The Big Questions: On the relation between philosophy and science

10 September 2012 by Stephan Schleim, posted in everyday life, philosophy, theory of science

Some say that what used to be the domain of philosophy is now increasingly investigated by science. Will philosophers lose their job? Perhaps. Is philosophy dead? No. Psychophilosophy explains why common misconceptions about philosophy and science will not help us to solve the issue and how we might instead try to answer the Big Questions.

How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? … Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. (Hawking & Mlodinow, 2011, p. 13)

This is from the introduction of Stephen Hawking’s latest book, The Grand Design. It is actually from the very first page. I admit, I have not read this book, only skimmed the introduction in an online preview. I have no doubt that Hawking has an interesting account to tell on the nature and course of the universe, but what he (and his co-author) present here at the very beginning of their work is not presented as the result of careful inquiry and argumentation, but as an obvious fact that needs no further justification. It is not explained why they think that philosophy is dead and the table of content does not provide the potential buyer with any clue as to whether it is discussed in more detail somewhere.

I am not a philosopher in the classical sense, I took extensive detours via psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, to work now in a field broadly called theoretical psychology – but philosophical inquiry amounts to a substantial part of my work. So whether philosophy is dead or not is an essential question for me; and whether we can take at face value what some people claim to be “plain scientific fact” is one of my research questions. Unfortunately, according to my analyses, often we cannot. This is precisely one of the reasons why I think that continuing this work is important.

Philosophy vs. Science, yet another time

Philosopher Julian Baggini and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss are both writing for a general public about recent advances in philosophy and science. On September 9 the Guardian published a debate between the two, discussing the question which kind of discipline can better answer the big questions of life. This poses in itself a philosophical question, and an interesting and essential one, for what are the big questions of life? Is there only one answer? Do all people agree on this issue? The debaters do not address this question – instead their conversation is based on old-fashioned stereotypes and, I argue, wrong conceptions of philosophy and science. Likewise, Hawking’s claim that philosophy is dead is wrong.

The Three Philosophers by the Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione (c. 1477-1510), a classical depiction of philosophical research. I hope that there are more women involved in philosophy nowadays, though. Public Domain.

In the debate, Baggini starts out with a praise of science, he refers to some philosophers’ “lab-coat envy” and exclaims: “If only our achievements were so clear and indisputable! How wonderful it would be to be free from the duty of constantly justifying the value of your discipline.” This is a typical misunderstanding of people who have never made the experience of carrying out and publishing an experiment, but who, at most, know science via published papers or, worse, only popular accounts on science; and if they have read some real science publications, then they probably only understood the introduction and discussion, not the even more important methods and results sections. This was the situation I was in when I started reading psychology and neuroscience papers and it took me many years to understand what is going on there.

Of course, introductions and discussions of published papers usually are interesting and convincing – because if they are not, then they will hardly be published; and popular accounts are even more optimized for a certain readership, because if they are not, if they are too difficult and complicated, they will not be bought frequently. I hope that not too many will find this disappointing, but these are some of the rules of the publishing “market”. Furthermore, science is full of disputes where advanced experts argue about the right way (methods) to gather data and how to interpret them correctly.

Disputes exist in philosophy and science alike

Psychological research in statistics is a general example, the debate on whether there are genuinely face-selective neurons in the so-called fusiform face area in the brain a concrete one. If you are reading the weekly issues of Nature and Science, you will actually know many examples, just by reading the editorials, commentaries, and science news. Just recently I referred to the example whether laboratory mice and rats might be held under conditions too unhealthy to allow inferences about the effects of certain treatments on healthy people (Who wants to live forever?).

A recent comment by geneticists in Nature reported that influential research in preclinical cancer studies inspiring hundreds of further papers could be replicated only in 11% of the cases (Raise standards for preclinical cancer research). These are serious issues contradicting the idea of “clear and indisputable” achievements; but one could possibly not write best-sellers covering them. You could also do your own research, just go and interview some PhD students. Everyone I have met so far, including myself, know these periods of desperation when the experiments do not yield the expected result or when there are no consistent interpretations of the data in sight, or, contrariwise, way too many.

Is morality a domain of science or philosophy?

One of the example that Baggini presents at length to defend a genuine domain of philosophy are moral questions, issues of right and wrong. Physicist Krauss responds that, “our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.” This might look quite innocent at first glance, but is a far-reaching claim. First of all, how to understand and consequently operationalize morality are theoretical questions – we just cannot start investigating morality without definitions and agreements.

