Science vs. Philosophy …or maybe they are continuous

My Facebook page says that I am a scientist. But I work with both philosophers and scientists. And I do both empirical as well as philosophical research. So am I a philosopher or a scientist? That question assumes that there is a clear boundary between philosophy and science. And that assumption is — at best — controversial. 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 rather than a philosopher? Two reasons.

First, I had to choose only one. And while I’ve done science, my PhD will be in philosophy, so perhaps my Facebook page should refer to me as a philosopher. Then again, you might be convinced that philosophy isn’t distinct from science.

So what’s the second reason? It’s simple, really. ‘Philosopher’ is not an option for Facebook Pages.


The reasons given in this post are now common. But 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

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This author neither knows his science nor his philosophy well.

Eric Lindell

I think you mean, “this author knows neither his science nor his philosophy well,” n’est-ce pas?

Eric Lindell
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… Read more »
“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… Read more »