Science and Philosophy

Why do I like science? Because I want to learn something about the world and myself! Why do I like philosophy? Because I want to learn something about the world and myself! “All men by nature desire to know” is the first sentence in Aristotle’s legendary and influential “Metaphysics”! He didn’t start it like “Man seeks for survival and therefore needs to know something about his environment and himself” or “Man seeks for reproduction and therefore needs to know the means by which he can increase his chances to do so”. No, he starts by simply stating that man enjoys and finds happiness in seeking knowledge. He finds proof in this notion by notifying the enjoyment of pure sense data (“An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves”) but man doesn’t stop with senses, he goes on speculating, he tries to find patterns in nature and eventually, he comes up with ideas and hypotheses about the world that surrounds him. This is where everything starts and this is what the Western world shaped, we simply want to find out what is going on in this world!
So how do Science and philosophy differ? After all, according to what I just said, they don’t seem to have different goals, they both want to “know”. Well, I guess there was a time when philosophy was science and science was philosophy. Let’s not forget that Newton, for example, called his revolutionary work about gravitation “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, “The mathematical principles of natural philosophy”. Or take Kepler whose work was entitled “Harmonice mundis”. That doesn’t sound strictly scientific to me, it implies a notion of the world that is harmonic like a piece of music and indeed, Kepler was deeply fascinated by the thought that the world follows a music-like harmony, a thought which has first been brought up by the infamous mystic-philosophical circle of Pythagoreans. What does that tells us? That science is grounded in philosophy and since philosophy, in its origins, is built on highly speculative grounds which later became known as “metaphysics” that everything is grounded on speculation, even, and in particular, modern day science! That’s just natural, we have to start somewhere and the earliest philosophers -in the classical sense (I am talking about the ionic natural philosophers)- started their journey on grounds that were built upon mythological fundaments. They questioned these fundaments but you can never completely destroy them, otherwise you lose the grip. So, in general, the point at which a philosopher starts to question things is always grounded in normal life. He or she starts asking something like “How come that everything is in a process but that there’s still some stability?” or “What is it that makes one statement true and another false?” or “What is reality?” or “Why is there something rather than nothing?” or “What happens with me when I’m dead?” or “What acts are just?” or “Do I have a free will?” and so on! You can see, there are a broad range of questions. This is philosophy: Questioning things and being surprised and amazed! And what is science? Science is nothing else than giving a set of answers to particular questions that arose in the process of philosophical reasoning! But if you follow the line back to its origins, it all started in questioning normal day life. And all its underlying assumptions (the conditions that make science possible in the first place) are, eventually, speculative! Like what? For example, that nature can be grasped with reason due to its law-like behavior, that there are fundamental objects, that there is causality and so forth! These are all things that can easily be questioned! For instance: we can know a few things about nature by using our reasoning but nature itself is not reasonable at all! Why is it that we are born, live for a couple of years (in astronomical relations not even a milli-second), suffer, enjoy and eventually die? Is there a “reason” for that? Additionally, reason is a trait of our minds and projecting this trait into nature tastes dangerously like anthropomorphism. Further, what do we mean when we talk about objects or substances (by the way, the concept of “substances” was introduced by Aristotle)? Is an atom more substantial than an organic individual (is the concept “Mario”, for example, less real than the atoms he is made of)? Is there really causality or is it not that all we can detect is a mere process of events that follows a certain pattern and that’s it (famously brought into discussion by David Hume)? These questions remain unanswered within science and most of the time, we are not even aware that they are left unanswered! We just assume that objects do exist, that there is causality and that we can grasp the world with our reason! Undoubtedly, these assumptions have been very successful but success is not necessarily a sign for truth, if anything, it is a weak indication that we are on the right track. But simply following these assumptions without questioning them keeps us from seeing all the mysteries that remain! And this is where philosophy is helping us to look over the edges of our little black boxes (so, unlike what Stephen Hawking claims, philosophy is not dead, on the contrary, it’s alive and its very core and essence is to be alive amongst humans!) because this is what philosophy always does, it questions our fundaments and thereby opens our minds for the world’s wealth, variety, mystery and strangeness. This way, we will be able not only to produce and work on hypotheses to get a functional understanding of the world and ourselves (which is mainly what scientists do) but we will also be able to let the world come to us, to look at it with different eyes. After all, that’s what the greek word “theorià” means: “to look”!
So let me summarize: while science helps us to understand the world in a certain framework, philosophy helps us to see this framework, it therefore broadens our view of the world. It helps to destroy our conceptual limitations and, this way, not only conveys tolerance but understanding! Hopefully, we will then be able what Aristotle tried to achieve: to be happy simply by seeing!