Second, what it means to reduce something, e.g. morality, to well-defined biological constructs, is not obvious. Scientists try to correlate moral evaluations and decisions with brain processes, true, and they argue in favor of certain theories of moral cognition, such as the social-intuitionist model or the dual process model – both who actually originated in psychology, not neuroscience. But so far this has not provided us with any insight in what action is morally right or wrong, let alone allowed us to reduce moral right- or wrongness on brain processes. Very much to my own disappointment, almost every time when I heard someone say that A has been reduced to B, e.g. warmth on kinetic energy or life on molecular processes, this turned out to be only half true, or only true under some well-defined boundary conditions. Why do we need so many disciplines, including chemistry and biology, if they are all ultimately physics anyway?

Third, but I will discuss this only shortly, it is also quite optimistic to speak about “well-defined biological constructs”. Biology is the science where many problems dealing with individuals began – if you look at the periodic table of elements and chemistry you see that elements are strictly defined in virtue of their number of protons – silver (Ag) is silver in virtue of having 47 protons, for example; if it does not have 47 protons, then it is not silver. In biology we have many useful classifications. Most of us know and can recognize horses, but there is not some unique essence in virtue of which something is a horse. More generally, biologists and philosophers of biology have been worrying for a long time already how to define something as basic as “species”, yet all definitions run into problems. This is known as the species problem.

Morality is a different category

Fourth and most importantly, moral right- and wrongness is just a different kind of category than, say, whether something is a certain chemical element or a horse. On the one hand, regarding every possible finding that a neuroscientist or psychologist might make about moral decisions, we can keep asking whether we think that this moral decision is right or wrong, even with respect to the empirical finding. For example, do we think that it is a morally right decision to sacrifice someone to save the life of someone else when that decision is correlated with certain brain activation in the prefrontal cortex? We will soon realize that assessing the moral right- or wrongness of some decision cannot be done within the language of neural processes alone, but of reasons, intentions, consequences, and principles.

On the other hand, if we start out with a moral question, for example, whether it is morally right to decrease unnecessary starvation and illness, it is by no means obvious what we should do in order to solve this empirically. We could of course start asking people what they think is the morally right answer, but then we actually have changed the question from “is it morally right to X” into “do people think that it is morally right to X”. Similarly, we can ask whether it is legally admissible to X, whether it is perhaps even mandatory to X with respect to basic human rights, what kind of psychological or neuroscientific processes are correlated with thinking about whether X is morally right, and so on.

All these questions can be meaningful and interesting, no doubt, but their answers will not be answers to the original question whether it is morally right to X without further normative assumptions. (We might argue, for example, that everything that is legally right with respect to human rights is also morally right if we assume a strict correspondence between human rights and morality – but this will require an additional argument.) But this does not mean that the scientists’ opinion is not welcome in ethical discourse. By contrast, given that we have decided that it is morally right or perhaps even morally obligatory to decrease unnecessary starvation and illness, please experts help us to improve the ethical-political discourse and decision-making process, e.g. by helping us to understand what the best means are to realize this end.

Who has access to the ultimate facts?

Krauss continues to say “that ultimately the only source of facts is via empirical exploration” and I am surprised that it is actually a theoretical physicist claiming this. Along with depriving philosophical logic, conceptual analysis, and mathematics of the possibility to be “sources of facts”, he seems to forget that empirical exploration is based on classification, instrumentation, operationalization, and theorizing. Even in physics, think about the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, physicists could not just go outside and observe this (theoretically postulated) particle.

We should stay aware that laboratory work is based on classification, instrumentation, operationalization, and theorizing. But we can investigate which constructs fit the observations better than others. (c) Dieter Schütz /

No, they had to cooperate with experts from many fields, to build complicated and expensive instruments incorporating a lot of knowledge and theory, and make many repetitive measurements, including many failed attempts, until reaching a normatively desired level of confidence. Science is based on constructs and we can try to distinguish better constructs from worse ones based on the observations we make – but it is very suspicious to speak about “the facts”.

Naturalness does not imply moral rightness

Subsequently, Krauss commits a serious category mistake when he presents the example for his understanding of science as the ultimate source of facts, namely, the case of homosexuality:

Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is "wrong", but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong". (Lawrence Krauss)

The notions contrasted by Krauss here are moral wrongness and biological naturalness. But this is a confused contrast (as Julian Baggini also points out in their debate). We can observe many biological happenings, including preying, parasitizing, birthing, infesting, raping, killing, copulating, and so on – but please note that some of these notions might be more or less socially related and not be easily transferrable between animals and humans.

That these happenings are biologically based, according to Krauss, implies that they are not harmful and not innately “wrong”. But, as stated above, biology does provide us with an answer to what is biologically natural, but not for what is morally right or wrong. Regarding all these happenings we can ask the question whether it is morally right or wrong that this happens, and sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no, and sometimes that this is not a matter of morality at all. (For example, the influenza virus that infested me a couple of weeks ago neither behaved morally nor immorally – this is just not a meaningful property of influenza viruses.)

