My question revolves around the relationship between science and philosophy. Lately, I have heard a
few professional philosophers endorse a view that insists upon philosophy's subservience to science.
I have heard some of them maintain not only that there are there "no distinctly philosophical issues,"
but also that all philosophical ideas should line up with the scientific worldview. Now, to me, this
seems unbelievable. Has philosophy become so devalued in our time that its existence depends on
the findings of science? I would like to hear some philosophers share their thoughts concerning this
An interesting question. In my opinion philosophy could never be subservient to science, seeing that
science is actually a branch of materialist philosophy. Something scientists are unlikely to accept. In
the past there was no division of science from philosophy, both were contained in what was generally
known as "natural science", a mish-mash of religion, basic science and philosophy; religion being the
dominant facet. Scientific theories were not accepted unless they conformed to religious bias.
To say that science plays no part in philosophical debate would be ridiculous, and we must bear in
mind that there is a branch of philosophy devoted specifically to science. Overall, philosophy spends
a great deal of its time and energy in debating
and often criticizing the alleged discoveries and theories of science. Also, philosophy has the
advantage of being able to bring to bear moral and ethical issues on many of the proposals of
science. Particularly where science is being influenced by politics and big business.
Science receives more popularity than other branches of philosophy because of its involvement and
influence on the everyday lives of the general public. Most people can recognise the influence of
science in medicine, food, transport, leisure activities, military concerns, etc., but most would rapidly
find an excuse to be elsewhere if you tried to talk to them about metaphysics, dualism, existentialism,
monism, cause and effect, time and space, etc.. This leads to the mistaken view in society that
science is concerned with the 'real' world, whilst philosophy is seen as little more than some sort of
contemplative exercise concerned with abstractions and alternative theories. Nothing could be further
from the truth.
Since ancient times there has been a progressive selection of items called 'scientific subjects' from
the great collection of philosophical and religious knowledge, so that most people have become
indoctrinated to believe that biology, chemistry, physics and astronomy are the domains of science,
and any comments by philosophers pertinent to these 'spin-offs' is commonly regarded as an
intrusion. However, to the more discerning the fallacy in this thinking is readily revealed. The act of
science trying to divorce itself from philosophy leads to the creation of the most intricate complexities.
Do the theories that attempt to explain the origins of the universe and the origins of life belong to
science, philosophy or religion? The study of cause and effect — science or philosophy? The study of
cosmology — science or philosophy? The study of mind — science or philosophy? The study of
'matter' — science or philosophy? The study of language — science or philosophy? I am sure you
can think of others.
By believing it can divorce itself from philosophy science has made a rod for its own back, it has
cocooned itself firmly in the 'matter myth' and left itself no alternative in the search for "what there is".
Philosophy on the other hand has a far more open-minded approach and is willing to consider and
analyse all possibilities. Even philosophers themselves often overlook the fact that philosophy is a
great analyser of both the received concepts and personal concepts that make up our world.
Much as science attempts to portray itself as the 'Oracle', and that what it does not know now will
eventually be revealed, much of its boasted knowledge is based on theories and not fact. The 'Big
Bang', 'Relativity' and 'Evolution' are all theories. Science has a dreadful record of putting forward
theories as facts long before the evidence is available; a case of here is a fact, the evidence will come
later. Having preconceived the evidence required to prove the alleged fact, they then proceed to
establish the case on the most flimsy evidence. Evolutionists are still seeking the "missing link" over
one hundred years after the theory was proposed, no one seems prepared to admit that what we see
in nature is straight forward adaptation to a changing environment. If the change is gradual enough
the life form involved will adapt to meet the conditions, if the change is too fast the life form in
question becomes extinct, it does not mutate into something else. Evidence of this appears
throughout the Geological record.
I have pointed out why I believe philosophy can never be subservient to science. I could say much
more, being educated as a scientist as well as a philosopher, however, before it appears that I have
set out to denigrate science, let me say that I have aimed at alleged weaknesses in science simply for
the purpose of dealing with this question. The world, as we all appreciate, owes a great deal to
science, but discussing this would be answering another question. By the way, philosophers and
religious leaders also make mistakes and come to premature conclusions.
This is a question that deserves a serious and well-considered answer. Unfortunately, it also
demands a book length answer; but while a few books have been written on the subject, it is perhaps
inevitable that their authors are prejudiced in favour of one or the other and argue accordingly.
