Chapter 1
Does science need philosophy?

In this lesson, we ask a number of “what-is-x questions” about science, philosophy, and the philosophy of science. Finally, we consider why the philosophy of science is worth studying by considering the objection that the philosophy of science has no relevance to science.

1.1 What is Philosophy?

We will take a philosophical approach to science. In order to do this, we’ll need a clearer sense of what philosophy is. Let’s begin with a provisional definition.

Definition 1 (Philosophy) Philosophy is a positive and critical science that draws upon both common experience and the results of science in order to make claims of a highly general and fundamental nature. In so doing, its principal aim is to better understand the world, its members, and their relations.

Let’s consider the parts of this definition.

First, calling philosophy a “science” refers to the attitude of individuals engaged in philosophical study. This attitude is that of an individual who aims to find out the truth of something or who is willing to learn. Such an attitude is contrasted with that of hoaxers, charlatans, con-artists, and similar folk who are more interested in pretending that they know (when they don’t and know that they don’t). In addition, such an attitude is contrasted against individuals who aren’t actively trying to find out the answer to a given question. Individuals who might be cock-sure, overly confidant, indifferent, or lack an openness to investigate would not qualify as having a scientific attitude in the sense used above.

Second, calling philosophy a “positive science” contrasts it with both mathematics and fiction.

Third, in calling philosophy a critical science consider that in our day to day life there are a number of beliefs that we accept at face value. Philosophy does not encourage you to abandon any of these beliefs, it rather asks you to subject these beliefs to a kind of rational scrutiny. Philosopher Thomas Nagel says that we do this by “asking questions, arguing, trying out ideas and thinking of possible arguments against them, and wondering how our concepts really work.” (Nagel, What Does It All Mean?, p.4).

One way of putting what Nagel is saying is that philosophy aims to do one of two things. First, it aims to offer our face-value beliefs a kind of rational support when no such supported previously existed. Second, if no such support can be found, it aims to substitute our face-value beliefs with rationally-supported alternatives.

Fourth, in saying that philosophy relies upon “common experience” contrasts it with the methods and types of observations used in empirical (laboratory) science and religion.

Fifth, saying that philosophers aim to make claims of a “highly general and fundamental nature” refers to the fact that the discipline is concerned with very basic and foundational concepts. One way of characterizing this is to say that philosophy is concerned with the big questions and big ideas. In other words, insofar as philosophy pertains to human beings, it only does so indirectly insofar as it is a discipline of a highly general nature. In this respect, philosophy is not:

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Finally, in saying that the “principal aim [of philosophy] is to better understand the world, its members, and their relations” we point to some of the key subjects of philosophy. Consider that we all have the following:

  1. beliefs about the world: general beliefs about the world as a whole, e.g. what types of things exist in it and how those things interact,
  2. beliefs about knowledge: a tacit (unspoken) set of conditions that beliefs must meet in order to count as knowing something,
  3. beliefs about morals: a set of beliefs about what is right and wrong (or at least the view that there is no such thing as right or wrong).

Many of these beliefs lack explicit rational support. The concepts which we use to articulate these beliefs go unclarified. The beliefs that we think are justified remain uncriticized and untested.

When we philosophize, what we do is scrutinize our beliefs by trying to clarify certain key concepts, justify our beliefs with evidence (common experience), and criticize alternative views that might conflict with our own. The sum total of our clarifications, arguments, objections, and responses to criticisms produce the following:

Thus, in short, “philosophy” is a discipline that aims to be a positive, general, and critical science of common experience that is deeply concerned with all of the following (and more):

  1. with making positive (true or false) claims about the world.
  2. with a certain aspect of reality that is of a fundamental (or highly general) nature
  3. with making claims that are rooted in our common experience (even though it may rely upon the special results of the sciences), and
  4. with scrutinizing our face-value beliefs by providing rational support by way of arguments for them (when there did not exist any previously) or encouraging us to abandon these beliefs for some alternative.

1.2 What is Science?

People use the term “science” in several different ways.

