My Facebook page says that I am a scientist, but I do science and philosophy. So am I a philosopher or a scientist? That question assumes that we can argue for a clear boundary between philosophy and science—an assumption that’s (at best) controversial, but more likely an “unqualified failure” (Laudan 1996, 85). Here are three reasons to think that philosophy is continuous with science.
1. Science involves philosophy
Good science, that is.
Science attempts to understand the world empirically. This involves — among other things — drawing inferences from hypotheses, data, and analyses of that data. These inferences are supposed to be good. But how do we determine whether an inference is good? First, we test it. If the inference leads to more successful predictions, then that is some reason to think that the inference is good.
But, second, we will also need to do philosophy: i.e., present and analyze arguments and concepts. For any inference, we want to see if it logically follows or if the concept being investigated by scientists is sufficiently defined. Consider an example. Scientists often find correlations that improve their predictions. That’s good. But when we do a bit of philosophy, we find that correlations don’t logically entail causation. Still, we find that some correlations do suggest causation. So we might do philosophy to determine the necessary features of the causative correlation concept. After all, if we understand the necessary features of causation, then we can justify certain inferences of causal relationships.
2. Philosophy improves science
Suppose I argue that invisible leprechauns live in computers. And suppose that part of this argument entails that the leprechauns are empirically undetectable. Further, the leprechauns make no difference to your everyday life. If I’d never told you about them, your life could be no different. So does my argument — even if it is logically impeccable — matter?
Many people will think that it does not.
So what’s the difference between this philosophy of leprechauns and philosophy that matters? Put another way, why might philosophy matter? Well, for starters, philosophy can generate empirically testable claims. Philosophy can also explore the implications of already empirically tested claims. But what about when philosophy doesn’t do this? Does it matter more than the philosophy of leprechauns?
Logic & Math
For example, logic and math are neither testable nor implied by empirically testable claims. So do math and logic matter? To answer that question imagine that my last argument were not about leprechauns, but about a particular mathematical or logical conclusion. And remember: the argument is logically impeccable. Would this matter? It might.
After all, whether our scientific predictions are successful seems to depend (at least in part) on our doing math and logic. So if we learn something hitherto unknown about math or logic, then we might thereby be able to produce more or better successful scientific predictions. So math and logic seem to matter even if they aren’t testable.
Now, what’s the difference between leprechauns and math? In short, the difference might be usefulness. Optimal science can dispense with leprechauns. Optimal science cannot, however, dispense with math and logic. This doesn’t mean that leprechauns are useless. Perhaps leprechauns are useless only to science.
And here’s another question: how are leprechauns similar to math and logic? Here’s one possibility: We do not need to believe in the existence of numbers or leprechauns to benefit from them. Perhaps letting them feature in our thoughts is enough to obtain their benefits.
3. Philosophers do science; Scientists do philosophy
Seriously. Some of my favorite philosophers do science. And their science leads to progress in philosophy. Likewise, some of my favorite scientists do philosophy. And their philosophy leads to progress in science. The fact that each field yields progress in the other field makes more sense if philosophy is continuous with science than it does if philosophy isn’t continuous with science.
Obviously, not all philosophers do their own empirical work. But they might do philosophical work that improves or bears on science. And not all scientists do their own philosophy. But many scientists do research that answers age-old philosophical questions — e.g., about memory/learning, about reasoning, about perception, about attention, or about the nature of philosophy itself. Again, this is less surprising if philosophy is continuous with science than it is if philosophy isn’t so continuous.
So, back to our opening question. Why does my Facebook page say that I am a scientist? Two reasons.
First, while my Ph.D. is in philosophy, much of what I do either is or is about science. So perhaps my Facebook page should refer to me as a philosopher and a scientist. Then again, these might not be clearly distinct.
The reasons given in this post are now common. They are derivative of ideas from Willard Van Orman Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism“, Rudolf Carnap’s “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology“, and Hilary Putnam’s “The Logic of Philosophy“.