Finally, note what happens when they are discussing the example of love at the end of the debate. Krauss implicitly re-defines the question and speaks about sacrifice or altruism instead. We may bite the bullet and conclude that “love” is a confused concept and not helpful at all to talk about human experience, contradicting not only poets and novelists. But until we give up “love”, I do hope that we have found a better alternative to refer to this aspect of human life, whether by philosophical, scientific, or other means (or combinations thereof).

We do not need such debates

We do not need debates of the kind science vs. philosophy; neither do we need claims that philosophy is dead. It is somewhat ironic that Baggini and Krauss keep telling each other how much sympathy they have for each other’s views, while taking quite contrary positions. Philosophers might lose their jobs in an environment that only rewards standardization, quantification, reduction, and high-impact publication as they now have become common in many scientific disciplines. But do not confuse this with reality as a whole.

These words already imply that after standardizing, quantifying, and reducing you no longer deal with the same phenomenon as before. This explains to some extent why many scientific ideas fail when people try to apply them to reality – remember the example from high-impact preclinical cancer research above. Of course we also have many instances where scientific ideas work, as we have bridges that withstand perturbations or computers that allow us to write blog posts.

Yet, in most instances it is never tested whether a scientific idea works in practice. Scientists nowadays hardly replicate others’ findings even in scientific settings, let alone in practice, because this is not considered productive enough. Some people even hold that it is below their dignity to apply science in practice – this is also what we mean when we are talking about the ivory tower of academia. Due to recent scandals in psychology, to give one example, experts are now eventually discussing the need to spend more attention on replication (see, e.g. Replication studies: Bad copy) – after philosophical textbooks as well as science introductions kept repeating for decades that replicability and actual replications belong to the foundations of the scientific method.

Philosophy is different, but not useless

Philosophy, by definition, is different from science – scientists often focus on that which is successful, that which is pragmatic and works, what they can use to produce and interpret data. Philosophers, by contrast, have an interest in difficult and perhaps even unanswerable questions; they already conceive it as progress if they understand the question a bit better or realize why it is so difficult to answer. Even knowing what one does not know is considered as valuable by many philosophers, whereas many scientists would conceive it as useless for the progress of science. Of course, in a world that is only interested in successes, there is little room left for philosophers.

But society pays a price for this, as the success can also be illusionary, for example, when a majority thinks that it is in full control and has all the necessary knowledge about the consequences when applying an economic theory to practice. Although economics has been very successful for a long time, their mainstream could neither predict, nor prevent, nor consistently explain after the fact why we have these current crises that are frightening many people world-wide – this was actually also true of previous economic crises.

Try to look for your own questions and answers

Learning more about the course of the universe, as Hawking explains us, can be fascinating, but the “big questions” for many people will be much more basic, like how to pay their mortgage next month, what they should do when they lose their job, whether they should rather study psychology or neuroscience, or perhaps arts, whether X is the right partner for them, or whether they should spend a year abroad doing development aid in a poor country.

Philosophy does not provide easy answers; neither does ethics. But thinking about these questions can help you to understand better what you consider as important in life, what your big questions are and how you could try to find your answers. Perhaps yours are scientific questions. Then please go investigate them. As you see, there need not be a competition between philosophy and science. Both can provide their share, developing successful theories and asking difficult questions; ultimately both can inspire human conduct and lead to progress.

7 Responses to “The Big Questions: On the relation between philosophy and science”

  1. Chrys Reply | Permalink

    You won't probably miss anything if you ignore the book by Hawking/Mlodinow. Except for the news that Hawking became a supporter of string theory, nothing was added to his claim that he had found the final answer to the biggest question of all: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

    What I can get from Hawking's answer is that the universe popped into existence by a sort of trick that was originally invented by smart theoretical physicists to transmute heuristics into mathematics. Of course, as I'm admittedly not a quantum cosmologist, I might be wrong.

    If you are seriously interested to get a sound physical as well as philosophical assessment of Hawking's stuff and beyond, the one to ask is Willem B. Drees.

  2. Sean Reply | Permalink

    Philosophy and science ought to be considered part of the same discipline. Both are about understanding reality, both perceptible and imperceptible, timebound and eternal. If anything, what is regarded as "science" in the late 20th Century and early 21st Century is increasingly less concerned about understanding reality, putting a heavier burden on philosophers (as they are known) to undertake the serious investigations. However, the distinction between science and philosophy is a false one, and Hawking has done a great disservice to science by trying to make it seem that science and philosophy are separate. For Hawking to say that "philosophy is dead" paradoxically belies a conception of science that is at odds with some of the greatest minds in philosophy and science from Plato to Cusa to Kepler to Leibniz to Einstein.

    A recent Masters thesis on the thinking of Leibniz and related matters is here

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Very interesting, Sean – but then you are not convinced by the distinction, for example, that philosophy is concerned with the meaning of concepts and science with empirical investigation?

