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Science vs philosophy

find_the_fun

Active member
Feb 1, 2012
166
In an environmental studies class we were asked what the difference between science and philosophy is. I replied "science is testable and philosophy is not". First of all do others agree with my answer, and does anyone else have something they believe is distinguishing feature? I guess for something to be considered a science the scientific method must be able to be applied to it, and in that sense many of the social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology) can be considered true sciences because in lab experiments the scientific method can certainly be applied. I don't see how other "sciences" such as ethnography or political science can be considered a science.

In response to the lecturers initial question of what's the difference between science and philosophy, he was really looking for comments such as "in western culture we see the two as disjoint and if science finds something to be true philosophy must yield to it and change". I sometimes find it hard to change modes of thinking for different classes.
 
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ThePerfectHacker

Well-known member
Jan 26, 2012
236
I replied "science is testable and philosophy is not". First of all do others agree with my answer.
No.

Look at historically where philosophy comes from. This is a Greek word which means "love for wisdom". In Greece "philosophy" was any subject of study which sought to understand the world around us, and to figure out what is true about it. Back then you had people who thought about the universe, people who thought about the stars and the heavens, thought about matter, thought about what is just and unjust, thought about the animals around us and where they originate from, thought about why do shortages happen and how does one predict the economy, thought about the mind and where it comes from, so on and so forth. It could have been about anything. Anything which we wanted to understand and say find what is true and false about it.

In Greece a "philosopher" was any man who pursued those interests. Take Democritus of Abdera for example. He was a man who wanted to understand what makes matter up. Why some matter is different from other types of matter, why some matter reactes in a certain with other matter, and so forth. The "atomic theory" that matter is made out of indecomposible tiny units of matter is attributed to him. Clearly, Democritus was unable to prove that as he had no microscope to possible look down that far, but he at least thought it up, and written much on it, without doing any science. People like him and similar to him would come up to later come up the the theory of classical elements. That all matter is made out of earth, wind, water, and fire. Do you not see that this is beginning to look like the periodic talbe of elements?! Pretty elegant when you think about it, even though it is wrong. Props to the Greeks to at least conjure up this idea that matter is classified by its composition of these four basic elements. It is wrong but it is the basis for what we call chemsitry today.

People who purused interested in the understanding of matter is what we call "alchemists" today. Alchemy is not really a science, more like a pseudo-science, but it was part of historical development of philosophy. After all the philosophers stone is a part of the history of philosophy, and it has nothing to do with what stereotypically is regarded as philosophy today.

Now let us fast foward almost two millenium. Issac Newton, the father of modern science? That is what we typically think of the great man. But he spend most of his time working in alchemy! More appropriatelly named "Newton the Alchemist". When Newton wrote his magnus opus, the Principia its translation from Latin into English reads, "Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy". I ask you, why in the world, would Newton call it "natural philosophy" as opposed to "science"?

Did Newton not think of himself as a scientist? No. He did not, the word "science" did not really exist back then. Newton, just like everyone else who pursued knowledge and understanding of the world, thought of himself as a "natural philosopher". The branch of philosophy that Newton worked in is now referred to as "physics", but back then it was referred to as "natural philosophy", in other words, the philosophy of the natural laws in the universe.

The great Benjamin Franklin was not a "scientist", he too, was called a "natural philosopher". His experiments with electricity was described as "natural philosophy" back then.

Returning back to ancient Greece again for a moment. Even back in Greece they had a disambiguation between "philosophy" and "geometry/mathematics". A philosophy who studied the truths in geometry was called a "geometrer" or a "mathematician", instead of a philosopher, though technically he could have been called that as well.

Why? This is because geometry had a very clear definite method for discerning true from false. Geometers had a method of mathematical proof that they always followed to deduce the geometric truths that they were after. This sort of elegant method for discerning truth about: the natural laws, matter, economics, justice, mind, death, .. and so forth did not exist for other disciplines. So math was a pure form of philosophy were it was clear what to do.

Over the many many years other subjects of philosophical study had a clear method for discerning what is true and what is not. With "natural philosophy" this became known as "science". In this discipline the theories were tested empirically and modified until no test could falsify them. Now there is a clear method to use within this category of philosophy and so it branched off from philosophy and got its own name "science".

