Has Science Made Philosophy Obsolete?

I. Has science made philosophy obsolete?

A recent issue of Free Inquiry magazine was devoted to examining the question of whether science has made philosophy obsolete. This is the sort of topic that tends to piss off phenomenologists, like me, because we think that science and philosophy are the academic equivalents of Neil Simon’s “odd couple”: Sure they live together, but they have different interests and tasks to perform and very different personalities. True, they are often at one another’s throats; but then, they also can not live apart for very long.

I think that to pose the issue in these terms reveals a common misunderstanding of what both science and philosophy are, and a failure to appreciate the constraints proper to each of these modes of human inquiry. It is a significant and revealing error, however, because it exposes widespread misconceptions about, and exagerations of, what both philosophy and science can do.

I make two claims here: 1) Science and philosophy involve two different kinds of knowing. They take as their subject matter two distinct aspects of human experience. Far from competing, there will always be a need for BOTH as part of any comprehensive effort to understand either ourselves or the world that we inhabit. 2) Systematically overstating the knowledge claims or possiblities of science is not a coincidental occurrence, but is indicative of an ideology called “scientism” – which is anything but scientific, and which limits rather than increases human knowledge and progress, having now become nearly pervasive in academia, and maybe even in American society generally.

Let me now pause to define my terms: “Philosophy,” according to Stefan Kanfer, “is concerned with crucial questions that are insoluble.” On the other hand, “science is concerned with observing facts, so as to generate laws that explain the workings of nature, and then theories that explain the future workings of nature: what will happen, based on what has happened, and why it must be so.” Science is concerned to examine questions which, at least potentially, yield “determinate” answers, that is, scientific questions are, at least in principle, potentially soluble.

This fairly standard definition may have been rendered somehat obsolete by recent developments in quantum mechanics, but it will do for now.

True, there have been philosophical questions resolved by the progress of science, yet such questions immediately cease being philosophical. It is also true that what is philosophically – and not scientifically – answerable, will always grow to include new questions, such as the ethics of genetic engineering or even the epistemological mysteries revealed by quantum mechanics.

By “scientific method,” I mean: “The rules and methods for the pursuit of knowledge, involving the finding and stating of a problem, the collection of facts through observation and experiment, and the making and testing of ideas that need to be proven right or wrong.” (Webster) In contrast, “scientism” is a term "for the belief that the method of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry. The classical statement of scientism is the physicist E. Rutherford’s saying: ‘there is physics and there is stamp collecting.’ " (Dictionary of Philosophy) Anthony Flew adds that scientism implies that “the human sciences require [-- and can require --] no method other than those of the natural sciences.”

It is this latter doctrine which few of us can accept.

II. Science can not tell us everything that we wish to know.

Scientific method does not, in fact, exhaust the possibilities for human rationality. Science and scientific techniques may be the opposite of rational when applied to some human contexts or to questions of human interactions that have no single correct answer. For this reason, F.A. Hayek concluded that scientific method, as used by social scientists and psychologists, “has contributed scarcely antyhing to our understanding of social phenomena.”

If science really begins when we ask the question “Why?” – and this was Einstein’s belief – then it may indeed be said to lead us from the observed event to the laws which govern it, and onwards to higher and more general laws. But then, where does the process end? If each new answer only prompts another question, then scientific explanations are either incomplete or endless (which is another way of being incomplete). We cannot know “why” the series of causes exists. The ultimate “why” questions are, thus, inevitably philosophical and not scientific.

Michael Oakeshott has inherited a set of distinctions dating at least from the Kantian attempt to account for freedom in a mechanically-determined Newtonian universe, and he has reformulated them for a post-Einsteinean age in terms of a crucial dichotomy between PROCESSES and PRACTICES.

For Okakeshott, the term “processes” refers to “those events that occur in nature, such as the orbiting of planets or the melting of snow … processes have nothing to do with human intelligence, are governed by immutable laws, and are, so to speak, determined by the structure of nature.” By “practices,” however, Oakeshott means the creations of people – “Those events that result from human decisions and actions, such as writing or reading books, or forming a new government, or conversing at dinner, or falling in love.” Practices are a function of human intelligence in a dialectical relationship with its environment. Whatever regularity there may be in them, they are not determined by natural laws. (An analogy here may be to Husserl’s discussion of the “life-world.”)

