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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Science and Philosophy: Competing Paradigms

For the antepenultimate[1] essay in this series, I will tackle the thorny issue of the relation between science and philosophy. Philosophy can be made as wide as you like to include anything concerned with knowledge. In that regard, science could be considered a subset of philosophy. It is even claimed that science arose out of philosophy, but that is an over simplification. Science owes at least as much to alchemy as to Aristotle. After all, both Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) and Robert Boyle[2] (1627 – 1691) were alchemists and the philosophers, including Francis Bacon, vehemently opposed Galileo. Here, I wish to restrict philosophy to what might be call western philosophy—the tradition started with the ancient Greeks and continued ever since in monasteries and the hallowed halls of academia.

Let us start this discussion with Thomas Kuhn (1922 – 1996). He observed that Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics did not just differ in degree, but were entirely different beasts. He, then, introduced the idea of paradigms to denote such changes of perspective. However, Kuhn misidentified the fault line. It was not between Aristotelian physics and Newtonian physics, but rather between western philosophy and science. Indeed, I would say that science (along with its sister discipline, engineering) is demarcated by a common definition of what knowledge is (see below). In science, classical and quantum mechanics are very different, yet they share a common paradigm for the nature of knowledge and, hence, we can compare the two from common ground.

Bertrand Russell (1872 –1970) in his A History of Western Philosophy makes a point similar to Kuhn’s. Russell claims that from the ancient Greeks up to the renaissance, philosophers would have been able to understand and discourse with each other. Plato (424 BCE – 348 BCE) and Machiavelli (1469 –1527) would have been able to discuss, if brought together. Similarly with Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) and Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), if Aquinas refrained from having Luther burnt at the stake.  They shared a common paradigm, if not a common view. But with the advent of science, that changes. Neither Aristotle nor Aquinas would have understood Newton. The paradigm had shifted. This shift from philosophy to science is the best and, perhaps, the only real example of a paradigm shift in Kuhn’s original meaning.  Like Kuhn, Russell misidentified the fault line. It was not between early and late western philosophy, but between philosophy and science. C.P. Snow (1905 – 1980) in his 1959 lecture, The two Cultures, identifies a similar fault line but between science and the humanities more generally.

So what are these two paradigms? Philosophy is concerned with using rational arguments[3] to understand the nature of reality. Science turns that on its head and defines rational arguments through observation. A rotational argument is one that helps build models with increased predictive power. To doubt the Euclidian geometry of physical space-time or to suggest twins could age at different rates were at one time considered irrational ideas, beyond the pale. But now they are accepted due to observation-based modeling.  Philosophy tends to define knowledge as that which is true and known to be true for good reason (with debate over what good reason is). Science defines knowledge in terms of observation and observationally constrained models with no explicit mention of the metaphysics concept of truth. Science is concerned with serviceable, rather than certain knowledge.

Once one realizes science and philosophy are distinct paradigms, a lot becomes clear. For example, why philosophers have had so much trouble coming to grips with what science is. Scientific induction as proposed by Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) does not exist. David Hume (1711 – 1776) started the philosophy of science down the dead end street to logical positivism. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) thought Euclidean geometry was synthetic a priori information, and Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) introduced falsification, which is now largely dismissed by philosophers. Even today, the philosophic community as a whole does not understand what the scientific method is and tends toward the idea that it does not exist at all. All attempts, by either scientist or philosophers, to fit the square peg of science into the round hole of western philosophy have failed and will probably continue to do so into the indefinite future. Eastern philosophy is even more distant.

The different paradigms also provide the explanation of the misunderstanding between science and philosophy. Alfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) claimed that all of modern philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. On the other hand, Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996) claims Plato and his followers delayed the advance of knowledge by two millennia. The two statements are not in contradiction if you have a negative conception of philosophy. And indeed, many scientists do have a negative conception of philosophy; a short list includes Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988), Ernest Rutherford (1871 – 1937), Steven Weinberg (b. 1933), Stephen Hawking (b. 1962), and Lawrence Krauss (b. 1954).  Feynman is quoted as saying: Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds. To a large extent, Feynman is correct. The philosophy of science has had little or no effect on the actual practice of science. It has, however, had a large impact on the scientist’s self-image of what they do. Newton was influenced by Francis Bacon, Darwin by Hume, and just try suggesting to a room full of physicists that science is not based on falsification[4].  Even this essay is built around Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm (but most of Kuhn’s other ideas on science are, to put it bluntly, wrong).