Adam Smith, the writer of Wealth of Nations, was not called an economist, he was called a philosopher. For the same reasons as above. But today nobody would call him a philosopher, everyone would call him an economist.

Now there is "economics", "physics", "chemisty", and so forth. All of these were at one point called "philosophy".

The history of philosophy contains all of man's knowledge. Now it is divided into appropriate categories each with its own seperate name.

What is philosophy today? Simple. Anything that has not been able to branch off into its own category with clear methods of discerning truth. Something like ethics for example, that is still called philosophy. Or the "philosophy of mind", has not been able to branch off either.

and in that sense many of the social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology) can be considered true sciences because in lab experiments the scientific method can certainly be applied.
Social science is not science. Social science is an insult to science to call itself a "science". Nothing in social "sciece" is repeatable. They look at statistical graphs instead. Something science does not do. Sociology and economics are not sciences. This does not mean they are wrong, it just mean they are not sciences.

This is also why a PhD stands for "doctor of philosophy" even though a person may recieve a PhD for an entirely different subject. This is historicaly. Back then in universities a philsopher was a person whose interests was knowledge, and so when they graduated they were known as PhD's.

"in western culture we see the two as disjoint and if science finds something to be true philosophy must yield to it and change".
What is the point of mentioning "western", what difference does it make were an idea originates, it is valid regardless if it is valid.
 

find_the_fun

Active member
Feb 1, 2012
166
No.



Social science is not science. Social science is an insult to science to call itself a "science". Nothing in social "sciece" is repeatable. They look at statistical graphs instead. Something science does not do. Sociology and economics are not sciences. This does not mean they are wrong, it just mean they are not sciences.
Ok you give a definition for philosophy but only give examples as what's not science. So to be considered a science it must be able to use the scientific method and be repeatable, anything else? And what exactly do you mean by repeatable? If you mean that the it must have experiments that yield the same result when done in the same circumstances, then wouldn't you be agreeing with the answer I gave for the difference between science and philosophy?
"in western culture we see the two as disjoint and if science finds something to be true philosophy must yield to it and change". What is the point of mentioning "western", what difference does it make were an idea originates, it is valid regardless if it is valid.

I think the point being made here is that in contemporary western society science is seen as "always being right" and if something else contradicts it, it must change. For example, even though science was once a part of philosophy, now if science finds something philosophy must change to accommodate it.

Also another point being made is science itself has a history and is subject to the times and culture. For example alchemy was considered a valid study where as today it is not.
 
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Deveno

Well-known member
MHB Math Scholar
Feb 15, 2012
1,967
When I was a youngster taking debate for the pure pleasure of argument itself, I was taught the a matter of paramount importance was the "definition of terms", without which, nothing clear was ever established.

Applied to this particular matter, it seems clear that what we need, before offering evidence for or against a particular notion, is clear definitions of "science" and "philosophy". I would argue that this is a major stumbling block, and there is considerable contention to what does, or does not, consititute "science" (for example, ThePerfectHacker contends that "social sciences" are NOT science, while presumably those who named them so DO consider them "science").

Moreover, there is a well-established historical trend to take certain aspects of what once was philosophy (such as the study of logical reasoning) and subsume them under some other "scientific" designation (such as "mathematical logic").

If one uses merely the etymological origins as a guide, not much illumination is offered: "philosophy" comes from the Greek philos (literally, "loving" or "a dear friend of", or "one who tends to") and sophos (literally, "wise man" or "sage"), so that "love of wisdom" is a reasonable ascription.

On the other hand "science" derives from the Latin verb scire ("to know"", likely from an earlier Indo-European root skei- "to cut, or cleave", the implication being that knowledge derives from distingushing different things).

So there is some support to the notion that science and philosophy were once ONE AND THE SAME, examining the same subject matter, but with different methods: "holistic" or "piece-meal".

If one takes this idea to extremes, one could argue that philosophy still has much to say about science, but that science has very little to say about philosophy, as science focuses on a deliberately limited scope of reality (perhaps one day we might see articles on "the Chemistry of Ethics", in which event such a position as the one in the previous statement would have to be drastically revised).

Science prides itself on a austere sort of empiricism, a form of "ultra-rationalism", and yet, the very basis of the scientific method is the proposal of irrational hypothesis, which are then judged against the fit to the empirical record for utility. Mathematics plays a pivotal role in this judgement process, if a theory (hypothesis) is found mathematically unsound, usually further experimental investigation is deemed unwarranted, as the logical consistency of mathematics has been subjected to longer and closer scrutiny than the basis of any other science.

