Philosophy and Science


Philosophy and Science

Welcome to this article on philosophy and science. Our focus here will be on philosophy’s relationship with science in order to ascertain the soundness of the assumptions and claims made in the area of science.

To achieve this, we shall discuss this topic under four sub-headings:

1. The Idea of Science

2. Features and Aims of Science

3. Philosophy and Science

4. The Scientific Method.

The connection between philosophy and science is hard to dispute; for, even at a point in history, philosophy was described as the queen of the sciences. It is therefore our intention in this post to examine this relationship by first understanding what science is and then considering how philosophy intervenes in the activities and conclusions of science.

In this article, you will acquire an understanding of what science is and the different senses of the expression ‘science’, why natural science is implied when the term ‘science’ is used without specific qualifications and the relationship between philosophy and science.


The Idea of Science

Etymologically, the English word ‘science’ derives from the Latin noun ‘scientia’ (knowledge) which in turn derives from the infinitive verb ‘scire’ (to know).

This kind of knowledge is related to the Greek term ‘episteme’ (knowledge), which is distinguished from ‘doxa’ (opinion) or ‘techne’ (skill).

In this sense, therefore, science is systematic knowledge and would include every field of intellectual or academic endeavour.

Following this understanding, science could be used to describe the natural or pure sciences, the applied sciences or the social sciences.

Natural science refers to those disciplines which make use of natural entities of the physical world as their object of study.

It refers to the branch of human knowledge which attempts to study and understand these natural entities in order to be able predict certain phenomenon about our physical world.

Examples of the natural sciences are Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences and Physics. Applied science refers to those disciplines dealing with the art of applying scientific knowledge to practical problems such as Medicine, Architecture, Engineering and Information Technology.

The social sciences refer to those disciplines that study human society and institutions as well as the relationship of individual members within society.

In other words, it is the science of social phenomena, whose focus is the social aspects of human experience.

It is the aspect of human knowledge which attempts to understand general human behaviour in terms of his social, psychological and perhaps his economic environment, in order to be able to describe and explain such behaviours and as well as to also be able to predict such social phenomena, given certain conditions.

Such disciplines include Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, Geography, Economics, Political Science, and History. The foregoing understanding of science made it possible for scholars to talk, for instance, of the ‘sacred sciences’ which includes theology, exegesis, and so on; or the ‘speculative sciences’ such as philosophy.

Hence, science was then defined as ‘organized’, ‘systematized’ or ‘classified’ body of knowledge which has been critically tested beyond reasonable doubt.

However, since the Enlightenment, when the enormous scientific knowledge produced facilitated the affirmation of science’s own autonomy and distinct identity, the understanding of science has narrowed down to the natural, experimental sciences.

In addition, therefore, to being an organized’, ‘systematized’ or ‘classified’ body of knowledge, ‘tested beyond reasonable doubt’, science was then properly defined as “classified knowledge, knowledge systematized and formulated with reference to the discovery of general truths or the operations of general laws, especially when such knowledge refers to the physical world (nature).”

Thus, unless otherwise indicated, science is discussed in this unit in this narrow sense.

Also read: Philosophy as a Second-Order Activity

Features of Science

The following features are some of the hallmarks of science which distinguish scientific knowledge from ideologies, beliefs, metaphysics and religious articles of faith and also they confer on science, the power to uncover the truth about the world as it actually is.

1. Science is Specific: By this, we mean that science deals with particular, observable or identifiable objects of this terrestrial world, rather than with some abstract general ideas or beings. Again, it means that science provides us with information about our world as it actually is. This is the reason the natural sciences are sometimes referred to as the ‘exact sciences’

2. Science is Public in Character: By this, we mean that the techniques and methods, as well as findings and products of science, are not understandable only to a select few, but are capable of being communicated and taught to the generality of persons. For this reason, the conclusions and knowledge claims in the sciences are not only interpersonally verifiable, but are also open to public scrutiny.