This series of essays has been devoted to defining the scientific paradigm for what knowledge is.  The conclusion I have reached, as noted above, is that western philosophy and science are based on different paradigms for the nature of knowledge. But are they competing or complementary paradigms? My take is that the two paradigms are incompatible as well as incommensurate. Knowledge cannot be simultaneously defined by what is true in the metaphysical sense, and by model building.

To receive a notice of future posts follow me on Twitter: @musquod.


[1] That is N2LP in the compact notation of effective field theorists.

[2] The son of the Earl of Cork and the father of modern chemistry.

[3] This is an oversimplification but sufficient for our purposes.

[4] Although I am a theorist, I did that experiment. Not pretty.

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21 Responses to “Science and Philosophy: Competing Paradigms”

  1. Remy Porter says:

    I slightly disagree. The philosophical paradigm is broader than the statements here. At its core, since Plato, philosophy has been about taking certain givens and reasoning from there to conclusions. Platonic philosophy wanted those givens to arise a priori, and there is definitely a strong thread through western philosophy that prizes a priori reasoning over all others.

    But philosophy can be done a posteriori as well- you can reason from observation. While this isn’t the main thread of philosophical thinking, it certainly is a thread that traces through Western philosophy, and it’s expressed most strongly in the Early Modern era (which is where most people pin the branching point between philosophy and science, in a pop-culture accurate sort of way).

    And there’s a growing, although I suppose disreputable movement in philosophy, that points out that a priori reasoning is impossible- there are no platonic givens that can form the foundation of thought, because any thought we can possibly have arises from neurological and chemical activities that are themselves a posteriori.

    //At least, my sense is that there is such a movement, since I’ve seen hints of that around philosophical discourse. I think it’s a side effect of compsci nerds discovering philosophy.

  2. I am agree with main text lines- “……Philosophy is concerned with using rational arguments[3] to understand the nature of reality. Science turns that on its head and defines rational arguments through observation. A rotational argument is one that helps build models with increased predictive power……”. But, the birth of Observational Science, as we see today, is from the Rational Philosophy. Philosophy has always been helpful in the developments in Science. Philosophy give peace to the mind and soul and accept the existence of Supreme Authority, which science has not been able to prove. Only Indian Philosophy had given the idea that God is existing in each particle, which has been proved by Scientific community, after thousands of years past, on 4th July 2012. Reasonable Philosophy is the base of Science and its importance can never be ignored.

  3. Particle within particle is an endless journey,explosion after explosion will lead to ZERO. Ultimately the world of no particle…element,nucleus,protons,neutrons,electrons-hundred of subatomic particles…inthe last is the cosmic energy-where the game of energy into matter and matter into energy goes on…this organisation of cosmic energy into matter then into living matter is not without organizer “The GOD”.It is one and becomes infinite as energy transform in to particle…begnning of elements-so is the science.
    once particle become non-particle no science is there,no calculation are there….but organizer is still there to play the game of life. admit DNA is the source of infinite energy of subconscious mind-after death matter goes off-cosmic energy rule the game.It happens many time in nature…if beginning is there the end is there this is again endless game “The SOUL”.
    Research is also endless journey-let it go on.Supreme is GOD… beyond the,particle,time ,space,and matter.

  4. quentin says:

    Kuhn gives numerous examples of paradigm shifts within science.
    Philosophrrs disagreed with Newton just as they disagree together.
    Alchemy was rooted in philosophy as well.
    Theoretical scientific thinking is Not based on observztion but on abstract reasonning over à rational system just like philosophy.
    All great scientists were philosophers as well. It is no more the case today and there hasn’t been any major paradigm shift since then.
    Philosophy cannot define itself as well Nor most of its own branches and not only science.
    Whitehead’s quote is very disputable.
    À lot of philosophy of science can hardly be distinguished from actual Theoretical science.
    A lot of past philosophical problems are now scientific problems.

    • quentin says:

      My feeling is that you are trying to make of science something very special (that even philosophy cannot grasp, wow!) that it is not. For that purpose you are providing a philosophical argument which lacks riguor with very bold statements and misuse of philodophical concepts (such as paradigm which generally apply to science only). Were it rigorous i am pretty sure you wouldn’t reach the same conclusion. Scientists are bashing philosophy as you notice only since our educational system separate humanities and sciences which is a very bad thing. Meamwhile scientists are merely doing philosophy as well as they can without a proper formation that could benefit them a lot, and without even noticing that they are doing it. Especially in theoretical science. Instead of separating the disciplines or claiming their incomensurabilities ( Which I think is an inconsistent philosophical claim) we ‘d better promote more dialog.