As Neil Postman remarks: “There is a difference between a blink and a wink.” A blink may be studied scientifically as a natural biological phenomenon; but a wink is a communicative cultural practice, resulting from and having any number of possible meanings, which is therefore best studied linguistically, conceptually and culturally. Processes are the proper subject of scientific inquiry; but practices lend themselves much better to philosophical analysis.

There may be a correct answer to the question: “What causes the eye to blink?” In fact, I am sure that there is. There may be no single correct answer to the question of why people wink at one another. There may be several equally plausible answers to this second question, which will require an effort at interpretation – and not experimentation – to answer it.

Whether science has made philosophy obsolete is not itself a scientific question. No experiment will answer it. It may not have a single correct answer, which is not to suggest that it is unobjective. It is, necessarily, a philosophical question. What is more, even to pose the question may be to refute its premise – the premise that science could EVER make philosophy obsolete.

III. Philosophers must be cured of “science envy.”

I recognize the appeal of science today. We would like there to be verifiable answers to every question. We have all benefitted from the results of science in everything from antibiotics to enhanced food production. For one thing, science sure has facilitated communication between people. After all, I am writing these words on a computer made possible by twentieth century science. But thanks to science we are also coping with such things as nuclear weapons and industrial pollutants. This is because the question of what use to make of scientific discoveries is also not a scientific question, but rather a moral one. It is a question calling for humanistic reflection, wisdom, philosophy, but not experimentation.

Science cannot help us to figure out how to deal with the morality of science.

Humanists envy scientists’ claims to objectivity (which now seem much more doubtful than they once did) and absoluteness in knowledge. This absoluteness and scientific, as distinct from philosophical, conceptions of objectivity have recently been challenged, for instance, by the greatest philosopher-scientists of recent years. Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend are two of the most prominet skeptics concerning the confident assertions of scientists to transcultural and absolute knowledge of how things are. These thinkers remind us of the contraints within which scientists operate, which are no different from those of other scholars and which deserve to be considered in assessing claims to the objectivity of the “scientific knowledge of facts” as opposed to truth.

Bertrand Russell said that philosophy is much more difficult than science or mathematics because, with those disciplines, there is at least the hope of discovering a correct answer to one’s questions; whereas with philosophy, there may be no correct answer to be discovered. I do not know whether Russell was right about that or whether he stumbled on to his correct answer in philosophy (that there are none) in making the statement. Yet he would have agreed with this much: Philosophical questions are such that to be human implies, among other things, having to ask and attempting to answer those questions – even when it is unlikely or impossible that the best philosophical answers available to us will satisfy everyone or even remain plausible over time.

Philosophy will never be obsolete.

Bye, bye again … everybody. :laughing:

An interesting post Friedrich.

I agree with the basic premise of your essay in that science and philosophy address different questions using different methods. My only comment is that you have not emphasized the simplest point in this question by applying this idea explicitly enough. The question as stated is clearly a question that belongs to the domain of philosophy. It asks in an epistemological manner, what the nature of knowledge is in science and philosophy and whether they are redundant or one is more important than the other. In short, if the answer is yes philosophy is obsolete, then the answer, if new, appears either wrong or non-sensical.


Moved from Essays & Theses

It is true that Science has made great efforts to disband any source for knowledge other than itself. It will continue to do so. Academia is controlled by politics, not truth, wisdom, or knowledge. Philosophy and Religion are two areas where competition arises. It is all a mind game.

Science can never tell you what is true. It can only tell you what wasn’t (sometimes). The fundamental rationale of Science is and will always be an issue of Philosophy. Science might often try to dismiss logic in favor of what it accepts as observation (for either political reasons or out of simple foolishness), but the truth is that no observation can be made without an underpinning of logic/reasoning (hence philosophy). Since the 1970’s there has been a huge attack on logic/philosophy and religion, but regardless of any efforts, logic is something that humanity simply can’t dismiss. The primary method in the war is one of obfuscation and trying to make the opponent seem foolish, quite often by trumped up displays (false flags) wherein a pretentious philosopher or religious fanatic openly makes a fool of himself so as to embarrass what he represents. It is a sociopolitical war for control.

There are many things which Science simply cannot observe. Many of those are clearly within the field of physics but have to remain in metaphysics simply because they cannot be observed. The detailed construction of a particle for example, is something that cannot be observed. It must be deduced. Any and all deduction is a matter of logic and thus philosophy. Issues involving “what is good for the people” can only be partially observed but one can never get away from the fundamental, “who defines ‘good’” issue. Science has well demonstrated its inability to define hardly anything before making serious claims concerning it.

