My Take on Philosophy and Its Place Relative to Science

Withteeth Here, it’s been far too long since I last posted.

After an unfortunate “panel discussion” at Imagine No Religion 4 (INR4) in Kamloops, in which free will was discussed, I’ve become aware of a problematic trend that’s been arising with a number of prominent scientists. I say “panel discussion” because it was more of a beat down on the minority party, a philosopher backing a less disused form of determinism (meaning lack of free will in this setting).

To be fair the moderator was also a PhD in Philosophy, but he did not play a major role and further was defending the same basic position as the two other panelists, both scientists, only one of which had some philosophy backing. However this does not excuse what happened through out the “discussion.” Within 15 minutes of the two hour panel began the ad hominem attacks on the lone Philosopher from the two scientists. To further elaborate the Philosopher was not articulate and for most of the audience I’m sure he made little sense. That said he did make some interesting points, and had the other panelist been for fair in there assessments, and had they been willing to grant some of the definition proposed, the discussion wouldn’t have been the mess it was.

The main problem was not the philosophers inarticulate style, but rather it seemed to both Hessian and I that both of the science panelists had written him off before the discussion even began. The basic, but necessary, respect was not given, so an honest, thoughtful discussion had no chance to bloom. Why did this happen, or at least why do I think this happened? Well as it turned out both of the science panelists where better known and had both had strong words against the field of philosophy. This brings me to the main point of this post. There’s a trend is the science community to write of and disregard philosophy as the old decrepit grandparent of science, and all hail the new king (science).

Now that last line was a bit harsh, as I love science. That and I’m a Botany student. But I’m also minoring in philosophy and have already taken more philosophy courses then I need to because I enjoy it as well. So I’m in a useful position to look at this problem from both sides and address why this dismissal of philosophy is not only wrong headed but I’d even say silly and poorly thought out.

Science was born from philosophy, and was for a long while known as natural philosophy. It is a system of thought and bias reduction which deals with empirically testable claims. Philosophy on the other hand is more a whole series of thought systems devoted to creating even more logical thought systems. This is where I’ve found an analogy very useful: Philosophy is to the sciences and humanities as pure mathematics is to physics.

Both pure mathematics and philosophy are most concerned with creating abstract system of thought, often involving little more then taking a set of assumptions and applying some new or slightly altered logical system to them and seeing what happens. This doesn’t necessarily seem all that useful, but with out this sort of exploration of logic. Many of the greatest discoveries who not have been possible as there wouldn’t have been the mental/logical framework required for the discoverers to work in. More over it has been the case in physics as well as other sciences where a new mathematical model was need to describe a system or theory, and low and behold some Mathematician has already done the work for you and all you need to do is put in the numbers.

Now don’t get me wrong it’s rarely that simple, and there is a grave yard of bad and hopelessly impractical ideas. But both fields, philosophy and mathematics, work with abstracted ideas, working out the flaws and the strengths. Through these process things like Bayesian epistemology are born.

Where Science is the ground work we do to understand the world, Philosophy is the ground work of thought, of how we think about and tackle problems so that we have a fighting chance to figure out everything else.

18 responses to “My Take on Philosophy and Its Place Relative to Science

  • D.T. Nova

    I don’t think the fact that science evolved out of philosophy or used to be called “natural philosophy” really counts for much; natural philosophy is to science what alchemy and astrology are to chemistry and astronomy. (Yes, it was still CALLED “natural philosophy” for a while after it was, by modern definitions, science and not philosophy. The thing that I’m calling an outdated precursor is non-scientific philosophical thought about scientific questions, which is something that many of the most famous philosophers did a lot of, and more to the point, some philosophers continue to do so even now that science is firmly established.)

    Overall, I think the reason philosophy gets a bad reputation is BECAUSE natural philosophy is what many people think of first when they hear the world.


  • johnspenn

    Philosophy proceeds scientific thought and is used in interpreting scientific data always, whether or no the scientist is aware of it. Great post!


