Philosophy versus Science

In recent weeks the age old spat between philosophers and scientists has become apparent once again. Lawrence Krauss could be blamed for the latest outbreak – his recent publication ‘A Universe from Nothing: WhyThere is Something Rather Than Nothing’ suffered a philosophical criticism inthe New York Times from David Albert who, among other things, seemed to be accusing Krauss of misunderstanding the philosophical truth of how something can’t appear from nothing. Krauss duly responded in an interview with Ross Andersen noting such criticisms from philosophers as ‘moronic’.

The more interesting, and less insulting, quotes from Krauss’ interview are as follows:

“Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then “natural philosophy” became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads. Every time there’s a leap in physics, it encroaches on these areas that philosophers have carefully sequestered away to themselves”

This and his corresponding comments on similar subjects, have re-started a spat which was running long before Krauss noted the problems. But what is the real issue?

Firstly, to explain the conflict in layman terms, one should look at what science does, and what philosophy does. Science concerns itself with truth – looking for evidence, questioning current held truths by subjecting them to newly found evidence, not taking on board things unless they appear to be supported by evidence, etc. In other words, science is not looking for nice sounding things to create truth, it is looking for things that are actually true – and thus demands checks, repeatability and transparency. In doing so, science as an ideology sits in opposition to ‘truths’ which are based in tradition, authority, or just general fantasy.

Philosophy also appears to be heavily truth focused – however one could be forgiven for asking why it then isn’t part of science? Philosophers themselves are at a loss to explain exactly what philosophy is, especially now that (as Krauss explains) science deals with truths that are said to hold actual values of truth like philosophy used to, and as a result many philosophers claim things like ‘philosophy deals with truths which science can’t’.

To anyone with a penchant for spotting BS this would start the warning lights flashing, as pseudo-scientists across the world make such claims of ‘non-scientific truths’ to back up all kinds of schemes which fleet people of their money in exchange for clever sounding rubbish. Consider homoeopathy, psychics, astrology, religion, faith healing…the list is endless. All nonsense in this vein fails scientific tests and reasoning, only to be justified by the claim that ‘there are truths that science doesn’t know’. Astrology and religion suddenly seem very sensible when we’ve already assumed that they exist in this manner, don’t they?

The definition of philosophy as dealing with truth finding thus sounds pretty shaky. And, unsurprisingly, philosophy then seems to rest on the one area which even scientists seem to say we need, but which science doesn’t deal with: morality. With morality we seem to have an area of philosophy which is purely philosophy. And yet, as Sam Harris explains in The Moral Landscape, if morality is really dealing with truths, then it should be within science. Indeed, over the next few years we shouldn’t be surprised to see morality come out-with the grasp of philosophy much like other academics disciplines gradually have.

The concern, in real terms, is to wonder why philosophers are so desperate to be defined as truth finders when we already have the most wonderful tool for either judging or rejecting truth, namely science? If something does genuinely deal with truths it is part of science.

This leads to an interesting, and largely ignored conclusion – far from being obsolete as the title of Krauss’ interview suggests, philosophy plays an incredibly important role. It’s role is no longer as the truth finding discipline like science is though – it’s ridiculous to put pure thinking (or ‘philosophising’), without evidence, down as a form of truth finding. However philosophy is the hypothesis forming. Scientists, philosophers, or whoever else, come up with ideas (which is the part we label as ‘philosophising’), and science tests to either accept or reject them.

This is not just a logical conclusion to go forth with, but a necessary one for philosophers. Science has evolved and improved into its role as a form of stringent truth finding – one which is constantly perfecting its method – so philosophy must accept and grow into its role of hypothesising. ‘Natural philosophy’ changed and improved as per societies need, and has found itself at the centre of societal life, and unless philosophy does the same with its strengths, then its days may be numbered.