Is philosophy a science? A couple of my fellow philosophers have just been disagreeing on this issue. I am not surprised. It is a question that often comes up and there rarely is much agreement. For what it is worth, I don’t think philosophy is a science nor do I think it should aspire to be one. But the connections with science should be deep and influential.
The key figure is Aristotle, and specifically his Physics and his Metaphysics. The former deals with empirical matters – the nature of the universe – and is science. The latter deals with matters about science – the nature of causation – and is philosophy. For many years, no one took huge efforts to separate the two – the old name for science is “natural philosophy” (as opposed to the name for philosophy, “moral philosophy”) – but after the Scientific Revolution things started to sort themselves out. Science is about the physical world broadly understood, the world of experience, and philosophy is about science and indeed any other claims to knowledge and understanding – it is meta-knowledge, meaning it is about knowledge. Even then, there were areas of philosophy that eventually found their empirical bearings and broke off. Was William James a philosopher or a psychologist? Perhaps in the future at some point there will be more branchings.
So, I just don’t see philosophy as a science. Biologists look at organisms. As a philosopher of biology I don’t look directly at organisms, but rather at the biologists – not so much as people, that is for the historian or the sociologist – but at the ideas and theories and practices of the biologist. The biologist tells me that the function of the plates along the back of stegosaurus is for heating and cooling – they are just like the plates or fins that you find in electrical generating stations. As a philosopher, I ask why it is appropriate for a biologist to talk about functions, but not a physicist. No one would ask what is the function of the speed of light.
But science is relevant for philosophy in at least two important ways, quite apart from giving us much of our subject matter in the first place. First, science can play a crucial role in our philosophizing itself. I cannot imagine wanting to talk about morality without taking into account our biological history, mammals forged by natural selection. Remember when I was talking about leaving Afghanistan, I talked about our differential emotions – our families, our other relatives, our friends, our countrymen, and then others. These emotions, I pointed out, are deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology, and I believe are very significant in understanding the nature of moral obligations. Not everyone would agree with me on this, and no doubt it is at least in part because of disagreements like this that we philosophers do disagree about the status of philosophy with respect to science.
Second, science is a pretty good way of getting knowledge, and I think philosophers should take note. How, for instance, should we understand scientific revolutions? One way, somewhat a priori, is to come up with a criterion and then see if changes in science fit this criterion – if they don’t, we don’t necessarily reject the criterion, but argue rather that the science at issue is not very good science. Basically, I think this is the kind of thing that Karl Popper was up to when he argued that the criterion of demarcation between science and non-science is falsifiability. Freud’s work doesn’t fit this criterion. Reject it as genuine science!
The other way, more a posteriori and the one I favor, is to look at science – its revolutions – as a biologist would look at organisms. Find out their nature and then see if you can find common patterns, say between Copernicus and Darwin. Let your conclusions be guided by the facts, rather than make the facts fits your presumptions. For what it is worth, people like me tend to speak of this as the naturalistic approach to philosophy rather than the scientific approach, but it’s the same thing.
I wouldn’t pretend that people like Popper and people like me are completely apart. He is more prescriptive, saying what ought to be done. But Popper in particular took the nature of real science very seriously and would have protested that his criterion was not forged without a prior sense of that nature. I am more descriptive, saying what is in fact done. But I certainly can and do speak of bad science, and indeed I have written much on pseudo science.
This all said, there is a real issue at stake here. I argue that a lot of philosophy is simply a waste of time and one could have told that before people get to work. I just don’t see how you can do epistemology (theory of knowledge) or ethics (theory of morality) without starting with our animal nature. It is like a Christian talking about humans and ignoring God. I suspect – I know – a lot of my fellow philosophers on the other side think much the same about me and my work. Terms like genetic fallacy and naturalistic fallacy will not be far from the surface.
And in the end, perhaps that is as it should be. Science hopes to find some ultimate objective truth. I am not sure that it is ever quite there to be found, but that is the hope. Philosophy is different and – as in things like politics and religion – intelligent and informed people can come to different conclusions. That does not mean that there are no standards. By any standard of excellence, surely tea party politics is pretty dreadful. The same is true of American biblical literalism. But, although a liberal, I can respect an articulate and informed conservative and, although a non-believer, I feel the same about theists. The same is true of philosophy. And that is no cause for despair or worry. It is the human condition – although, I would say the human, biologically evolved condition!