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  • myatheistlife

    You know, I’d give philosophy and philosophers more slack if they could do just one thing – define what a thought is.


    • hessianwithteeth

      They have defined thought and continue to do so, but it’s not like there is one diffinative defintion. Rather there are a number of competing definitions. That is the nature of philosophy by playing with the basic assumptions including language and definitions. Most philosophers are decent at defining their terms, but sometimes not so much, and other times you need to read some references paper to get proper context.

      However if you want definative definitions across the field you are kind of missing the point. Philosophy is about challening ideas and trying to form new paradimes. As well “thought” is crazy complicated so I’d try to be kind to everyone trying define it.



      • myatheistlife

        Now, I’ve pondered this a bit and I don’t know how to ask the questions I want to without sounding pedant or condescending. Given this foregone conclusion, let me give it a go.

        Philosophy has a strong infrastructure and has done for many years. All that philosopher’s have asked for has essentially been given them yet they cannot agree what a single thought is. They have spent thousands of years thinking and talking about thought yet have no working definition of what a single thought is.

        I beg to differ on your understanding of what I am asking. I did not miss the point at all, rather I scored a direct bullseye with the question. I don’t think that ‘thought’ is crazy complicated though the results are.

        Asking for kindness toward a group that has systemically been unable to define the very tool they use for their craft is a bit rich. Most philosophy requires presupposed understanding of the tool used to do the thinking or philosophizing yet that tool remains undefined _and_ I would argue that the value of any philosophy also remains undefined. Being based on what has no definition removes any real clarity that might ultimately be gained.

        It’s kind of like someone who does not know what a car is who is giving driving directions for a 14000 mile trip to someone else that doesn’t know what a car is. (I love car analogies)

        As a result of this view I find it difficult to see philosophy as anything other than just good guessing. A lot of it isn’t really all that good, and that’s why there is no universal philosophy as far as anyone can see.

        Patronizing bad ideas looks terribly much like wilfully avoiding the truth. I note with mirth that you did not offer up a link or argument while defending the fact that philosophy has no definition of thought – “They have defined thought and continue to do so, but it’s not like there is one diffinative defintion.”

        It’s quite alright to say that there is no definition but this is problematic for philosophy because much of their thinking relies on what thought actually is.


      • myatheistlife

        I’ve tried to reply twice now and it failed both times. I’m rewriting this, again.

        I’ve read through all of these at least once each now and I think this round-up illustrates what I am trying to say regards philosophy. Sure, phenomenal mind. What is the simplest thought? Recognizing a color or some other static pattern? How many thoughts does it take to decide what to have for dinner?

        Philosophy is not diving that deep that I can see.


  • Mike Moore

    I’m a fan of abstract thought and thinking in general. I guess that makes me a fan of philosophy.

    It does sound as if the organizers didn’t do their homework. Why set up a panel with a lone philosopher and one or more scientists who are known to bash philosophy? It sounds like bad organization or someone just wanted a fight as opposed to meaningful dialog.


  • nikeyo

    Thank you for writing this!!

    It is so true. It’s gone so far as to an explicit denouncement of Philosophy as useless as well. Dawkins, for example, straight bashed it in his “The Selfish Gene”. A a 5-year Philosophy student, I was baffled.

    You’re absolutely correct: it is the ground work of thought. Without thought, there is no interpretation of data. Philosophy/Thought has been fueling the greatest discoveries of science since its inception (within philosophy). One should really not hack away at the roots and expect to keep growing…


  • philstanfield

    A thoughtful post on an important subject. Science gives us knowledge of the world but cannot tell us what to do with that knowledge. The role of the philosopher should be to have the skill to ask the best, the most disruptive questions regarding that knowledge, towards that end. This is why Socrates is so highly regarded in Western culture – because he not only did that but gave his life for it – so different from the shallow, preening scholasticism of academic philosophy. Phil Stanfield.


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