When it is decided that philosophy and religion are “obsolete”, it will only be an issue of sociopolitical power and mind control efforts. Internet forums are already filled with adherents to that aim who generally either think that they are doing “the good” or are simply unaware of what they are supporting. It isn’t really “all about money”. It is all about power over people (money is just the obvious part).

Science can often tell us what is true. There have been huge gains in the biological and medical sciences. This isn’t ‘metaphysics,’ their observations and findings have actual tangible, empirical outcomes. It is true, though, that science cannot prove true matters of morality (rarely can philosophers either). There’s a real jealously philosophers have for scientists because science does what philosophy can only dream of: Making absolute statements backed up by hard, empirical evidence.

Science has not made philosophy obsolete, it has simply raised the bar. Now, in order for any new philosophical theory to pass muster, it must agree, or at least avoid contradicting, well established facts of science.

Of course, the relevance of science in questions of reality and our knowledge thereof is itself a philosophical matter, but in practical terms, the world has swayed much towards science as the source of truth and knowledge, and so philosophy has much to overcome if it is to contend with established scientific fact; it would need an aditional layer of philosophical argumentation: one layer just to argue why we shouldn’t trust in science, and another to argue why your unscientific philosophical theory (which happens to contend with science) should be considered seriously.

I think it’s good that science places these restrictions on philosophy; it keeps philosophy in line and makes sure it serves the purpose of making sense of the world as we empirically experience it and scientifically understand it.

No. Short answer. Scientists can be philosophically naive, you can see this in their sense of causation. IOW philosophy and philosophers can often be useful when looking at the implications of the very research scientists do and then the conclusions drawn from it.

Let’s put this thing up on two feet:

  1. Science is rendered Obsolete by Philosophy, as philosophy will invent a new explanation for everything, a new kind of mathematics made up of the manipulation of words instead of quantities, such as “the square root of the word “thought” is equal to “space” multiplied “mountain” divided by “electron”” and such; And also any sequence of symbols meaning anything as deep as possible, infinitely deep such as £$H$%H%H&%H&& (which can also be a new design of a modified Man Brain, etc.);

  2. Philosophy is Always Wrong, Strives to be Always Wrong, Strives to Be Useless, has no Social Use, is Impossible to Understand, is Always Right, is totally contradictory, Strives to be as Contradictory and Confusing and Illogical as Possible, accepts all kinds of logical contradictions, strives to be as contradictory, chaotic and messed up as possible, lets you invent all you want, just because, for fun, and this very sentence is totally false and wrong, you are allowed to lie intentionally in philosophy, you are allowed to deceive and confuse, you are allowed to do anything you want as the person performing the act of philosophy is just playing games and wants to have fun, etc. in other words BE YOUR OWN BOSS;

  3. Invention is king in philosophy, the goal is to invent as many far out and incredible concepts as possible, invent the most illogical and unrelated relationships as possible, be crazy, be wrong, and in fact the limit of philosophy to truth is that it becomes a pure art form, an aesthetics game, it invents that which is pretty, colorful and striking aesthetically, etc.;

  4. There are no constraints in philosophy, you can say anything you want, do anything you want, associate anything you want, etc. It is outside of any possible reference system, any stage with respect to any ground point (comparison and measurement events) of any Measuring Device (another Man Brain design ?);

  5. The goal of philosophy is to be as incomprehensible as possible, to be as far away from any sense or truth as possible, to get people mad, angry and to let everyone abandon the discipline as it is superior to any Man Brain Design or Observer, etc.;

  6. Philosophy is exactly the opposite of all of the above, I lied, I fooled you all, ha, ha ;

  7. Sentence 6 is false;

8 ) Philosophy cannot be communicated in any way to anyone, it is a completely 100 % subjective personal experience without any possibility of being communicated (not even to itself or the person thinking the philosophy), it is the pure breakdown of communication, even of communication of the philosopher with himself, there are no longer any symbols or thought paths or delimitations that can contain its contents, etc.;

  1. The very word “Philosophy” is just a place holder for something else: good luck trying to understand or figure out anything of the above, but actually just assign it as you want, just force anything you want, just deceive yourself, be delusional to the upmost, lies are sacred, tell yourself lies, ever deeper and more lies forever;

  2. Write anything you want for point 10, it all goes, it is all ok, also philosophy has proven all of our Science, Technology and all of our prior knowledge as being 100 % wrong in all Once and for All;