While the question of the definition of science and how it is different from non-science and pseudoscience will be a central theme in the course, there are a number of key themes shared across the three definitions above:

  1. science concerns the physical (or natural) world and not the supernatural world or a spiritual world
  2. science has an intimate relationship with justified knowledge and the truth
  3. observation, experiment, and method are important to science

Discussion 1 How do you understand science? What are its key features? What are its goals? What is the status of its findings? Are there any problems or shortcomings to science?

1.3 What is the Philosophy of Science?

One of the central goals of a philosophy of science is to be able to say some general things about science. That is, a philosophy of science aims to answer at least some of the following questions:

  1. What is and is not science
  2. How hypotheses are generated (whether or not there is a rational method to hypothesis generation)
  3. How claims in science are justified
  4. Under what general conditions a theory should be rejected
  5. When a scientific hypotheses is supported (or confirmed)
  6. What theoretical terms in science mean, and
  7. How scientific explanations yield understanding
  8. Whether science progresses
  9. What the epistemic status of a scientific theory is (certain, tentative)
  10. What whether science describes the world as it is or is merely a useful way of making predictions

1.4 Objections to Philosophy in Science

Objection 1 (Science does not need philosophy: It is fine on its own.)

With philosophy and science given some sketchy definitions, let’s the question: does science need philosophy? Some scientists think that philosophy is of no use to science. Consider the following representative remark:

How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality?….Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

—- Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design

Response 1 (Science involves ethical issues)

Let’s consider the objection that philosophy plays no role at all in science because every problem that philosophy purports to solve can be better solved by science itself. One problem with this concerns ethical issues that have to do with scientific practice. The philosopher, for example, might contend that science may be able to tell us how the world is, but can it does not even pretend to give an instructive answer into what we ought to do.

We might consider a variety of ways where scientific practice is constrained or guided by considerations of what ought and ought not be done.

  1. dangerous scientific experiments, e.g. nuclear weapon testing
  2. inhuman medical treatments or experiments, e.g. testing drugs on unwilling subjects
  3. less-than-scientific activities, e.g. coercing a grant-giving agency not to give a grant to a competing scientist

Let’s consider one example in a bit more detail. Namely, let’s consider an issue concerning having to do with environmental safety and whether there is an answer to how safe a technology must be in order to be built and used. Let’s imagine we are examining the blueprints for a nuclear reactor that will sit somewhere near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We, of course, want the reactor to be safe, but also don’t wish to increase the expense of the construction of the reactor by requiring unnecessary safety systems. More safety systems requires more tax dollars, and more tax dollars diverted toward safety systems means less cash in our pockets, for social programs, infrastructure, and homeland security.

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Figure 1.1: Effect on Cost when Increasing Safety


Containment systems increase the overall safety of the reactor. For example, on March 28, 1979, the Unit 2 nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island (TMI) near Harrisburg, PA suffered a partial meltdown. The TMI reactor had a containment building and if the accident that happened at TMI happened in a reactor that did not have a containment building, the personnel operating the reactor would have been killed and those in the surrounding area would have been exposed to large amounts of radiation.

So, in staring at blueprints for a nuclear reactor, there is a question before us: should we require reactors to have a containment building?

Scientists and engineers may be able to tell us the likelihood that an nuclear accident will occur (e.g. 1 in 100,000), and may be able to tell us what kinds of health and environmental damage will occur were a reactor to meltdown without a containment building, and so they may be able to tell us how much we decrease the environmental and health risks by installing a containment building, but can they answer whether we should or should not require reactors to have containment buildings?

Of course, they could offer their opinion on whether building one would be a good idea, but the grounds on which they say we either should or shouldn’t build a building seems as though it would extend beyond their scientific expertise. It extends beyond their expertise because they are making a statement concerning values. Do we value increased safety and protection to the environment or is cheap energy, low taxes, and more social programs, infrastructure, homeland security more important to us?

