we don’t come up with final and agreed upon answers.

Some scientists may see that lack of consensus in philosophy as indicating that there’s something wrong with the kind of questions we’re asking. But is that the right way to think about our disagreements? Well, philosophical questions are difficult! And they’re not simply settled by empirical facts, which is part of the reason why there’s not more agreement in philosophy. Take moral questions for example. You could have all the facts in about how a particular act might affect everyone concerned, but that still wouldn’t tell you if it’s the right thing to do or not. And even if we agreed on what the right thing to do was, we may still disagree on why it’s the right thing.

Even if we had a complete science, if we knew all the facts, we still wouldn’t have answers to our philosophical problems. That’s not to say that empirical facts don’t inform philosophical theories. But they can’t provide the answers to the big questions in life. 

Comments (24)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, February 1, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

I think the answer is

I think the answer is absolutely no...Science has not replaced Pholosophy.
Sure, they both ask questions fundamental to our existence, but while science asks questions like 'how do we travel to the furthest reaches of space?', or, "how do i create something that has life and will lern and grow as an entity like a person?", philosophy asks the reasons why we choose to go down these routes and what possibilities may occur from a moral and cultural point of view and to offer alternative possibilities based on alternative questions.
Look, i'm no intellectual, but i think this is the most stupid thing i've heard anyone say, and the fact that Stephen Hawking said it makes it that little bit worse.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, February 3, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

Some of the main questions

Some of the main questions science aims to answer are: "how did the universe appeared"; "how will the universe end"; "what is the fabric of space and time"; "is our world deterministic or not (and thus, free will)"; "how does our brain works"; "how conscientiousness happens in our brains". Most of the work done in science to try to answer these questions started in the beginning of the 20th century and a lot has been done in trying to solve these. Of course, a theory may always be neglected (which is good, as accordingly to Karl Popper this is what distinguishes a theory from a farce or utopia). In what concerns the progress of science, I observe scientists trying to explain technical stuff to the general public, wandering out of the mathematics to put most of it in plain common language accessible to all. Regarding philosophy, for sure I am very wrong but I do not see many philosophers trying to do such a thing (which sounds like religion in the times when holy texts where only kept in greek and latin, instead of being translated).

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

@Simon, yes, I do completely

@Simon, yes, I do completely agree with you. It hasn't replaced Philosophy at all. Science is about proving without a shadow of a doubt, whereas philosophy is not trying to prove anything. It's about discussion, deeper meaning and thought. -- David Heath (contributor and writer @ http://www.getsmarttv.net/ )

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, March 1, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

The book may be closed on

The book may be closed on this post topic. Yet, I feel compelled to say something about Stephen J. Gould's theory of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria). For those who do not know, or do not care, Gould said religion and science were not, as a practical matter, in conflict with one another. His idea about this, in view of the early conflicts involving greats such as Copernicus and Galileo, may seem naïve, on first notice, but Dr. Gould looked forward, as much as into the past. In any case, Gould asserted that science and religion dealt with fundamentally different issues (as they do), and are, therefore, non-overlapping magisteria, whether anyone likes it or not. Inasmuch as religion and science are still at serious odds, we might say Steve was wrong. If he were alive, he might say: oh, well. His theory was sound, but its applicability lost traction because of cultural intractability and the pervasive, superstitious nature of Homo Sapiens.
On to Science vs. Philosophy. I'll invoke a variation of SJG's idea, by stating that science and philosophy are SOMA, or, semi-overlapping magisteria. They feed upon each other---a symbiotic or mutually parasitic relationship. Got a better idea? Let's hear it.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, March 2, 2013 -- 4:00 PM

To Arvo:

To Arvo:
Cause? causes?
After the elephant and lion, it is turtles, my friend---turtles, all the way down.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dear Dave the Carpenter: I

Dear Dave the Carpenter: I understand Gould's NOMA (in the religion vs. science pursuit), and your SOMA (in the philosophy vs. science scheme). What I've got isn't a "better idea" than the notion of these magisteria proceeding symbiotically -- in fact, it's not an idea at all, it's a question: don't these "fundamentally different issues" (or even *partially* different issues) converge finally at the frightening need to explain why there's something instead of nothing?
I have another, related, question that I'll save for another time.
(K

Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, May 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Really what is required is a

Really what is required is a demarcation of Science.