In science, "truth" is declared ex facto or a posteriori based on close matching between expectation and observation. In philosophy, truth is held to be a priori and determined by"what it could not be". Unfortunately, since we do not already know "all there is to know" there is considerable "middle ground" where both subjects may claim dominion.

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In response to the OP, I submit that "testability" is perhaps not the *only* basis for knowledge, that we often acquire knowledge through both processes of inductive and deductive reasoning. Since inductive reasoning cannot be deductively verified, there is a certain "tension" in "knowing what we know", and we turn to empirical validation as a "reality check". When one is searching for "new scientific models" the established ones often offer no clue as to what the news ones ought to be ("not red" doesn't adequately describe "blue").

And here, even the most ardent empiricists face an ontology quandry: if one believes that the universe is "a scientific structure" of some sort, and that this structure is "discoverable" then the system so described should be "logically consistent". But it turns out there is a sort of "global uncertainty principle" at play in any "logical" system which has the necessary "comprehensiveness" to describe our universe. Here, the fault lays with mathematics, it is either:

1) Not powerful enough to describe "everything" or
2) Not possible to do so "consistently"

It is hard to imagine what basis one might lay the foundations of science upon except mathematics, but perhaps one day an alternative may be proposed.

*************

(post script: I personally *do* believe economics is a science, but one is that is severely limited by the sheer complexity of the underlying mathematics. I envision an economy much like the oriental game of go, but with more players: as in go, each player knows all the rules, and each player has the same goal: to maximize gain of territory (cash/property,or similar variable), and the moves of the players are public, and each individual action has the same "force" for any player. Go is limited to 361 initial moves, and with a few interesting exceptions, the games are bounded by 361! possible outcomes, but this is a VERY large number, and nobody plays using this sort of analysis. The study of dynamical systems is still in its infancy, I suspect much progress will be made with the easy availability of high-speed computers).
 

Ackbach

Indicium Physicus
Staff member
Jan 26, 2012
4,197
Great discussion so far! I'm really enjoying reading ThePerfectHacker's and Deveno's contributions. I just thought I'd put my two cents in here.

I think many people do not understand - have never even heard - of the importance of Immanuel Kant to this discussion. One reason this is so might be that Kant's presuppositions have simply crept into people's minds, and are now in the very fabric of their way of thinking. It is very difficult to question your presuppositions. The important, and, I would add, pernicious, thing that Kant did, was to separate the noumenal from the phenomenal. Just for reference here: the noumenal consists of all those things we cannot observe with our senses, while the phenomenal consists of all those things that we can observe with our senses. Kant was trying to battle the skepticism of David Hume, which I think was a good thing, but he did us no favors by so completely separating these two realms. By "separating the realms", I mean that Kant put a divide between them in their methodologies. Why do I say that Kant did us no favors by doing this? Because this divide, or split, has caused the nearly infinite fragmentation of knowledge we see today. Because of Kant, a Ph.D. in algebraic number theory can't even begin to hold a conversation with a Ph.D. in analytic number theory.

What we need today are generalists - Renaissance men - people who can glue back together what Kant put asunder.

You ask what is the difference between philosophy and science? From what perspective do I answer that? As a Kantian? Or as a generalist? I'll attempt to do so from the generalist position.

Philosophy is an extremely large umbrella that covers the seeking out of any knowledge whatsoever. Science is a subset of philosophy, because science limits boths its objects of study, and its methods of study. While the philosopher would not exclude the scientific method and induction as ways of knowing1, he would recognize their extreme limitations, and be open to using other methods such as deduction. In fact, the honest scientist recognizes the limitations of his own field, and does not make grandiose claims not backed up by the method of science. The honest scientist should recognize the existence of many types of events that he cannot explain, due to the limitations of science. The fact that science cannot explain them is by no means a proof that they do not occur.

[HR][/HR]
1Induction is technically a logical fallacy, and can never completely arrive at truth; this is why I think people who limit themselves to science as the only way of knowing have chosen an incredibly stinky epistemology. Mind you, I think science is fascinating and useful, and I've spent many years studying it. But as Gordon Clark said, "Science is a collection of useful falsehoods."