Note 1 Analogously, a doctor who is knowledgeable about the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer can speak authoritatively about the likelihood of getting lung cancer if we continue to smoke. But, a doctor cannot, as a doctor, tell us that we shouldn’t smoke (or that it would be wrong to smoke). Typically, with respect to questions of personal health, we think that this is for the individual to decide (although this isn’t altogether uncontroversial).

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Let’s consider this example one step further. Suppose you think that if a nuclear reactor is to be built, then it ought to be built with a containment building. This is obvious to you, obvious to the engineer who designed the reactor, and obvious to the people living around the reactor. But how safe is safe enough? A containment building does not eliminate environmental and health risks, it only reduces it. So, another decision presents itself. The containment building is essentially a casing for the reactor vessel, so how strong do you create your containment building? There are, of course, recommended design specifications but you could choose to ignore these specifications and make the unit weaker than recommended (and save money) or stronger than recommended (and increase safety)? Should you build it strong enough to withstand the impact of an airplane crash or is this an unnecessary precaution?

Again, engineers and nuclear physicists may be able to tell you how much additional safety you gain by strengthening the containment building but they cannot tell you whether you should increase or decrease the strength of the unit. This is a question of values and public policy, viz., do we value added security reaped by a strengthened containment building or cheap electricity?

So, the argument then is that we think that something other than empirical science (chemists, physicists, engineers, et alia) should determine how safe is safe enough and, more broadly, questions about values. That is, science cannot tells us what we ought to do.

In sum, while there are many questions about science that are rightfully answered by scientists, there seem to be a certain category of questions that are best answered by something other than empirical. At least at first glance, it appears that taking a philosophical approach to such issues might provide answers.

Response 2 (Philosophy is helpful.) A related response is that philosophy can help individuals understand what results in science mean for the lives of human beings. ?, pp.xi-xv argues that the philosophy of science in particular can be of aid to individuals who are neither scientists nor philosophers. Staley contends that knowing about the philosophy of science will help you practically insofar as you can critically analyze “scientific testimony”. For example, suppose a scientific expert testifies to P. Knowing about the nature and limits of science will better help you evaluate whether the expert should be believed.

  1. A pharmaceutical company may claim that pill X makes you “happier” or “smarter” but your decision to take pill X will largely depend upon what “happier” or “smarter” means.
  2. Your physician may tell you not to smoke, but the scope of his/her expertise only extends to the fact that smoking causes health issues and not to how you ought to live your life.
  3. The God gene hypothesis is a hypothesis that contends that a specific gene (VMAT2) inclines human beings toward belief in God (spiritual experiences). How ought we to interpret this scientific discovery? One might contend that the existence of this gene proves that God does not exist for it shows that belief in God is determined by the VMAT2 gene. But this is to misinterpret what the discovery of the VMAT2 gene shows.

Objection 2 (Science does not need philosophy: Tradition.) The questions that philosophers claim they are particularly well-suited to answer can be equally (or better) answered by appealing to tradition. That is, scientists can still argue that science does not need philosophy, but it does need some ethical values that are supplied by tradition

There are two problems with the above argument.

Response 3 (P1 is false.) The way we currently do things (the traditional approach) is not an infallible guide to how we ought to do things. There are a number of practices that we have previously engaged in that were incorrect (e.g. slavery) and there are practices that we currently engage in that do not seem optimal.

Response 4 (The conclusion does not follow from the premises.) Even if we assume that the premise (P1) is true, the argument assumes that because we have done something one way for a particular length of time, that way of doing things will continue to be successful in the future. The conclusion does not follow because P may be a new problem requiring a new approach (e.g. what is the best way to handle global warming brought on by the development of new technologies?)

But, none of this is to say that tradition is meaningless or shouldn’t guide our approach to environmental issues. However, arguing that in such and such case we should behave in a way similar to earlier generations requires an argument. And, in appealing to arguments involving reasons to support our view, we find ourselves philosophizing once again.

