Rebirth of Reason


Philosophy vs. Science
by Joseph Rowlands

The historical relationship between science and philosophy has not been a friendly one.  Philosophers like to start with their conclusions, and work to prove them.  When it came to trying to figure out what the world was like, philosophers tended to argue about what the world should be like.  Science was born as a rejection of this method.  Its goal was to figure out what the world was really all about, and its primary tool was actual experimentation.

We've all seen philosophy at its worst.  Philosophers are often completely disconnected from reality and, more recently, don't care.  Rationalism, the view that only deductive knowledge is really reliable, is commonplace.  Philosophers often expound their ideas from armchairs and ivory towers, where the facts of reality don't concern them.

It's not surprising science would want to distance itself from philosophy.  It becomes even more personal for the scientist when he's told that he must conform to preconceived views of the world.  It started with Galileo having to renounce his scientific views on astronomy, but continued through the ages.  Countless other scientists have had to hide their views on topics like evolution, the age of the earth and the existence of glaciers, with a range of punishments from the inquisition and burning at the stake to losing their jobs or financing.  Philosophy, often in the form of religion, does not seek the truth. It seeks believers, and the truth is an enemy.

So science has good reasons to be wary of philosophy.  Given the history and the nature of most philosophies, it's tempting to reject the whole field as being worthless.  That would be a mistake because it's based on a faulty understanding of what philosophy is.  And when you reject something based on a false understanding of it, you're likely to fall straight into the false dichotomy.

The philosophers who caused all the problems didn't care about facts or evidence.  They had their theories, and refused to second-guess them, let alone test them against reality.  Given the philosophers' strong bias towards ignoring the contrary evidence because they were wedded to a theory, it's natural that scientists would try to discard this tradition.

The problem is that many scientists sought to escape from the clutches of rationalizing philosophy by jumping into Empiricism, the philosophy that rejects theoretical knowledge and only accepts direct sensory evidence.  As Rand said, philosophy is inescapable.  You don't have a choice about having one.  If you try to reject philosophy, you're just enslaving yourself to your implicit philosophy.

So in rejecting a system of theory without fact, scientists moved towards a system of fact without theory.  This was done by having a simple litmus test for science.  The experiment was the ultimate arbiter of the truth.  Obviously few, if any, would dare try to practice the new system consistently.  There have to be theories.  There has to be analysis of the facts. 

The issue then isn't that they don't have theories, but that they've blinded themselves to rational analysis of the theories.  You would expect the outcome to be exactly what it is today.  Theories are considered merely "models" that make predictions of reality, but don't necessarily describe reality.  Reality is considered unknowable and indeterminate, and science is only concerned with predicting the results of an experiment, instead of identifying reality.

Science is supposed to be concerned with identification of reality.  Science is a means of gaining knowledge, and that means a grasp of what reality is.  Knowledge isn't just used to predict how an experiment will turn out.  It also aims at creating new opportunities.  By understanding what is going on, you can act to further your life.  The more knowledge you have, the more options available.

The focus on experiment has other side-effects.  It encourages scientists in other fields to concentrate on experiments when it may not make sense.  Economics, for instance, is a field where so many variables change over time that it is difficult to run real experiments.  Even if you could run them, the results are dependent on the values and choices of the participants and are not constant, making predictions impossible.

So if scientists try to divorce themselves from philosophy by ignoring it, they will fall victim to it.  And worse, they probably won't know it.  Philosophy is concerned with one's fundamental premises, and sets the stage for how you interpret the evidence of your senses.  If you accept that knowledge is not concerned with identifying reality but with making predictions, it should be no surprise that you will eventually come to the conclusion that knowledge can only make predictions, and that reality is ultimately unidentifiable.

This isn't to say that philosophy has some kind of veto power over science.  That would just be an example of believing the two are opposites.  Philosophy sets the standard for science.  One philosophy may emphasize a system of mathematical "appearances," while one may focus on an actual identification of reality.  Philosophy does not have the right to reject evidence.  Instead, the evidence is interpreted by the philosophy.  The theories are judged by the standards of knowledge set by philosophy.  It is inescapable.  The only option you have is to analyze the philosophical premises behind your work, or to ignore them and be a slave to them.

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