The science – philosophy wars

by Neil Rickert

From time to time, scientists criticize philosophy.  And philosophers react.  For an example of this, see the relatively recent post by John Wilkins:

In that post, John quotes some physicists, and wonders why they criticize philosophy.  I am going to suggest that a lot of this is miscommunication.


To see the problem, let’s look at what John said in a comment to that post:

Philosophy, which is about the nature of knowledge at least in part, must attend to actual knowledge. Hence it cannot ignore science and just pull epistemic strictures out of its rear end. Hence, [good] philosophy must attend to science.

I want to reword that, just a little.  John might not agree with my rewording.  But, here it is:

Analytic philosophy, which is about the nature of knowledge at least in part, must attend to actual knowledge. Hence it cannot ignore science and just pull epistemic strictures out of its rear end. Hence, [good] analytic philosophy must attend to science. 

That rewording narrows “philosophy” to “analytic philosophy.”  My point in rewording is this:  when scientists criticize philosophy, they are not criticizing the kind of philosophizing that scientists do.  They are criticizing what they see coming out of the philosophy departments of the universities, and what they see appearing in philosophy journals.  Analytic philosophy is not the only kind coming from philosophy departments, but it is the kind of academic philosophy that scientists are most likely to concern themselves with.

When I read John’s statement (either version), as quoted above, I see John mentioning the nature of knowledge as an important topic.  I’ve read a lot of epistmology (the subfield of philosophy that deals with knowledge).  In all honesty,  I have not learned anything at all about the nature of knowledge from that reading.

I believe that philosophers do consider themselves to be studying the nature of knowledge.  I can only conclude that what I mean by “knowledge” is very different from what philosophers mean by “knowledge.”

I’m not into reading minds, so I cannot be sure what scientists mean by “knowledge.”  But it does seem to be closer to what I mean, than to what philosophers mean.  So there’s some miscommunication right there.

John continues with:

Science, which is knowledge and reasoning, must attend to the best standards of evidence and reasoning, and this is a philosophical question. Hence, science must attend (NB: Not bend) to philosophy.

How scientists look at evidence and reasoning is often very different from how analytic philosophers look at evidence and reasoning.  So, again, there is more miscommunication here.

Philosophy of science

If science and philosophy are talking past one another, perhaps they are non-overlapping magisteria.  But, if that were the case, then they should not be disagreeing.  So what else is going on here?

What else goes on, is philosophy of science, sometimes known as scientific epistemology.  That’s the area within analytic philosophy that deals specifically with science and scientific knowledge.  What analytic philosophers say about science often seems very far off the mark.  Take, for example, what John said in his post:

Popper denied that science could use induction, for example, and that discovery was a matter of chance or taste or inspiration. This of course is quite contrary to the experience of many scientists who do their discovery the old fashioned way, by gathering data and generalising from that.

That idea, that science is gathering data and generalizing from it, seems to be widely believed among analytic philosophers.  Yet very little science fits that description.

To illustrate the point, consider Newton’s law of gravity.  It expresses a relation between the force of gravitational attraction, and the masses and distance of two bodies.  If we suppose that was a generalization, we might wonder from what kind of data would one make that generalization.  It would seem that it would have to be data about force of attraction, mass and distance.

As far as I know, the first actual data of the type that Newton’s law could be said to generalize, was that obtained by Cavendish.  But Cavendish did not obtain this data until around 100 years after Newton had given us his law of gravity.  So the idea that Newton’s law was a generalization from data seems clearly mistaken.

A final note

I am a regular reader of posts by John Wilkins.  I gain a lot of value from his insights.  But, from time to time, I disagree.  This post is not an attempt to pick a fight with John.  I actually think we could all benefit if there were a better understanding between analytic philosophers and scientists.

I’m tentatively considering a future post on the nature of knowledge.


10 Responses to “The science – philosophy wars”

  1. Hi, Neil. FWIW, I just left a comment on Ron Murphy’s blog that is connected to this issue of philosophy v. science. It’s my own view that the fields are not overlapping–that science is very big, and philosophy is very small. Yet that little field has a lot of very interesting questions that people widely disagree on and that, in my experience scientists are very quick to muddle up badly.

    The compatibalism question on the other blog is a good example. Whether determinism is true (with and without quantum theory) is a scientific question. Whether people have (some kind of libertarian free will is as well. But whether people are free in the sense that they can do what they want because they want to–i.e., whether any of their activities are voluntary, is NOT a scientific question. No better microscope or other tool will help us determine the answer.

    Whether there is an “external world” consisting of such objects as tables and chairs is another question of that type. Science can’t begin to answer it, because it’s not an empirical question at all. Your post is about knowledge, which is largely a matter of what constitutes warrant, and again, I don’t see what light can be shed by science as to the NATURE of knowledge, though it and it only can explain the CAUSES of it. Failure to get these things straight really makes big messes and misunderstandings. And, though it may seem braggy, I do think those who have studied philosophy are considerably better than those who have studied science at keeping them straight. But if it’s any consolation to the scientists, the philosophical questions tend to be the categorial (or “stupid, unanswerable”) ones anyhow, so it should be considered no great loss if they aren’t part of the subject matter of science.




    • It’s my own view that the fields are not overlapping–that science is very big, and philosophy is very small.

      I think that’s mostly true. However, both groups use language which seems to imply more overlap than there actually is. And that’s why there’s friction.

      Hmm, it has been a while since Ron Murphy has posted anything. I hope he’s okay. Oh, I see that he is still writing fresh comments.


    • Okay, I found your comment on Ron’s blog. I pretty much agree with it.


  2. Neil, I deliberately did not restrict philosophy to my own patch of analytic philosophy of science. I think that a lot of the “other” kind actually has great value, but scientists see the media word salad rock stars and think that is all philosophy is. However, Canguilheim and Foucault offer quite a lot, especially when an analytically trained philosopher like Ian Hacking processes their work.


  3. I completely agree that “both groups use language which seems to imply more overlap than there actually is” and that that is friction-causing. Widespread mess-ups. I think philosophers are (a wee bit) more careful about this than scientists, but both groups are guilty as charged. Two (coincidentally both female) philosophers who have written great books on this subject are L. Susan Stebbing (a British philosopher of the early 20th Century) and Amie Thomasson, who currently teaches at the University of Miami.



  4. I recently noted a post by johanneslubbe.wordpress which addresses this problem from a different angle. Essentially, it seems that human beings, especially experts, are unaware of their profound ignorance. Any deep discussion between two individuals is bound to end up in disagreement.



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