      I would agree, in any case, that these two endeavors are not strictly separable. Empirical investigation also depends on concepts and theories; and concepts and theories are often influenced by empirical investigation.

      So I think that there is a meaningful distinction between philosophical and empirical investigation. What do you think about this?

  3. Sean OLeary Reply | Permalink

    Yes, this is the conventional view. Of course, there is a difference in emphasis between philosophy and science. Philosophers are more concerned with the most fundamental principles, whereas science is more concerned with the physical. But this does not mean that there is a "Chinese Wall" between the two, nor even a porous fence between which ideas occasionally migrate. The distinction is, at most, one of where in a single continuous process the investigator (whether labelled philosopher or scientist) sits. I attempt to explain below.

    Most people can barely imagine science without empiricism. Of course, the purpose of science is to understand the physical world. However the physical world is part of a larger domain, both the incorporeal (non-tangible and I would rather say non-tangible than intangible) and the corporeal. The physical world also comprises the observable, the unobservable and the unobserved. By wedding ourselves to empiricism, we exclude the unobservable and sometimes we even deny the unobserved, and by excluding the incorporeal we neglect the laws or principles that might underly the corporeal. Observation meaning empirical investigation only gets us so far, and all scientists know that even those who call themselves empiricists. In fact, the role of empirical investigation is to test our reasoning process. Sometimes, an empirical exercise will produce a surprise or contradiction, and cause us to go back and check our thoughts and understanding, but even in that case it is clear that the empirical observation is playing the role of testing our thoughts. Observations in the physical universe can even challenge philosophers. Similarly, a philosophical conclusion ought to challenge scientists - either they need to address the philosophical conclusion and explain why it is wrong, or they need to reformulate their understanding of physical processes to match the philosophical conclusion.

    Science involves establishing a hypothesis and then using a physical experiment to test it. The result of the experiment might be unexpected and cause us to go back and reformulate the hypothesis. So there is an interplay between the thought process and the physical tests. Where did the initial hypothesis come from, and where does the guidance for a revised hypothesis come from when the experiment fails to confirm the original hypothesis? Scientists do not formulate hypotheses at random. I would say that hypothesis is driven by what the philosophers (so-called) came up with, or by a scientist doing what we could philosophy. The experiment is merely testing the veracity of the reasoning process from the philosopher's conclusion to the experiment. If the reasoning process is accurate, and the experiment fails to confirm the hypothesis, then it may be that the philosopher's conclusion was incorrect. So it is a continuous train from philosophy to physical experiment. Clearly, the real-world of philosophical-scientific investigation does not work in such a clean-cut way. But if we look at the strata in the edifice, that is how we progress. Many scientists openly are philosophers and they know that they need to be, but philosophers' use of physical experimentation typically is limited largely due to a lack of time and equipment though the philosopher will often refer to the results of physical experiments of others.

    • Stephan Schleim Reply | Permalink

      Very nice answer; it was worthwhile waiting for this so long.

      I just explained Karl Popper's philosophy of science to my students last week. One of the conclusions was that philosophers, generally, rather focus on what doesn't work, while scientists, generally, are rather interested in that which works. Would you agree?

      Of course, the purpose of science is to understand the physical world.

      Do you know this quote of Niels Bohr's?

      There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature...

      You write further:

      Many scientists openly are philosophers and they know that they need to be, but philosophers' use of physical experimentation typically is limited largely due to a lack of time and equipment though the philosopher will often refer to the results of physical experiments of others.

      I have heard philosophers talk nonsense about experiments and scientists talk nonsense about philosophy (think about the free will debate, the alleged identity of a person with its brain etc.). I think it is difficult to make such general statements.

      Recently I organized a conference on neuro-philosophy and although there were many interdisciplinarily successful colleagues there, the majority opinion people had was that one should first become an expert in one discipline before working interdisciplinarily. If that is so, perhaps it is then more difficult to learn a new kind of thinking later on in the career, but that should apply to both sides.

  4. Sean OLeary Reply | Permalink

    The term 'interdisciplinary thinking' immediately starts one off on the assumption that the science and philosophy are different and separate disciplines. But these are not different disciplines because both have the same mission of human progress, and both assist each other even with the current separation. Human progress has always been most rapidly and ably advanced by thinkers whose thought encompassed the spectrum. When you study the subject matter, it is clear that the separation is artificial and so one wonders whose ends the separation serves.

  5. Sean OLeary Reply | Permalink

    The term 'interdisciplinary thinking' immediately starts one off with the assumption that the science and philosophy are different and separate, but I am saying that they are not different disciplines. In the history of thought, the mission of human progress has always been most ably and rapidly advanced both those whose thinking encompassed the spectrum. Further, when one studies the subject matter, it is clear that ultimately both are concerned with the same problems, have the same mission of human progress, and that separation is artificial. So one wonders whose ends the separation serves.

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