How Is Philosophy Different from Science?

Science illustration
Illustration from The Science Record (1874) showing a direct reduction furnace invented by Carl Wilhelm Siemens, based on the revolving drum principle.

Week 2, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Define scientia.
  2. Explain how the scientific method differs from Philosophy

The word “science” comes to the English language from the Latin term scientia, meaning “knowledge through skillful means.”

It is important to recognize that science, in this class, is not a belief system but rather a systematic organization of knowledge that has been gathered and tested through the scientific method. The scientific method comprises a body of techniques for inquiring about observable phenomena, generating new knowledge about phenomena, and for correcting and integrating previous knowledge.

The scientific method is an ongoing process that begins with

  1. observations that lead to,
  2. generating questions about the observed phenomena and these are refined into,
  3. hypotheses that predict future phenomena. These hypothetical future phenomena are then
  4. tested in experiments that seek to demonstrate the reliability of the hypotheses to generate the predicted phenomena.
  5. Typically the hypotheses will be refined and altered in light of what happens in the experiments.
  6. Usually the positive results of experiments are published for the purpose of seeking confirmation from other scientists in the field. If the published results are confirmed widely enough and gel with the findings of other scientists conducting similar experiments, then
  7. the hypotheses will be put forward by the community into new generalizable theories about the nature of the world.

What I hope you note about the scientific method is that it is an enterprise whose core operation is creating conditions for consensus about how the world appears to be.

Also notice that the scientific method is future-oriented: the experiments seek the causes of predicted future phenomena. This is not the same thing as pursuing The Truth, which is noumenal, meaning it is unchanging and not directly experienced by our senses. The sciences are pursuing reliably demonstrable matters of fact. Through the scientific enterprise there is an accretion of these reliably demonstrable facts that leads the scientific community to a consensus about what The Truth might include (in the forms of theories and laws), but it’s important to recognize that these are, ultimately, models of the universe subject to revision and not the universe in-itself.

Philosophy and science complement one another.

Fun fact: During the nineteenth century “science” was slang, among some on the Oxford University campus, referring to the section of the Literae Humaniores honors program that dealt with ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

“Philosophy is not first and foremost the delineation of reality, or an enquiry into the nature of knowledge, or a pursuit of the good life – as if these were separate, discrete activities. Instead, it is that endeavor of the human spirit whereby men and women strive to lead the sorts of lives and to become the sorts of beings that are informed and guided by disciplined thinking about the ways of things.” (Cooper and Fosl, Philosophy: The Classical Readings, xxvii)

Philosophy takes a holistic approach to the study of things. Scientific endeavors are typically marked by exploring two questions:

  1. what is this thing? and then,
  2. how does this thing work? Philosophy also asks these questions but also asks a third question:
  3. what does it mean that this thing is here?

“It is in this respect that philosophy differs significantly from science. Philosophy tries to see things whole by asking questions that are more general than those of science, in the sense that their answers have far-reaching consequences for our understanding of ourselves and our world.
[….]
Philosophy also tries to see things whole by asking questions that are concerned with how different sets of facts are related. Not only does the nature of the pieces of the puzzle pose a problem, but how they fit together does as well.” (Pessin and Engel, The Study of Philosophy: A Text with Readings, 5)

Science is an activity of finding and communicating causes and effects. Through the scientific enterprise we gain a better understanding of natural phenomena and from these observations we can draw together some principles and theories and so on. It may seem silly, then, for me to question something as seemingly fundamental as whether or not all things have a cause. If everything has a cause, including human nature, then can we be justified in holding people legally and morally responsible for what they do?

An example (from neuroethics) may help illustrate my point. There was a case in which a father began sexually molesting his daughter. This went unnoticed by other members of the household for a number of years in part because, around the time of this series of violations the man was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had it removed. After the successful treatment, the father no longer molested his daughter. A few years later the father began to violate his daughter again and he was again diagnosed with a brain tumor in the same region as before. From this terrible situation neuroscience has learned a great deal about certain regions of the brain are responsible for the actions of people.

Am I justified in holding this father responsible for his actions if I know that his actions were caused by a brain tumor? This is the kind of question that an oncologist or a neuroscientist is not trained for and that a philosopher is.

Philosophers are not only concerned with the facts of how the brain operates but also how the facts we already have impact other beliefs we have, such as human freedom and moral responsibility. As Pessin and Engel state, “Philosophy’s questions are nonfactual.” (5)