3. Science is Impersonal: By this, we mean that science does not involve beliefs or ideals which result from a person’s peculiar power of imagination; that science is dispassionate and unprejudiced and that science does not admit of value judgments or arbitrary preferences, as choices are made strictly in accordance with scientific techniques and methods which are objective in character.

4. Science is Objective: By this, we mean that the concepts, laws and theories of science are drawn from the hard and naked facts about the world of everyday perceptual experience. In other words, the objectivity of science derives from the fact that pure facts form the bedrock of scientific theories and discoveries.

Read on: Political Philosophy and Social Engineering

Aims of Science

In his The Rationality of Scientific Discovering, Nicholas Maxwell affirms that the aim of science is simply to discover more and more facts about the world or about the phenomena under investigation, whatever the world or phenomena under investigation, whatever the world or the phenomena may turn out to be like.

Here, science is said to be pursued for its own sake, in order to increase our understanding of the world around us.

This view has been criticized on the grounds that it divorces science from the practical needs of human beings who see in science, a means of improving their existential condition.

Another view is that the aims of science should be conceived in terms of its utilitarian values. From this perspective, science is not pursued for the sake of the knowledge it gives, but for its economic and technological values or benefits.

A third view which is common to Einstein is that the ultimate goal of science is to explain the world and its phenomena by establishing certain observed regularities about them and conceptualizing or expressing such regularities in the form of hypotheses, laws and theories which would enable us predict future occurrences.

The basic assumption here is that the universe is simple, harmoniously united, orderly and beautiful in itself, but that the scientists seek how best to understand the world in these terms.

Although this view has gained popular acceptance among scholars, it cannot however be said to express the complete aim or aims of science, since scientific practices and results are not usually affected by whatever views are held by individual scientists, regarding the ultimate goal of science.

It is therefore more plausible to consider a more eclectic approach to the question of the aim of science; an approach that will incorporate all the views so far expressed by various scholars on the question of the aim of science.

This can be better achieved by looking at what scientists actually do, rather than what some people believe they do.

Scientific activities are readily characterized as acts of explaining, understanding, predicting or describing the occurrences and processes of natural events and phenomena, and where necessary, inventing, for the purpose of improving existential human condition.

This is what G.S. Sogolo means, when he says that science is both theoretically and practically motivated.


Philosophy and Science

The philosophical field of study that deals with science is known as philosophy of science. Even though philosophy has, since the days of the pre-Socratic philosophers, been interested in science, philosophy of science as a formal, systematic discipline is a relatively new branch of philosophy, coming into prominence only in the twentieth century.

Commenting on this trajectory of historical development and relationship between philosophy and science, John O. Sodipo has this to say, Philosophical and scientific thinking were born together in ancient Greece.

And through many centuries, especially from the 17th century in Europe, philosophic reflection has been revitalized by fresh contact with the concepts, methods and standards of scientific inquiry. …the history and development of science has shown that the greatest contribution to science has been made by those scientists who possessed what is rightly called philosophic insight.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, therefore, there was no difference between philosophical inquiry and scientific investigation.

In fact, science existed as natural philosophy. According to Russell L. Ackoff, in his 1962 work titled Scientific Method, Optimizing Applied Research Decisions, “in the days when all scientists were philosophers and most philosophers were scientists, a great deal of attention were given to the way in which knowledge was acquired and justified”.

Moritz Schlick, the leader of the Vienna Circle, also corroborates this point when he argued that the principles which are needed for the understanding of scientific inquiries are philosophically derived and that they pertain to the branch of philosophy called Epistemology.

Schlick insisted that we can only understand scientific inquires in their depth when we provide them with epistemological foundations.

This historical romance between philosophy and science explains the concern of philosophy interest with the scientific enterprise.

In expressing this concern, philosophy involves itself in conceptual analysis by defining concepts or problem areas in such a way as to make them susceptible to scientific study.

Also, philosophy not only examines assumptions concerning the nature of reality which underlie science, it attempts to fuse the findings of the various branches of science into one consistent view of reality.

In doing this, philosophy examines, not only the interrelations among the sciences but also the relation of the sciences with other aspects of civilization and culture.