3 Responses to Science and Philosophy

  1. Hi Mathias,
    I see here that you well summarized our 6 months discussion during coffee break!
    Despite your clear argumentations, I’m still doubting on some issues. Some of the questions you used as example of Philosophical question are already been answered, often by scientist. For example the answer to the question “How come that everything is in a process but that there’s still some stability” is well described in the Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology of Jacques Monod where he used the scientific method to describe the perfect rational harmony of a system stable that evolved. It’s true as you may notice from the title that he used the philosophical method to understand the overall method, but undoubtedly in this case philosophy and science are merged. A very important attempt to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” arrives from an other scientist, a genial physicist that you really like, Stephen Hawking that in his last book explain the most modern theories of physics which describe the “something” as more probable than “nothing”.
    An other issue coming from your post is the feeling that philosophy often creates more questions than answers. Often the same question comes back again and again, without finding the final and definitive solution. Philosophy never really found an answer to the question “Why is it that we are born, live for a couple of years (in astronomical relations not even a milli-second), suffer, enjoy and eventually die?” living an open space for religions. As I know that’s not always the case, could you make evident examples of philosophical answers and achievements that improved our comprehension of the world?

  2. mzech says:

    Hi Mario,
    thanks for your reply! Yes, my blog entry clearly reflects our coffee break discussions, I only became aware of that when you mentioned it! Let me try to reply to your objections:
    1. Regardless of whether anyone could ever answer the questions I gave as an example, they arose on grounds that can be considered to be philosophical (as mentioned earlier, in older days, there was no such differentiation between science and philosophy, in other words a blog entry addressing the issue between these two disciplines would have been useless). What I want to say is that whether or not a question has been answered does not matter in this context, I just wanted to give some examples of philosophical questions.
    2. Having said that, I find it interesting that you think that the questions I gave as examples could be answered by science. And my reply to it amounts to the core of what I want to say: Never, not even in science, can an answer be definite! So if science does give answers to certain questions, it does so only in a certain framework of pre-suppositions (the example I gave was that the world behaves in a rational way, that there is such a thing as causality etc.). I would now add to the list of examples the pre-supposition that there is a certain stability in our world which is why science seems to be possible in the first place. But there are other ways to look at the world, other cultures may have complete different pre-suppositions, therefore a different view of and approach to this world (a different “framework”, so to say). Edmund Husserl called it “Lebenswelten” and it is mere chance that we grew up in an environment (“Lebenswelt”) where the scientific concept is predominant (or where pre-suppositions are dominant that allowed science to evolve in the first place). We are used to think that only the things science discovers are true. In a way, this assumption might not be complete wrong but it’s also not complete right: there are different standpoints towards the world and trying to embrace a few of them without losing our original grip too much can be a very precious experience! And no, no matter what you say, Stephen Hawking did not tell us why there is something rather than nothing, or better: he might have done it in a scientific context but I am still riddled that this whole “show” we call world is running, no matter what explanation Prof Hawkings gives me and as long as I am perplexed by something, I don’t consider a question to be fully answered!
    3. You’re right, philosophy raises more questions than it definitely answers but that’s more or less its business. And let me emphasize again: also the answers science gives are not definite! Maybe within a very narrow certain context, science can serve you with definite answers but I believe that they will not be very informative, they will be more something like tautologies. So what progress is there in philosophy? The answers that have been given to this question are more diverse than one might expect. First of all, how do you define progress? What is scientific progress? Is it defined by giving us answers to questions? What questions? It can’t be all questions of this world, it must be certain types of questions (with Popper, one could say, it is questions whose answers are fallible, furthermore ponting out that answers are never definite)! Or is progress defined by economic superiority? I don’t believe you think that, even though it’s possible to define it that way but I find it unsatisfying! Is it defined by increasing our happiness? I doubt that because in this case we haven’t really progressed at all, compared to other cultures! Is it defined by increasing our understanding and driving personal development? I think this comes closer to what we both consider to be progress! But how can you increase ones understanding? It is such a subjective thing, you can’t force someone to increase his understanding, it is an individual progress that can, nevertheless, be influenced by our environment and teachers. But before they can influence us, they need to have undergone the process of understanding and personal development as well, it is a spiral-like process without ending (of course, one could say that in order to increase understanding, some questions need to be answered but I don’t think this is necessarily the case; just being aware that there still are questions that cannot be answered in a classical scientific way can increase one’s understanding considerably; and once more, because it is so important: questions cannot be definitely answered anyway). So let me ask again: is there such a thing as philosophical progress in history in the sense that it can increase our understanding? I will definitely give you a “yes” as an answer! Most questions, of course, are still left unanswered but that’s a general human condition, not even different from the scientifc situation (or would you really dare claiming that most questions in science have been answered?) But in a way that would go beyond this blog entry, philosophy has complemented science considerably in helping to understand ourselves, our way of argumentation, our way of thinking, our way of reasoning about the world, our way of living together and so much more! And once more: PHILOSOPHY IS NOT DEAD!!!!!
    Hope these answers help, if not, let’s keep going!

  3. mzech says:

    I’ve made some minor changes to my last comment!

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