  3. I win always, like a cry baby I always win, I won, I won, there, I said it;

  4. Philosophy has solved all of its and all problems once and for all: “it is concerned with crucial questions that were insoluble but have now been completely solved by assigning the Magic Final Symbol as the Last Answer to All” ;

  5. I could go on and on now like “Hate Nature”, “Crack Open Skulls and Shove Wild Chemicals Inside Them to Reach New Universes with New Laws of Physics”, “Split the Sun to Grab all of its Energy”, “Kill Everyone and Everyone Should All Kill Each Other”, and so on and such, just read all of my past 1,400 posts very carefully, study them all very carefully inside out, forever;

  6. This post is worth a Big Fat Zero, I love to demolish the worth and value of anything (and anyone ? especially myself ?) by a simple free will decision event, especially the value of my own posts, so I always win as anyone criticizing them will find me on their side, always, hence I always win. I love to lose, I always lose, I am a loser. AMEN.



Interesting to see the difference between Theoretical Physics and Philosophy - Metaphysics:

Theoretical Physics:

Essentially states How far can we take logical and mathematical structures and still make them somehow be tied up to the real physical world, still have some kind of connection, even though very weak or indirect with physical reality ? An example could be Superstring Theory.

Philosophy and Metaphysics:

Essentially states How far can logical and mathematical structures be pushed operating on items as far removed as possible from the physical world, items as abstract, absurd and impossible as possible, hence having zero connection to the real physical world, but still being connected to each other through any form of logic, mathematical or thought processes and sequences ? An example could be the invention of a new state - meaning - concept expressing it as “the square root of the word thought”.

But whereas the theoretical physicist and also the mathematician still has some constraints upon what he can do by some connection, no matter how weak, with the real world, or at least with some possible logic that is somewhat non contradictory and that somewhat still must follow some sense, the metaphysical and philosophical “Inventor” no longer has any constraints whatsoever, is free to investigate anything at all, make up any connections he wants, invent anything he wants, doesn’t have any possible constraint operating upon his tasks. But then items as contradictory and absurd as possible can always be connected to each other or invented, just their existence, their delimitation in our mind, their presence already provides them with a minimum of logical and mathematical structure as in order to exist, in order to contain them in our mind, in order to even speak about them they must at least follow the basic principles of identity and non contradiction…


When talking about philosophy ,it rather relies on intention of humanity
and it’s growth in significant way.But, when talking about science , it is just truth that can never change.

Now ,on what purpose is invention carried out, that is what it really matters.
Philosophical way of conclusion comes into act to determine the way of letting that truth be part of Humanity.

Good examPle would be invention of PLASTIC and ban on it.

The society which gave space for both SCIENCE and PHILOSOPHY
came to a conclusion:Existence of such society is OBSOLUTE truth.

The ONLY function of Science is to verify Philosophy.
That answers your question.

Existence of such society is ****Absolute truth

Existence of intelligence is truth of science… survive is nature of that being.
Philosohy is part of the nature of science of that Intelligence being.so, no where science is disrespected.
In one way, Philosophy becomes part of science.Science is truth that can never change.

I don’t know where you are from but here on Earth, Science changes quite often and has become nothing less than a mere adaptive religion.

SCIENCE IS TRUTH.May be you Human creatures Knowledge keeps on changing depending on information you gather. How you use that knowledge depends on your thought.Now Where that thought comes from ? Science can’t change for you.You and your nature is part of science. species has right to exist.If it tries to adopt to rest OR it might make rest to adopt to species (according to it’s knowledge it has gained). Nothing wrong in it.You even have right to create universe away from here. it is part of science nature. You are not outsider. and your actions will always be bounded by scientific explanation.
Now, why RIGHT and WRONG topic came here .It is depending on your thought of your nature that is effected by the science nature that has made you human species.
It’s my thought that I am Vegetarian.Lion is not ,it’s is nature.If lion’s life style is science ,then why not mine.You have mummy pappa. Tortise have open sea.It’s again level of thought of that being.It is level of thought of you , striving for science.If Human doesn’t exist science do exist.Even if space and time doesn’t exist science still exist.No matter what exist ,it will be science, and it’s action will hold explanation of science.so Philosophy too,which is nature of Human being which is again part of science.

right now science is the top story…but eventually it will be philosophy that gets the top billing…

…like I said, "merely the new adaptive religion.

Science is a philosophy!

The “scientific method” is a philosophy.
But now we know that SCIENCE IS TRUTH itself (ie. “God”).

i dont agree with either of you…

Do you ever?
But on what this time?