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, September 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I found the best way to solve

I found the best way to solve the philosophical question of truth is empirically. Connecting philosophy with science unites knowledge with wisdom and the truth or light at the end of the tunnel is simply and most beautifully just One.
If you are still searching for truth, study nature, the answer is right here. =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, September 4, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The child looks on, appalled,

The child looks on, appalled, as its parents fight to the point of estrangement. But perhaps, between religion and science, philosophy is more like the parent watching, appalled, as its children fight to the death. World War I was fought as the last gasp of the old regime in which civil and religious authority were inextricably combined and fed off each other. The next war established the new feudal paradigm between science and state as the rationalization of social norms under a capital economy. That is, the quantifier became our god. But the formal structures of mind still can only construct the means of justifying inference, and not truth, and even that only by taking as axiomatic what is most urgently in need of questioning. Epistemic fact still cannot spontaneously construct intuitions without a similar act of conceit. Time is a virtuous anomaly that cannot be its own articulation. It is an act of departure or change that offers its response freedom in some small sense from the conceit that would call it one. That freedom articulates the worth or virtue of that opportunity that act of departure is. That is, there is nothing unilateral that time is. And neither god nor the quantifier science must take as axiomatic can be so lost the one that unprecedented meaning overwhelms the laws of necessity. It takes a living mind to find the worth and meaning in such loss.
In the thread about Leibniz he was characterized, by Voltaire, as Dr. Pangloss, but science has replaced him with Mr. Gradgrind. There are things in this world that are not imagined in Hawking's speculations. There is a limit to how finely we can slice time into a calculus of probabilities, alternative universes protects the binary structure of logic with a dubious epistemics. The mind is not a text. It is, perhaps, more like a palimpsest in which we cannot read what is written without sacrificing the process of overwriting it is, and cannot access that process without sacrificing what is written there. But if we are satisfied with this ignorance and pass over it in silence we are betraying philosophy, not completing its mission, as so many seem to believe.   

sageorge's picture

sageorge

Friday, September 4, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Hawking is not the only

Hawking is not the only scientist to have undermined his otherwise strong claim to being a very smart person by disparaging fields of endeavor other than science.  (Another example is eminent evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson, referring to the publication of Darwin?s Origin of Species: ?All attempts to answer that question [?What is man??] before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.? )  The main theme of Hawking?s book was that we?re getting closer to explaining everything, including the big bang, without needing to invoke God.  Fine, but for that to imply the death of philosophy, current philosophy would have to be focused on God, which it obviously isn?t.   In fact one active area of modern philosophy is the philosophy of science itself.  That work is needed because deeply-held scientific values such as predictiveness  and simplicity (parsimony) are not completely unproblematic.  It is to the credit of the philosophy community that philosophers are taking seriously those scientific values and attempting to clarify them.  Meanwhile  we scientists go blithely ahead using them, with some like Hawking not only being unaware they need clarifying, but even going so far as to disparage the clarifiers? field.   I like Laura?s very convincing essay, including her description of philosophical endeavor and progress as getting ?clearer about issues as time goes on, even if we don?t come up with final and agreed upon answers.? 
It seems to me that science and philosophy are linked in another way, although I don?t know whether experts in the history or philosophy of science would agree with this concept:  I think science is exactly what we get when we take certain ideas in philosophy seriously.  Are things as they seem to each person, or are some things a certain way no matter what anyone observes, believes, or wishes?   Accepting the latter implies the possibility of investigating those things in a shared enterprise where observations can be repeated by others and explanations are be subjected to public scrutiny and refutation, exactly as is done in science.  But assuming things are a certain way independent of human minds also implies that no state of our mind can guarantee that a given belief is true, so the results of the enterprise must be accepted as tentative.  This is also supposed to be a feature of science, although one that some scientists tend to forget in their enthusiasm for their subject.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, September 5, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Those who insists the core of

Those who insists the core of philosophy is linguistic should appreciate how the perennial recurrence of questions that never seem to get resolved has the rather remarkable effect of expanding our language capabilities regarding that issue. If this is how language comes into being it is not facts or varification that drives our interest in it, but the intuition that talking in a context of an effort to bring intense rigor to a subject that defies answers gives us the power to find answers where they can be found. This is why science will always be the weak sister to philosophy, regardless of its otherwise appearing to be the very paradigm of power. Can the pursuit of wisdom endure amongst us without our loving it?
Actually, the most important effect of Darwin was not his evolution theory, but a simple methodological breakthrough that he himself did not recognize and would probably have opposed if others put it to him. This was the rather astonishing revelation that we need to study life as it is lived if we are to understand how it came to be as it is.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, September 6, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Some claim of personal virtue

This comment has been moved to the place intended, the thread on whether some are "better".

