New scientific discoveries continually increase our knowledge of, and control over, reality. Science grows out of a desire to understand nature and our place in it. Philosophy, as the systematic and critical inquiry of fundamental assumptions, grows from the same desire. But as the influence of science increases, society seems to neglect philosophical thinking. However, historically philosophy and science are closely connected. For example, towering scientists in the scientific revolution, such as Newton, had distinctly philosophical sides. Also, philosophy influenced the thinking of the inventors of modern physics, including Planck, Bohr, and Einstein (for discussion, see John Spencer’s 2012 book The Eternal Law).
I suggest that since science aims to uncover hidden truths about reality, science ultimately needs philosophy. I first explain what I mean by “needs,” and then I discuss the relevance of the main areas of philosophical inquiry to science.
Science does not need philosophy in every detail or experiment; but it needs it around the edges and sometimes in its methodology. Philosophy helps us to better understand how science works, how scientific laws and theories fit into our worldviews, and the place of humans in nature. A worldview is a general conception of the ultimate nature of the world, values, and humanity; a worldview is a map of our most fundamental beliefs.
Logic, a subfield of philosophy, helps us plot the relationships between all of the beliefs and claims in our worldview—about scientific matters, values, and what is possible. Principled reasoning is of utmost important to science. But besides logic, there are three other main areas of philosophy: metaphysics (the study of reality), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and ethics (the study of values). In reverse, I will discuss the importance of these areas to science.
First, science needs ethics in order to guide the application of science in creating technology and solving problems. In deciding whether to use new computing technology to build better weapons, or to use human embryos for basic biological research, we should consider the possibilities from different ethical perspectives. Ethical theories like utilitarianism (the objective cost-benefit analysis of actions aimed at maximizing good, associated with J.S. Mill) and deontology (the duty-based analysis of actions, associated with Immanuel Kant) provide guideposts for ethical decision-making (find treatises from Kant and Mill here). The ethical views of scientists working on controversial projects could, and should, be informed by the rich theoretical framework developed by moral philosophers.
Second, science needs epistemology. Scientists rely upon epistemic principles to guide belief-formation. Principles that claim that the simplest explanation is most likely true, or that the theory that unifies the most empirical data or has the most predictive power is likely true, are themselves not subject to verifiability by the experimental method—what kind of experiment would show that the simplest explanation is necessarily the true one? These principles usually operate in our cognitive background in scientific reasoning. There are pragmatic reasons to accept them, but they are philosophical presuppositions. Epistemologists and philosophers of science evaluate epistemic principles, and discuss conditions for carefully employing them.
Do we know the currently accepted laws and theories of science? Assumptions about what it means to genuinely know a claim are philosophical. The concept of knowledge is important in scientific discourse, since science aims to produce knowledge. But critical analysis of this concept goes back to Plato (see especially his Theaetetus). The conversation continues in contemporary philosophy. In 1963, Edmund Gettier trenchantly criticized the traditional analysis of knowledge as justified true belief, and his criticism is still being discussed. We want to understand what counts as knowledge, so we can reliably decide whether some evidence justifies a specific scientific conclusion and becomes part of our assumed knowledge.
Third, science needs metaphysics. Scientific exploration is often situated in a philosophical view of nature: that events are (and will continue to be) unified and ordered, that there is an objective reality, that the laws of nature are discoverable, mind-independent realities. These assumptions can be challenged. Any time one makes implicit or explicit assumptions about the ultimate nature of the world, one is making metaphysical assumptions. These metaphysical ideas need rational discussion and evaluation if we are to have the most complete understanding of reality. As an example of how metaphysics can benefit science, the concept of a species cannot be defined entirely by biology but requires philosophical examination. An interesting and current research project at the intersection of philosophy and physics is the Rutgers Templeton Project in Philosophy of Cosmology.
I am confident that philosophy should be informed by our best science; the best philosophy is probably a scientific philosophy. However, science itself also needs philosophy. If science does not use philosophy, then it cannot fully uncover and understand truths about reality.
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Guest Author Bio
I teach and work on philosophy; it works on me too. I am an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University, regularly teaching introduction to philosophy, biomedical ethics, and introductory logic. My research interests include metaphysics, philosophy of science, and bioethics. I earned a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, an MA in Philosophy from Miami University (Ohio), an MA in Humanities from California State University-Dominguez Hills, and a BA in Biology from Illinois Institute of Technology.
Blog / Website: William A. Bauer, Ph.D.