Philosophy, Science, and Scientism

As a kid, I loved learning science. One of the best learning experiences I ever had was performing science experiments in 7th and 8th grade. One experiment showed that mice that listened to classical music could remember their way through a maze much better than mice who listened to rock music. These experiments gave me great excitement and confidence that I had discovered something about the universe that I could prove to others through observation. Because of that experience, I can see why many people have a great optimism about science and what it can do. Some people think that science can solve all problems and answer every question. Some people think that science is simply synonymous with truth. At times, I have even been tempted to use the word "science" in this way. The view that science can provide answers to every question is called scientism. A weaker form of scientism is the view that science provides a superior method for gaining knowledge about the universe. I will try to show why scientism is mistaken by explaining the relationship between science and philosophy.

Science is an ambiguous term
The first point of clarification about science is that the word "science" has been used in so many ways that it's meaning is rather ambiguous. Science has become an honorific term and every discipline wants to call itself a science. Because of this conception of science, everyone has an incentive to call what they believe "science" in order to give the impression of unquestionable authority.

Science and philosophy address different types of questions
Philosophy and science are similar because they are both universal in subject matter and they are both tools that can be used to gain knowledge and understanding. Philosophy and science are different in the following way: science deals with questions that can be answered in a systematic way, while philosophy generally deals with questions that we do not yet know how to answer in a systematic way. According to the Philosopher John Searle, "When knowledge becomes systematic, and especially when systematic knowledge becomes secure to the point that we are confident that it is knowledge as opposed to mere opinion, we are more inclined to call it "science" and less inclined to call it "philosophy". One of the goals of philosophy is to think rigorously and clearly about questions in a conceptual way so that they can become scientific questions. Within this context one can see why all scientific questions were once philosophical questions. Philosophy provides the necessary conceptual analysis that makes science possible in the first place. The scientific method itself was conceived by philosophers.

This relationship between science and philosophy shows why science is always appears right and philosophy is always appears wrong. "As soon as we think we really know something, we stop calling it philosophy and start calling it science" says Searle. Anthony Gottlieb, the author of The Dream of Reason, has similarly argued that the philosophical methods of thinking are often co-opted by other disciplines creating the illusion that philosophy is never making progress. It is a mistake to think that science is superior to philosophy. The christening of a new scientific discipline is really just the success of philosophical inquiry. The fact that philosophy  deals with questions for which we do not yet have a systemic way of answering also shows why there can be no such thing as an expert philosopher in the same way that there can be an expert on molecular biology. Philosophers will rarely share the luxury that scientists have of general agreement and conformity on a given subject. However, this does mean that anything goes in philosophy. In many ways, the nature of philosophy demands an even greater degrees of clarity, rigor, and precision in thinking about conceptual issues.

Example of philosophy and neuroscience
Recent developments in neuroscience provide a clear example of the picture I am trying to illustrate about the relationship between philosophy and science. Until recently, neuroscientists said that they could not study consciousness, nor could they get funding even if they wanted to. A few decades ago, John Searle asked a famous neurobiologist at UCSF why neuroscientists didn't get to work on consciousness and he said, "Look, in my discipline it's okay to be interested in consciousness, but get tenure first." 

The standard objection from scientists went something like this: "Science is objective, consciousness is subjective, therefore science can never study consciousness." Philosophers working in the field of the philosophy of mind were able to show that the scientists were making a conceptual error. The subjective/objective distinction has two senses. There is an ontological sense and an epistemic sense of each word. Ontology refers to modes of existence while epistemology refers to ways of knowing. When scientists said, "Science is objective" they were referring to the epistemic sense of the word "objective". When they said "consciousness is subjective" they were referring to the ontological sense of the word "subjective". Philosophers were able to convince neuroscientists to study consciousness by showing that there could be an epistemically objective science about an ontologically subjective domain. Now neuroscience has the funding to search for the illusive NCC (neural correlates of consciousness) in large part thanks to philosophers who clarified the conceptual issues.

Despite some apparent progress in neuroscience, the oxford philosopher Peter Hacker and neuroscientist Maxwell Bennett have co-authored the recent book, "The Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience" that shows why neuroscientists are still plagued with many serious conceptual errors that are hindering the progress of knowledge and understanding in neuroscience. This could be one explanation for why progress in neuroscience is moving so slowly.

Scientism implies a false conception of philosophy
It is ironic for those who tend toward scientism to be so quick to dismiss philosophy. Stephen Hawking provides a good example of the irony of scientism. In The Grand Design, he wrote, "...philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge...” This view is frankly absurd once one understands the relationship between philosophy and science. It assumes that science and philosophy are independent of each other and competing to answer the same questions. Not only does Stephen Hawking fail to see the relationship between science and philosophy, he fails to see how often he engages in philosophy when he says things like "philosophy is dead" or when he advocates philosophical approaches to science such as "model-dependent realism". Adherents of scientism just can't resist making the same sorts of philosophical claims that they argue against. 

Conclusion
Philosophy and science form a symbiotic relationship. Both are aimed at knowledge and understanding, but each addresses different types of questions. Science addresses things like "What causes the tides to rise?" Philosophy addresses questions such as "What is the nature of causation?" "Philosophy" is in large part the name for all the questions that we do not know how to answer in the systematic way that is characteristic of science. Although I love science, the questions that interest me most currently cannot be fully addressed by science. These questions include, "What is the nature of the mind?", "Do human beings have free will?", "What is society and what are its functions?", "Where do human rights come from?", and "How can I be a better person?"

Strong scientism is the belief that all questions can be answered by science. Weak scientism is the belief that science is a categorically superior way of knowing. Strong scientism is self-contradictory since it is circular to try to use science to validate science. Weak scientism is mistaken because it assumes a false conception of the relationship between philosophy and science. Science and philosophy answer different types of questions and they are both important. However, without the conceptual analysis of philosophy, science could not be possible. According to Albert Einstein,

So many people today, and even professional scientists, seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is, in my opinion, the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.