Giraffe_knight's picture

Giraffe_knight

Sunday, September 6, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The modern scientific

The modern scientific movement comes off as nothing more than an attempt to prescribe preferences, to me. First, I'd like to see any scientist no matter the field try to answer the question of why we need science, without using philosophical thought. The only honest answer, if Hawking were to remain consistent, is to say "Because it appeals to me". Any answer outside of that, like N.D. Tysons' answer "Humans need to know the truth", is philosophical in nature. There is no laboratory that can demonstrate the "need" for truth. Maybe I am biased because I am a Christian and I've always had a love for philosophy, but this movement comes across to me as some sort of obscure challenge for scientists to prove their field of thought trumps theology or philosophy.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, September 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Hawking is not the first one

Hawking is not the first one to say this. I think Nietzsche does somewhere. Heidegger published a book called The End of Philosophy. "Philosophers", so called (very little that passes for philosophy today deserves the name) have been announcing the end of metaphysics for decades, ontology has become a foreign word, and dialectic is treated as heresy. But if philosophy is dead, this is a case of cold-blooded murder, not natural causes. But the coroner has been bought-off by technocrats or intimidated into silence by the Leo Strauss crowd. The fact is that fundamental issues remain as alive as ever that can only be ignored or deemed either settled or moot as an act of dishonesty or venality.

MJA's picture

MJA

Tuesday, September 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Truth 101

Truth 101
I think that one day soon, truth will become the most important lesson to learn of anything else, including history, mathematics, physics or science. Truth is the only lesson than will set us free. Philosophy must lead the way. But before philosophy can share the truth it must first find the truth, and for many or most, there is still much work to do. Is philosophy even searching at all?
Einstein said that of all the people he would like most to be associated with, it would be the "true searchers", for which there are only a few living at one time. Philosophy needs our help, (and it is not money Philosophy Talk!)  philosophy simply needs the truth to share.  
=

Giraffe_knight's picture

Giraffe_knight

Tuesday, September 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Been reading John Gray? The

Been reading John Gray? The narrative sounds similar. I agree though, I watched a debate with Sam Harris and Laurence Krauss claiming that science has proven morality. They stated that "Monkeys are charitable to each other, and ostracize the greedy chimps." Great, that hardly demonstrates anything more than a couple monkeys acting on instinct to protect the tribe. Kant would be rolling in his grave with a moral prescription like that, obviously implying that intent means nothing. But wait! Sam Harris later on claimed that morality is directly based on intent, he claimed that "Christians are immoral because they're concerned with an end goal, rather than doing good for its own sake." Which leaves a very huge contradiction, because certainly apes don't have "good will", they have impulsive preferences. At least, if they do it hasn't been demonstrated by science. Not to mention, how do we measure "good for its own sake", everyone acts according to their desires. If charity makes you feel good, you'll be drawn to it, if it doesn't, you wont.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

One day soon is not the same

One day soon is not the same one this one is. One, and time, extends only in dissipation. If we ignore this we don't know what we mean by one, any one. And this is truth. It's all too easy to get lost in the one. Until you lose it.
Hawking came after I put physics behind me. It was Feynman in my day, and he was an entirely different animal. He had a genius for making the most difficult concepts manageable, even fun. Hawking's string theory, though I am no longer competent to comment on its mathematical correctness, is, as I do understand it, a system of otherwise incoherent events. At this level of energy (extremely high) and time (extremely small) even the probabilistic calculus of quantum theory does not operate. It is, then, a sequence of random events in theory organized outside mathematical order, by a kind of "charmed attractor". But there is no mathematical value it is because each event incorporating it is a perfect anomaly to all other events, and mathematical (and logical) formulas can only define by extension. Time is divided between extension and moment anomalous to it. This is the mystery science cannot resolve, it can only take some formula of extension as axiomatic of it. Number doesn't penetrate the hermetic seal between extension and moment, it simply denies it. To any mathematical formula anomaly is void. It has no numerical value. Its value is lexical or semantic, and inhabits the realm of morality, not quantity. This does not mean it is immaterial, it means that quantity is immaterial to its value. If anything, it is more what matter is.
John Gray sounds to me like just another Straussian, a blend of Friedrich Hayek and Joseph de Maistre. Nothing notable or new.
 