Objectivity in this subject is hard to come by. Let me, however, within the scope of five minutes'
reading, outline a perspective for you from which you might draw some conclusions of your own.
A couple of thousand years ago, a branch of philosophy sprang up known as the Sceptics. In its
extreme form, known as 'Pyrrhonian Scepticism', these thinkers produced rules and criteria for
philosophical investigation which put in doubt almost everything you could possibly claim to know.
Human cognition, they claimed, was so limited that you put up almost any argument you pleased and
they would shoot it down in flames. This kind of scepticism is not dead; it undergoes resurgence
every so often, and one might well claim Hume as its most prominent recent expositor. For anyone
who accepts these premises, 'there are no distinctly philosophical issues left'.
Now for the converse. Just before 1900, the German scientist and philosopher of science, Ernst
Haeckel, pronounced in the full flush of his unbounded confidence in the efficacy of scientific
explanation of the universe that barely a dozen scientific question were genuinely unresolved. He
expected that within two or three generations the universe would be cleared of all its mysteries.
Science would glory in the triumph of its success and the human race would settle down and die of
boredom. Well, he didn't put that last thought forward, it is my addition. But you get the drift of it.
Under this criterion, 'there were no distinctly scientific issues left'; once everything is discovered, what
do you need science for?
Just recently, Stephen Jay Gould wrote a book (The Grandeur of Life) in which he sought to
demonstrate that this dreaded dilemma was in fact waiting on our doorsteps. The gist of his argument
is that we are living in an age where new discoveries are diminishing rapidly; we already know so
much that we must knock at the door of ultimate particles to have anything new to ask of Nature at all.
For everything else, discovery is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Discovery requires
enormous expenditure (witness the genome project) for very little knowledge, and he expected this
process to continue through to exhaustion.
Again, however, the diagnosis reads: 'There are no distinctly scientific issues left'. Rather, according
to Gould, the remaining issues were technological. However he wrote, I believe, before chaos and
complexity theories took off their nappies and started walking.
These three examples ought to tell you something about how much we really know. Next to nothing,
in fact. Expect the unexpected. But to address the specific issues of philosophy in this context:
Philosophical issues are not measurable in scientific terms. What and whom you choose to believe is
your decision. Scientists may on the whole prefer to cast their votes in favour of their colleagues in
any confrontation with philosophy; and the prestige of science in our day its such that most ordinary
people would do the same. But this says nothing about philosophy itself, nor about its issues. The
truth is that distinctly philosophical issues have not been exhausted but pushed aside. Philosophy
deals (for example in metaphysics) with such basic issues as life and death, beauty and love, justice
and honour: are these issues really passé or is it not simply a (societal) prejudice that we prefer
to glut ourselves on use-once-and-throw-away products, on instant gratification, on unreflective
absorption of information via electronic media, on here-today-gone-tomorrow fads and gimmicks, on
big noise, big pollution, devastation of resources, famines, non-stop wars, what have you? You can't
No-one could seriously maintain there no philosophical issues remaining. At the very bottom of the
human presence on this planet you find a concept of value, a philosophical concept. Now science
does not (cannot under its own terms) acknowledge this concept into its methodology, but the very
fact of its existence is based on this philosophical concept. No value, no science. Ergo: remove
philosophy and science becomes instantly meaningless. — Why bother with particles? For what
possible purpose if not to affirm or dispute the philosophical conception of a fundamental particle?
Why evolution? Just to satisfy an idle curiosity? No: because even against our most inane striving for
a valueless science, it is the value we place on human life that makes us enquire about evolution:
because we want and need to know what we are here for.
Thus the great danger facing us: that ignorance about philosophy serves to throw a cloak over this
fundamental fact and depict for us a mere research project as the means and end of civilised
existence. I regret to add that many philosophers have allowed themselves to be bulldozed into
shame for being just philosophers, and now they rush around seeking niches for themselves where
science can't reach, e.g. language philosophy and sundry other abstruse subterfuges. But this is not
essentially philosophy: the agenda of philosophy is concerned with the fundamental facts of human
life, all centred on the concept of value. Abandon it, and then ask yourself: why am I doing all this —
all this science, working, holidaying, gambling, playing, studying, loving, marrying, procreating? And
when you're through, the realisation might suddenly dawn on you that in all this there is some
purpose. Maybe you don't know what it is, but then without philosophy, you haven't a hope in Hades
of ever finding out.