    • Byron says:

      It is not that “even philosophy can not grasp” but rather that “especially philosophy can not grasp” as they are based on different ideas of what knowledge is

      Kuhn’s examples of paradigm changes mostly lacking incommensurablity so perhaps not real examples.

    • quen_tin says:

      There is not only one single idea of what knowledge is that drives philosophy and another that drives science, rather the question of what knowledge is (in science or other areas) is a philosophical question.

      Kuhn pretends that his examples display incommensurability. This might be controversial but then so is the idea that philosophy and science would be incommensurable. Even more so: I don’t think that the latter has any meaning, beacuse there are several philosophies, and most of them are discussing scientific knowledge which show that they can unproblamatically grasp that knowledge (if not the process of making science itself, but that’s another question and I think that some philosophies actually grasp what science is pretty well).

  5. One major methodological difference is the source of the raw material. Philosophy, in the sense of linguistic analysis, starts from material that is common to us all. We all are conscious, we all think, we all perceive, we all make verbal claims and perform actions that feel “free”. Analysing the implications of being human in this sense leads to an analysis of what we mean by “reality”. by “true”, and so on. Philosophy does not add new knowledge, it analyses the implications of existing knowledge. Science on the other hand adds new knowledge, but is usually not accessible to everyone. Alas, I cannot afford a LHC in my garden. The methods of science, whether or not one accepts the falsification principle, is that a doubtful or disagreed result can be ‘done again” to resolve differences. Science is pubic, self-correcting, and adds to knowledge. On the falsification/verification problem, I think the best way is to think not in terms of “5 sigma means it cannot be due to chance”, but rather in terms of Bayesian statistics, which handles quantitatively the upgrading of probability both in terms of existing evidence, and in the impact of new evidence, whether pro or con. if anything, there is an asymptotic approach to certainty, in a Bayesian framework.

  6. After Higgs Boson discovery, there are MANY QUESTIONS which are waiting for the answers and proof from Science, such as:
    1.who is the maker of Boson and other sub-atomic particles, in the Universe?
    2.Why Universe came into existence?
    3.What was the immediate need to make Universe and by WHOM?
    4.How Energy originated and why?
    5.Is there the existence of SUPREME AUTHORITY which is controlling all these events going-on?
    I am sure that Science will take time of decades to answer with proof to these questions BUT Philosophy has already the reasonable answers to these questions, including Indian Philosophy.

  7. cormac says:

    Very interesting post. I sometimes think that science is simply a new version of philosophy; it proceeds along the rational lines of philosophy but has the extra dimension of the role of evidence in deciding between rival theories etc.
    However, I think the hostility towards philosophy expressed by so many scientists, from Feynman to Krauss, is not only because philosophy is often seen as ‘weaker’ than science, but because of a confusion of the ‘philosophy of science’ with philosophy proper. The former has really come to mean a philosophy of scientific practice, and all too often, it is practiced by academics who have very little experience of how experimental or theoretical science really works in practice. I suspect good philosophers have much too offer science when they consider the world established by science (what could a beginning really mean in the context of Godel’s incompleteness theorem for example ; unfortunately, most philosophers confine themselves to discussing the practice of science, which they often don’t understand very well

  8. Nick says:

    I feel that this is an argument from a “straw philosopher”: I don’t think that philosophy attempts to answer the same questions the natural sciences do, or at least not in the same way. I mean, there is no competition between philosophy and science; they aren’t even playing the same game. Since enlightenment times and the advent of science, philosophy has not been about observing and predicting phenomena in the natural world. (For some reason, repeatable, quantifiable observation of phenomena is a good way of creating knowledge. I don’t know why, ask a philosopher.)

  9. Philosophy is differ from Science in the fact that Science is directly related to Materialistic/ Physical world while Philosophy is above this. Philosophy is completely based on reasonable thoughts.

  10. Chad Nelson says:

    I think there’s more similarities than we care to admit, especially in certain area’s like theoretical physics. Philosophy (at least old Greek) is about making sound arguments, making them self consistent. This is exactly what we do with math in physics, making it self consistent. So in theoretical physics the major difference is that instead of using language to make the argument, we use math. Then, as the Greek philosophers did, we try and fit that to observation. For example the Atomists tried to make their “theoretical physics” work with all their observations of how dust fell, how water flowed, etc. They lacked the technology of testing those far out ideas, but they DID test what they could.

