Rebirth of Reason


Fundamental Premises
by Joseph Rowlands

A question that often comes up is what the difference between philosophy and science is. It's a relevant question because philosophers in the past have categorized certain areas of knowledge as philosophy, and at some point they have taken on the mantle of science. The nature of matter might have previously included the four elements, but eventually become atoms, molecules, and subatomic particles. The nature of illness might have previously been blamed on curses, demons, and immorality, whereas now we have germs, brain-chemistry imbalances, and cancerous tissues.

So what is the difference between philosophy and science? Or is there a difference at all. If today's philosophy is tomorrow's science, is there really a line we can draw? Is philosophy really just a premature science without the details and rigor? Or is there some difference that will always keep the two apart? What is it that divides these two ideas?

Without trying to answer that completely, it does help to look at some of the ideas of both, and how we treat them. Scientific ideas are mostly based on facts and theories. It's possible to have an incorrect theory, but you're able to find more and more information to compare against it. Sometime the information violates the theory entirely, in which case you reject it. Sometimes it requires a modification of the theory, or at least you can modify the theory to cover it.

An example of this was the view that all the celestial bodies revolved around the earth. As more information was introduced, the alleged mechanism of this revolution got increasingly more complicated. Just imagine coming up with a mathematical formula that describe the "orbit" of Mars around the Earth! Although this theory clung to life for a bit, eventually a simpler theory that explained things better came along.

What we can see is that scientific ideas are based on evidence in the world. If the evidence contradicts the theory, and a better explanation is found, it's pretty easy to abandon the old theory. Differences between the two theories can be tested, and they will support one or the other (or neither).

Many philosophical ideas don't work like that. The difference is that the belief is so fundamental that all evidence is interpreted to support the theory. Let's look at some examples.

The first example is free will vs. determinism. Do we make choices? Or are we simply controlled by forces outside of ourselves? The free will advocate will see every decision made as an example of free will. You selected that choice on your own. Your actions are your responsibility. You have choice. Every action supports this view.

The determinist sees the opposite. Every action is caused by something outside. If you buy a new car, the advertisements forced you to. If you hang out with your friends, peer pressure made you. If you don't quit your job, society made you.

Every action is explained by these two views. There is no evidence you can provide that will show that one is wrong and the other right. You might show that this view is logically tied to other views that are less acceptable to the person, but all evidence is supportive of the theories.

A more extreme example is the belief in an objective reality vs. a subjective reality. Again, all evidence always supports either view. The believer in an objective reality who sees something he thought was impossible will assume that either he's not understanding it right, or that some other scientific belief is flawed. The subjectivist, when confronted with anything, can just assume it's all a part of his unconscious desires.

How about ethics? Altruism up against rational self-interest. If altruism is the standard by which you judge actions, then what evidence could contradict it? If you showed that altruism was impractical, and actually led to pain in the end, it still wouldn't matter. It may be a disaster in practice, but they'd still claim it was moral. In either case, you can't point to an honest result of one of these standards and show the standard is bad because the action was bad. The standard defines what's good and what's bad. All evidence will support it.

And of course there's the view that art has an objective nature vs. the view that art is whatever you put in a museum. If you throw some manure on a canvas, the objective side will say it's not art, while the subjective side will say it is. You can't point to a piece of art or non-art to convince them that one view is right or wrong.

So it should be clear now that there is at least one difference between philosophical ideas and scientific ones. Scientific ones adjust themselves to evidence, and have the possibility of being refuted. Philosophical ones adjust the evidence, or the conclusions you draw from the evidence, to fit the beliefs.

There's a reason for that. Philosophical ideas are fundamental ideas. Philosophy is your "world-view". It's the foundation on which you organize the rest of your ideas and information. Everything is seen from that perspective. It's not that the person is being dogmatic and refusing to see the facts. They do see them, and the facts align perfectly with their own world-view.

I think this gives us a good start in explaining the difference between philosophy and science. It's been said that philosophy deals with the most fundamental ideas, but this gives us insight into what exactly that means. The ideas are foundational, and everything else is placed within that framework.

This also means that philosophy can never be science. There will always be these fundamental ideas that change the way you interpret evidence. Philosophy is not merely a less rigorous science. It's a body of ideas of central importance to our lives.

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