Although the various sciences have their specific objects of investigation, a common methodological procedure is however discernable among the various sciences specialized.

This procedure, by which conclusions and discoveries are alleged to be made in every science, is called the scientific method.

Nevertheless, philosophers also raise methodological problems regarding the scientists’ use of this method.

How for instance can we say that the scientific method is rational and free from apriori metaphysical presuppositions? Even more worrisome is the problem of induction which is at the base of most laws guiding explanation in science.

How for instance is the inductive method of drawing inferences to be justified?

Following the principles of induction, to what extent can we say that scientific predictions are guaranteed by past experiences? Even the scientific practice of confirming and verifying hypotheses raises the question of how massive the supportive evidence for a hypothesis should be, in order for it to rank as a firm and an indubitable knowledge.

At another level, the philosopher raises the question of whether there is an ideal science to which all other sciences are approximations. For instance, the philosopher may want to know whether all the sciences are governed by the same natural laws and theories, and whether the logic of explanation is the same for all the sciences or there are mutually independent modes of explanation.

These issues are of serious concern to philosophers. Addressing them does not require any expertise in any or all of the sciences, what is needed is knowledge of the basic presuppositions and logical interrelations of the sciences and these, the philosopher possesses.

French and Saatsi further describe the subject-matter of philosophy of science in these words: 

Broadly speaking, philosophy of science covers issues such as the methodology of science, including the role of evidence and observation; the nature of scientific theories and how they relate to the world; and the overall aims of science.

It also embraces the philosophies of particular sciences, such as biology, chemistry, physics and neuroscience, and considers the implications of these for such issues as the nature of space-time, the mind-body problem, and the foundations of evolution.

Philosophy of science simply put, is the application of the philosophical tools of analysis, criticisms, conceptual elucidation, to scientific matters. It strives to evaluate scientific knowledge by investigating the logic and reasoning behind scientific activities and discoveries. 

Indeed, philosophy of science is involved in the analysis and evaluation of science. Besides the methodological and other issues discussed earlier, philosophy of science is also interested in the utility and morality of scientific knowledge and projects, the evaluation of scientific results and products, all with a view to seeing whether or not such knowledge, projects, results and products are in conflict with other important values.

Philosophy of science is interested in finding out the extent to which science can actually promote the welfare and civilization of humanity without adversely affecting the rights and interests of human beings and other species of nature.

For instance, philosophy of science would reflect on the issue of whether scientific venture should be carried out to improve human lot, in spite of the recognition that such enterprise can adversely affect the environment and other means of survival of future generations and other beings inhabiting the eco-system.

These and many other concerns constitute the subject-matter of what is called philosophy of science. It is important to point out, however, that it is not only philosophy that has a role to play in science; science also has roles to play towards philosophy.

A fundamental aspect of this is the fact that science supplies a lot of materials for philosophical reflection, and also throws new perspectives on old philosophical issues.


Also read: The Value of Philosophy to the Society

The Scientific Method

Perhaps the most distinctive issue about science is its method. The scientific method concerns the procedures followed in doing science and achieving the results that are deemed scientific.

According to Francis Offor, Scientific method refers to the general procedures of carrying out research in the natural sciences. It has to do with the set of rules, norms and criteria governing all the operations and procedures needed to develop a scientific theory and establish a scientific law.

As a method of research, the scientific method is said to be identified with a number of procedural stages or steps, although scholars are not generally unanimous about the exact number of research stages in the scientific method.

He goes on to observe that the scientific method may schematically be presented as follows:

1. Observation of a problem

2. Formulation of hypothesis

3. Verification by experience

4. Confirmation of hypothesis

5. Formulation of scientific laws.

According to the entry on the “Scientific Method” in The New Universal Library, the basic purpose of scientific enquiry is not to discover masses of isolated facts, but to draw from a specific group of general principles that can be seen to have a wide validity for an understanding of the changing physical world. These general principles are put forward tentatively in the first instance as a guide to further study, so that a further collection of relevant facts is assembled, which in its turn enables modified, or even precise, or perhaps more sweeping generalizations to be drawn up.

