Science vs. Philosophy …or maybe they are continuous

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.

Summing Up

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.

So what’s the second reason that I’m labeled ‘scientist’ on Facebook? It’s simple, really. Neither ‘Logical Empiricist’ nor ‘Pragmatist‘ were options.

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“.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at

17 thoughts on “Science vs. Philosophy …or maybe they are continuous”

      1. Here:
        1) Science doesn’t need philosophy to justify its claims. It is a self-contained body of knowledge. It has its methods of verification. ( see Popper)
        2) Philosophy has logic for its claim to truth. And logic is as strict as mathematics. If your justifications are all true, and your logic is valid, then it is enough justification for your claim. Logic distinguishes philosophy from leperchauns!

          1. Where does Popper argue that science can verify its claims? I’ve only read Popper argue the opposite. E.g., “The falsification of the prediction shows that the explicans is false, yet the reverse of this does not hold: it is incorrect and grossly misleading to think that we can interpret the ‘verification’ of the prediction as ‘verifying’ the explicans or even a part of it. For a true prediction may easily have been validly deduced from an explicans that is false.” (Objective Knowledge, Appendix).

          2. How exactly does logic confer truth for philosophy? Validity only confers truth on a conclusion when premises are true. But logic doesn’t itself confer truth on premises.

          1. All you did was elaborate on the points I’ve made.
            1. Falsifiability means verification.
            2. Truth is not logic’s job but it ain’t the monopoly of science either.

          2. If by ‘elaborate on’ you mean I’ve given reasons to think that your claims are either false or contradictory, then I suppose I’ve elaborated on your points.
            1. Where does Popper say that falsifiability means verification?
            2. How is “philosophy has logic for its claim to truth” consistent with “truth is not logic’s job”? Unless more is said, your two claims seem to constitute a contradiction.

          3. 1. Falsifiability means what is true today may not be in the future. So it assumes and goes beyond verification. And you should know Popper has an evolutionary notion of truth. But all these confirm my initial claim that science is self-regulating.
            2. Logic distinguishes philosophy from leperchauns. And it is logic that legitimizes philosophy’s claims for meanings, aesthetics, the profound.

          4. 1. Where does Popper say that today’s unfalsified claims are true? And how does Popper’s view show that Science can do without philosophy? You’ve named what is to be shown, but you’ve not shown it.
            2. So you’re no longer claiming that “philosophy has logic for its claim to truth”. That might help eliminate the seeming contradiction.

          5. You really do not understand Popper nor logic and its value to philosophy. You did not even mention it in your article.

            I sign off with this.

          6. So both of us made lots of claims about philosophy or science, but only one of us offers textual evidence from philosophy and science. I think it’s pretty clear where the burden lies and who isn’t bearing that burden.

  1. I think you’re right. There’s no sharp division between them. Science seems to look down on philosophy as unempirical. I doubt many scientists even recognize the metaphysical underpinnings of all they do, including external realism and free will. No empirical science would be possible without these two unempirical metaphysical stances.

    There are many other foundational philosophical and scientific stances that are not empirical. Our society emphasizes the empirical largely because of its material and acquisitive focus. If our values included an appropriate balance of inner life, including arts, aesthetics, and the realms of pure spirit and pure thought, we might be more accepting of the unempirical foundations of knowledge.

    1. Interesting. The kind of continuity that Quine and Carnap would endorse would not include claims to external realism or free will — if those are supposed to be claims about metaphysical reality. Perhaps you have a different kind of continuity in mind than Quine’s or Carnap‘s.

  2. “good philosophy would have to make claims that matter. They should be empirically testable. And if not testable, then they should have implications that are empirically testable. If they do neither of these things, then it’s hard to see why they matter.”

    I have never been able to understand the jump from “claims that matter” to “they must be empirically verifiable.” Ethics is a good example. I can’t think of an empirical test that would show a certain action to be immoral, but it seems like ethical claims matter a great deal. Honestly, in reading Carnap all I can think is that his work is a post hoc rationalization for the conviction that science can explain everything. But why, no matter how clever his system is, should I buy this?

    1. You mention that ethics seems significant. Carnap can agree: it’s non-cognitively significant. But that’s not a metric of progress. And most ethicists don’t even agree with that claim.

      Unless and until ethicists can agree on a common metric of progress (analogous to science’s well-confirmed generalizations), it is unclear how to formalize ethics (like Carnap does for epistemology) and thereby track its progress.

      So even if ethics seems important, it cannot — by its own lights, in its current form — be formalized so precisely as Carnap’s view of philosophy and cannot make progress the way that Carnap’s view of philosophy can. So if formalism and progress matter to you, then you might have two reasons to prefer Carnap’s version of philosophy to what ethicists offer.

      1. Why should something being difficult for formalize or controversial make it non-cognitive? That is practically a reductio.

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