    I really think the ancient Greeks would have loved how we’ve set up our modern scientific method. In some sense Democritis was 2000 years before his time.

    • Byron says:

      As a theoretical physicist, I would say theoretical physics is more like math than philosophy. What science does use observation to define what sound argument is. With the continual checking against observation,even the best arguments, tends to go astray.

      Some of the ancient Greeks might have liked modern science but I doubt Socrates, Plato or Aristotle would have. It is just to foreign to their was of thought. Perhaps, Epicurus would have but he was especially dogmatic.

  11. Mike Will says:

    Rutherford was mentioned in the original essay, he famously said:
    “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

    Stamp collecting is beautiful, intriguing, thoughtful, honourable, erudite, etc.
    But it ain’t science.

    “the philosophic community as a whole does not understand what the scientific method is”
    Other scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, would agree. Perhaps the brutal, shocking simplicity of ideas like evolution don’t pass the sniff test of philosophy.

  12. Peter Gerdes says:

    So what are these two paradigms? Philosophy is concerned with using rational arguments to understand the nature of reality. Science turns that on its head and defines rational arguments through observation.

    So science doesn’t use rational arguments to infer theory from observation?

    As philosophers of science have widely pointed out there are an infinite number of theories compatible with any set of observations. Heck, the observations we have to this point are equally consistent with the predictions of the standard model remaining true tomorrow and the theory which says the universe is described by the standard model until July 10th 2012 and afterwards by some completely different theory (say one of those crazy clockwork universe mechanisms proposed in the early days of scientists). Don’t try to tell me scientists are indifferent between those two outcomes even though they are both equally consistent with observation.

    Ultimately, science is concerned with what can be *deduced* from observation. You can’t make any predictions based purely on what has been observed (because any future observation is consistent with past observations).

    Now maybe you will try and say the difference is that philosophy is interested in pure rational arguments and science is interested in what can be deduced from observation. But all claims of the form ‘If we observe such and such then we should predict so and so’ are independent of any observational component (presumably they state something that is true regardless of what is actually observed) and yet science depends on them (at least the ones where the preconditions are what is actually observed).

    I don’t think you can make the distinction so cleanly as this.

    Personally, I’d make the distinction between bad/unjustified philosophy and good/justified philosophy. There is plenty of very good philosophy to be done on questions like ‘Does what we observe about the universe give us reason to believe that the big bang was special in being low entropy or does it merely show the terms we use to describe entropy are those we are evolved to find simply (volume etc..) and if the big bang had happened in some other way there would be some other intelligent life form here with different ideas about what are simple descriptions of ‘macrostates’ and hence a notion of entropy that also looked like entropy was increasing from a very low entropy beginning.’

    I challenge you to easily classify that kind of question since it is one debated in both philosophical contexts and journals of physics (or at least things asserted about it..I’m disappointed with the quality of the debate in both).

    • Peter Gerdes says:

      Just as an addendum:

      I agree that in practice there is something to what you say. Philosophers and scientists end up behaving very differently because there are different institutional pressures in the fields.

      As a result a great deal of crap gets asserted in philosophy because success is much less indirectly tied to observation and much more tied to pleasing people’s intuitions and the egos of big names in the field. Certainly the same can be said of science (or physics) but it is at least closer to observation and prediction which allows the grand old men of the field to be overturned more easily.

      However, I’d argue this is a difference of degree not one of kind. As a result more of philosophy is (quite frankly) pure BS but there is no principled bright line you can draw that puts physics on one side and philosophy on the other and both are vulnerable to the same kinds of BS and intellectual mistakes.

  13. christophe nicolas says:

    I assure you, I have always understood Karl Popper in the sense of Kuhn. For me it is obvious. Falsify does not mean destroy, but replace cover. We would go to oblivion if he who falsifies offers nothing.
    Feynman did not like philosophers. This proves that he has reflected the sense of theories, it failed. Like everyone else, he did not say “I failed,” he said “it is useless.” Mait he also said “one day someone can explain …”I assure you, I have always understood Karl Popper in the sense of Kuhn. For me it is obvious. Falsify does not mean destroy, but replace cover. We would go to oblivion if he who falsifies offers nothing.
    Feynman did not like philosophers. This proves that he has reflected the sense of theories, it failed. Like everyone else, he did not say “I failed,” he said “it is useless.” Mait he also said “one day someone can explain …”

  14. christophe nicolas says:

    Sorry, my daughter play with the computer keys,
    I did not know Kuhn. I just read a summary on wikipedia. It is very good.

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