This in very broad terms describes the inter-relation between theory and experiment. Investigation moves in the direction that theory suggests might be the most fruitful of results, acting as a check on the theory; while at the same time theory strives to subsume all the existing facts that appear relevant into a connected pattern of a logically determinant nature.

In science, however, it is important to note the role that induction and deduction play in the scientific method.

The generalizations that suggest themselves from a scrutiny of experimental data are merely asserted inductively, and have no necessary logical validity. They become themselves; thereafter however, assumptions in the theory from which conclusions are drawn deductively.

Francis Bacon once argued that scientific knowledge is gained and confirmed by a process of induction. But once such knowledge is established, they become the basis for deductive generalizations. Philosophy of science in recent times, acknowledges the controversy between the Formalist and the Contextualize schools, which largely borders on how best scientific theories, explanatory and predictive powers should be construed.

The basic concerns of the schools concern whether there are universalisable formal structure or logical forms into which all scientific theories are analyzable?

According to the formalists as represented by Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel, Wesley Salmon, and Mary Hesse, every scientific theory, as well as the way it serves the purpose of explanation, can be analyzed into a definite logical structure.

The contextualizes, represented by scholars like N.K. Hanson, Thomas Kuhn, Michael Scriven and Stephen Toulmin argue on the other hand, that there are no logical models into which scientific theories and explanation may be analyzed.

Instead, the contextualizes insist that if we must genuinely assimilate the meaning of scientific theories, we must take into· account the intentions, motives, desires and aspirations of the scientists.

The implication of the foregoing debate is that scientific method may be incapable of explaining much of reality as we should know it.

For instance, science basically answers questions regarding the ‘What’ and ‘How’ of things. However, the ‘Why’ questions regarding the religious, moralistic and metaphysical are outside the purview of science.

Therefore, science becomes incapacitated in using it method in explaining to mankind, why for instance, humans and animals exist, and why an event occurs as against its nonoccurrence.

Since, the natural sciences with all their observational and experimental methods are hopelessly handicapped in providing us with ultimate and logical answers to these and many like questions, they cannot be said without equivocation, to explain in the real sense of the world.

Again, scientific explanation is limited only to the perceptible aspect of the object or event to be explained, thereby leaving out those imperceptible aspects which too many philosophers, are the very essence of any explanation.

Scientific explanation therefore may not be successful in its explanatory bid in as much as the essences of the issues, concepts, materials and mechanism it strives to explain remained unraveled. As E. W. Hobson explains, natural science describes so far as it can, how, or in accordance with what rules, phenomenon happen, but it is wholly incompetent to answer the question of why they happen; which relates to the essences of the events.

It should be noted also that science in recent times has been facing some catastrophic challenges in its business of explanation even within the confine of its empirical laws and axioms.

Science for instance has not been able to explain the operational system of the UFOs- unidentified flying objects.

Though, one may be accused of committing the fallacy of hasty generalization or that of ignorance, as scientific experiments in the future may unfold this mystery, but in the light of today's findings, science is yet to provide a satisfactory explanation of that phenomenon.


Conclusion on Philosophy and Science

The prevailing assumption from time immemorial is that science can solve most, if not all of human problems.

In the history of science therefore, attempts have been made towards proffering an adequate, effective and sustainable explanation of its teeming phenomena and objects of study, using the scientific method. Examining the relationship between science and philosophy becomes apposite, in order to establish the necessity of a philosophical interrogation of the theories, methods and assumptions of science.

We have among other things, examined the meaning of science in the narrow sense as classified and systematized knowledge, formulated with reference to the discovery of general truths or the operations of general laws, especially when such knowledge refers to the physical world.

The historical relationship between philosophy and science with a view to showing the extent of philosophy’s involvement in the interrogation of the theories, claims, suppositions and method of science.

Finally, the scientific method, which describes the procedures which an investigation has to follow in order to produce a result which can be adjudged scientific, was examined, with a view to bringing out its shortcoming in explaining reality as we know it today.

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