Giraffe_knight's picture

Giraffe_knight

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

"John Gray sounds to me like

"John Gray sounds to me like just another Straussian, a blend of Friedrich Hayek and Joseph de Maistre. Nothing notable or new"
I wouldn't quite say he's "notable", but I think he has some relevance in the modern era. He's the only living thinker (with any noteriety) I know of that is defending philosophy and theology against the technocratic humanists in a coherent manner. Though, what IS notable to me, while he used to be just another run-of-the-mill free market economist, he shifted his opinion halfway through is career and though certainly still supports free markets, he doesn't prescribe them invariably to all nations and all peoples. He is one of the very very few economists in history that accepts the fact that cultural preference is more important in determining the function of the economy of a nation rather than some "one size fits all" economic theory. I agree with him whole-heartedly. Personally, I am a free market guy myself and I find it preferable, but I realize that it simply isn't for everyone because we all have different goals. That is what I like most about him.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Great comments, thanks!

Great comments, thanks!

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Don't get me started on a Sam

Don't get me started on a Sam Harris/Lawrence Krauss rant...

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, September 10, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

As it turns out, I do have

As it turns out, I do have Gray's book on Berlin, but not enough material (or interest) to detect a shift in his thinking.
We suppose that to do philosophy we must be prepared to make rigidly valid inferences, and to do this we must take categories as hermetic and propositions as complete. The result is a habit of "mind". That is, of thinking that reality follows rational principles we can predetermine and plan. It's all part of the conviction (or conceit) that time is extension rather than anomalous moment. The quantifier rules because the only complete meaning is death. And so we conceive time as enduring or as an epoch of duration. Of course we try to plan our lives, but this does not mean there is determinacy in these plans, it only means we cannot navigate time without the conceit that death is not imminent. And so we put all our eggs in that basket. But life does not behave in this way. It does not meekly accept the central planning of the mind and obey or stick to the game-plan. It plays with things, it disobeys and defies the concept. But this process fills out the meaning of the idea, it does not undo it. Sometimes going in reverse is the best way forward. Put wings on a pig and it will do everything but fly until it can see nothing else to do with them. This is why progress can be real without seeming so. But if time is more real and material as the qualifier of extension, rather than the mere counting out of it, then there is a dialectical structure to it in which all the alternatives are explored or exhausted as the material progress of implementing the idea. A case in point is the way villagers in the feudal system carried on a semi-collective, and yet richly private life under the noses of their feudal lords. Amongst themselves they had an intense commitment to the right of their neighbors to influence all community decisions and implemented this as a constant flow of bickering that their masters regarded with scorn derision and complete lack of understanding, as if in a foreign language. But in that language the common folk were able to dispute and undermine the authority of their 'lords' until there was no disputing their influence, and the way was prepared for democracy. This is real, it happened. The murderous lords of feudal Europe were simply talked into democracy, but in a way they hardly knew was happening. The dialectic is real, but it does not follow causal laws or the rigid patterns of mind we have grown to believe implicitly. Hegel had it right, but you have to realize that he would have been thrown in jail if his superiors knew what he was at, and so he put his thesis in terms flattering to them, but clear enough to a more penetrating reader. nothing real should be taken on face value. For then it gets quantified and voided of its real value, or its value as real. I'd suggest Feyerabend's The Conquest of Abundance.  And then ask yourself, what is this abundance is.

henktuten's picture

henktuten

Thursday, September 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

'Western Science' assumes a

'Western Science' assumes a truth, or assumes that 'knowledge' (apart from memory) exists. This might be the biggest problem of both western science and philosophy (dualism). Western Science improved skill, but together with philosophy was at standstill since Enlightenment.
Have a look at:  http://paradigm-shift-21st-century.nl/western-scientific-paradigm.html

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, August 16, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

philosophy asks the reasons

philosophy asks the reasons why we choose to go down these routes and what possibilities may occur from a moral  Platinum Manchester escorts

 
 
 
 

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