Science and Philosophy

Some late comments on Richard Carrier’s blog post re ‘Is Philosophy Stupid?’ raise interesting questions about the relationship of science to philosophy.

While I have always been inclined to share Richard’s view that science (aka “natural philosophy”) is actually a branch of philosophy, I am now tempted to question that identification.

To me a “science” is just any teachable method for making successful testable predictions. Although the predictions may be stochastic in nature, the criterion of testability is intended to restrict attention to predictions of a kind (such as “this needle will point into that range on the scale”) about which it is almost impossible to imagine any sane person questioning whether the predicted outcome actually happened. (Often in practice we use less apparent predictions expressed in terms of theoretical constructs, but in principle everything should be reducible to counting unambiguous objects or events.)

As such, science is a practice which happens to be useful for achieving practical goals, but so is walking and I don’t think anyone would think of walking as a branch of philosophy (even though it might well be a practice that helps clear the mind in support of some kinds of philosophy).

Philosophy is, for me, much harder to define but I think it has to include some beliefs re truth and/or value, and I think there is a subtle difference between making a prediction and claiming that the prediction is “true”.

The belief that scientific predictions do represent a kind of truth is a philosophical position, and the stronger position that there are no others has (by what I consider an offensive abuse of language) been called “scientism”.

By profession I have been a scientist – but by philosophy I am not so sure.

On the other hand, if science does coincide with natural philosophy then what’s left for the philosophy departments is just the non-natural kind (supernatural and unnatural).

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