Science Versus Philosophy

Stephen Hawking: "Philosophy is dead"

Stephen Hawking: "Philosophy is dead"

Science, the gold standard of academia today.  Using empirical methodology to test and understand the natural world, science is the source of the rapid growth and advancement in our society.  However, this has led much of our society to adopt a belief in scientism, the idea that science is the best and true way of obtaining knowledge.  We see politicians touting “scientific fact” in favor of their position, we see businesses and corporations selling us the merchandise developed and recommended by scientists, and those of us that attended or are attending college were told by our parents to pursue a degree in the sciences, or a related field like engineering.  To even think of pursuing a major like philosophy would be impractical and ridiculous in today's society! Lately, even famous scientists like Stephen Hawking have said “philosophy is dead” due to the rise and dominance of science. 

It is interesting to note, however, that science has only been the gold standard since the turn of the Twentieth Century.  Prior, philosophy was the top academic endeavor, and before that, theology was of greatest importance to society.  One might argue, then, that we appear to be advancing, as philosophy is more logical than theology, and science is obviously more practical than philosophy, right?

Richard Carrier's  diagram of Aristotle's Six Parts of Philosophy.  Note the philosophy of Physics referred to what we know as the sciences.  

Richard Carrier's diagram of Aristotle's Six Parts of Philosophy.  Note the philosophy of Physics referred to what we know as the sciences.  

Well, first it is important to understand that, in actuality, science is a branch of philosophy.  Since the great philosopher, Aristotle, gave structure to philosophy over 2000 years ago, he included physics as one of the branches.  Though, his understanding of physics could be likened to our understanding of all natural sciences.  Physics, as opposed to the other branches, was solely concerned with understanding the natural world.  The other branches—including metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, politics, and epistemology— deal with matters outside the physical realm, and, as such, cannot be tested against the scientific method.  Hence, we see the start of a divide between science and philosophy.   

Isaac Newton's work in which he introduces the theory of universal gravitation.  Notice Philosophiæ Naturalis, or Natural Philosophy.  

Isaac Newton's work in which he introduces the theory of universal gravitation.  Notice Philosophiæ Naturalis, or Natural Philosophy.  

Being human, we cannot avoid living in the realm of physics.  In pursuit of knowledge, 'natural philosophers'—as they were originally known—expanded in all directions to cover the realms of the known universe and discover the substance that made it.  With the Scientific Revolution, the philosophy of science was at a peak, and discoveries such as gravity and evolution gave new meaning to life as we know it.  Note that early 'scientists' like Isaac Newton and Darwin referred to themselves as 'natural philosophers.'  The term 'scientist' was not even used until William Whetwell coined it in 1833.  Since that time, science has branched out further into many specialized areas of study.  The other branches of philosophy were not as mainstream in the public sector since they did not deal with the tangible natural world, and thus they all were grouped together into the one field of philosophy.  Since natural philosophy had become so widespread in comparison, it split from philosophy and became known as science by the start of the twentieth century. 

It may seem that science is all that is needed for the advancement of our civilization.  Though it was born as a branch of philosophy, science clearly holds more sway in our study and understanding of the known universe.  Yet, I would assert they need each other for true progress.  I have come up with the analogy that philosophy is like fire and science is like water:

Fire can consume and destroy anything in its path, but it also illuminates darkness and has influenced human creativity since the beginning—from how they ate to enabling new arts like pottery and brick-making.  Rebecca Goldsteing, in her article "Plato at the Googleplex," states that philosophy is meant "to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, and our sense of ourselves in the world."  By this very definition, we can see philosophy, like fire, can seem harsh at first because it challenges our very core beliefs and understanding of the world.  However, philosophy also brings light to new areas of inquiry.  It is not solely restricted to the current and physical, but can look beyond and develop new ideas. 

In contrast, water is a necessity to life, so people have built channels and irrigation ditches to direct its flow, allowing their civilizations to thrive.  Science, too, is absolutely necessary for humanity, expanding the understanding of the physical world, and allowing for the growth of engineering and technology.  Like water, however, science does not follow its own path.  Scientific funding comes almost entirely from government grants and corporate employment.   Thus, though objective in practice, science cannot choose its direction without appealing to the social norm. 

As we have seen in Stephen Hawking's case, some scientists, like water,  have been trying to put out the fire of philosophy without understanding they both have a part to play.  Just because science can press forward like a stream down a mountain without philosophy illuminating the path, does not mean it should.  If we look at history, we will find society advances only when there is a healthy balance between science and philosophy.  During the early 1900s, many scientists around the world received funding to research eugenics, the practice aimed at "improving inborn qualities of race." For a time a majority of scientist supported this study, even though it fueled support for racial inequality and forced sterilizations on many people thought to have “poor genes.”  Fortunately, ethicists began to question its practice, and after World War II it was all but eradicated and finally dismissed by the scientific community.  If science was not tempered by outside philosophies like ethics, it may have led civilization down a dark path. 

This is just one example, but it is to stress the importance of both science and philosophy for our society.  Just as humans have been dependent on clean water and fire to survive and advance into civilization, we also need science and philosophy.  Science will continue to advance our understanding of the universe in the direction society deems most appropriate, while philosophy illuminates new paths to be explored in the future.  Science will develop society with improved safety and technology, while philosophy challenges the value and meaning that such developments.  Together they are needed, cycling into one another over the course of time.