Objection 3 (Science does not need philosophy: Democracy) Another response is to say that science can proceed independent of philosophy because any issue that cannot be handled by science should be handled by some kind of democratic procedure or majority decision. Consider the argument below:

There are a couple problems with substituting majority rule for philosophy. First, there are at least two philosophical difficulties in deciding what percentage of the population constitutes a majority.

Response 5 By “majority”, do we mean 51 percent or some other percentage, e.g. two-thirds. In addition, who counts in determining the “majority”? Is it all citizens of a certain country or all human beings regardless of citizenship? Is it all individuals over 18 years of age, or 16 years of age, or 21 years of age? Is it all individuals that are somewhat well-informed about the environmental issue at hand or any individual regardless of whether they know anything about the environmental issue at hand?

Response 6 Even if we were to settle certain philosophical issues concerning what constitutes a “majority”, the process by which we decide might be guided by a significant amount of philosophizing. Presumably, in deciding what to do about a particular environmental issue, we won’t simply take the knee-jerk reactions of everyone in the majority. Instead, there will likely be a significant amount of deliberation, discussion, and argumentation before a vote is called. In other words, the majority decision will likely be guided by a fair amount of philosophizing, e.g. exploring different alternatives, raising and criticizing arguments, and analyzing different key concepts.

In sum, it appears that there are some weighty considerations against simply saying that science can proceed independent of philosophy. That is, it doesn’t appear science can operate in a vacuum or substitute tradition or some kind of political procedure. And, even if we think there is something valuable in our traditional way of solving environmental issues, or a distinctively religious approach, or in the political process, all three will involve a fair amount of philosophizing.

Objection 4 (Philosophy no use to practicing scientists.) Philosophy may provide instruction about values, but philosophy of science is of Philosophy no use to practicing scientists. This objection is often cited by scientists who reflect upon the role that philosophy of science plays in the practice of science.

“Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

– Attributed to physicist Richard Feynman

In an interview by Ross Andersen, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss was asked about the relationship between philosophy and science, he remarked:

Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ”those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.” And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. It has no impact on physics what so ever, and I doubt that other philosophers read it because it’s fairly technical. And so it’s really hard to understand what justifies it. And so I’d say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.

– Ross Andersen, “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?” The Atlantic, April 23, 2012.

After receiving some criticism for this off-the-cuff remark, Krauss would later clarify that while philosophers reflections on human experience is interesting, he found that it was philosophy (including philosophy of science) was not useful to him as a practicing scientist:

As a practicing physicist however, the situation is somewhat different. There, I, and most of the colleagues with whom I have discussed this matter, have found that philosophical speculations about physics and the nature of science are not particularly useful, and have had little or no impact upon progress in my field.

– Lawrence Krauss, “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Scientific American, April 27, 2012.

Response 7 (Just because you don’t see its role, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.)

Many of the above remarks don’t elaborate as to why philosophical considerations don’t play a role in scientific activity. The argument above seems to be “I don’t see how philosophy is relevant to science, therefore it isn’t.” This type of reasoning is fallacious as it reasons from the ignorance about a certain matter to the truth of some proposition. It is similar to reasoning as follows:

What is problematic about this argument is that it requires the additional premise that “if my wife is cheating on me, then I would have knowledge of it”. Thus, the above argument can be fully constructed as follows:

When applied to the objection raised by scientists that philosophy has no role in the practice of science, their objection can now be restated as follows:

The problem with the above argument is P2. The arguments put forward above are by scientists, not philosophers, and so we might be suspicious as to whether they know how philosophy plays a role in their behavior as scientists.

Response 8 (Philosophy is unavoidable) A classic response to this objection is that philosophizing is avoidable (when scientists do science they rely upon philosophical assumptions about science). The argument goes something like this:

In other words, anyone who might reject this view by contending that science proceeds empty of philosophical commitments, would themselves be committed to a philosophical position. That is, in saying that science is free of philosophical commitments, one is taking a philosophical position about science.

Discussion 2 Does philosophy matter to science? If so, in what ways? In what ways does it not matter?