Why Philosophy is Superior to Science

Though the wording of the title of this post might seem to be advancing some degree of propaganda or “anti-scientific” jargon, I promise it isn’t. When I say that “philosophy is superior to science”, I do not mean to say that in regards to my personal experience or preference, philosophy is clearly more interesting or intellectually satisfying than science. Arrogantly beyond that point, I would have to construct some argument for that statement when I don’t think anyone really wants to hear it. Rather, by “philosophy is superior to science”, I mean to say that philosophy is epistemically superior to science; which, historically, is an interesting claim indeed.

Surely, matters of scientific inquiry relate to a methodology of knowledge (that I have often written about) known as induction. This method, when we have a limited number of examples in a limited field, can pertain [or amount us] to an epistemic position known as perfect induction (or, complete enumeration). For instance, saying that I want to know the answer to the question of how many cookies (limited examples) there are in a jar (limited field) can be determined in a way that would surely (but often rarely) give me absolute certainty in regards to the amount of data that I’m working with.

General induction however,  “takes particular examples and builds from that a general conclusion, it offers probable or statistical truth, but not absolute certainty” [1]. A few moments in commenting on the nature of induction could be in order for the reader’s attention.

Induction in Passing

Induction (as Francis Bacon came to understand the term) is a method of taking a limited number of data, or examples, and making a general inference/rule that best explains the entire set of data. For instance, things tend to fall where dropped. Other things are likewise influenced by forces which are immensely larger than what we can drop (like planets, stars, etc.). Thus, we can infer gravity.

However, not all future examples will conform to the general rule. To suggest that it does, commits what is known as the induction fallacy. This says that we that can’t assume the future based off of events from the past (no matter how frequent they’ve occurred). Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) recognized this in his ‘Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’ (1748). One interesting aspect of Hume however, was that as a result of experience (according to Hume) man comes to believe that “like objects placed in like circumstances will always produce like effects” [2].

Unfortunately, he would later become committed to the view that we can’t exclude the logical possibility of nature changing, and that we were not justified in believing that an object “seen today would produce the same effects as on a previous occasion” (Himsworth, 1986). Interestingly enough as Himsworth suggests, “man can formulate descriptive generalizations that are valid within the limits of his experience, he cannot assert that they are universally so, for further experience may reveal them to be defective in some respect” (Ibid. 36).

Therefore, the degree of certainty to ‘descriptive’ generalizations “depends upon the completeness of the factual observations on which it is founded” (p. 37). To claim absolute certainty, it would need to be based on all past, present, and future objects of the kind in question! So in a strict sense, science can’t necessarily come to absolute facts regarding anything because of our limited experiences and inability to assess all past, present, and future data. [3]

Epistemic Status Over Another 

In order to understand the reasons for thinking philosophy is epistemically superior to science, or at least in discourse for a more general outlook on knowledge and what knowledge amounts to, it is important to understand the matter with a historical mindset. The reason for this being, is as follows: Science is bound by specific axioms in order to function properly to their relative fields. For instance, matters of astronomy, chemistry and biology all follow a certain set of axioms in order to preform the discourse of biology, the discourse of chemistry and so on. However, these axioms themselves are not the result of scientific research or scrutiny. As Alexander George recognizes in his article, ‘Lost in the Clouds?‘:

Philosophy is the only activity such that to pursue questions about the nature of that activity is to engage in it.  We can certainly ask what we are about when doing mathematics or biology or history – but to ask those questions is no longer to do mathematics or biology or history.  One cannot, however, reflect on the nature of philosophy without doing philosophy.  Indeed, the question of what we ought to be doing when engaged in this strange activity is one that has been wrestled with by many great philosophers throughout philosophy’s long history. [4]

The stress of importance on this matter is interestingly seen in Gordon Clark’s analysis of the history of Western Philosophy in ‘Thales to Dewey‘ (1989). For instance, in his introduction to the Pre-Socratics he tries to find a proper way of understanding a fair definition of the discipline of philosophy. He comments that “the philosopher… studies general principles and connects the special sciences with each other” [5]. In full he writes:

The man who knows all about plants is not expected to know how botany affects political science; the chemist pays no attention to chemistry’s relation to linguistics; a good psychologist need not to be an expert in economics. Yet all these sciences are related in some way to each other. And this is one preliminary way in which to describe philosophy. [6]

This is manifestly understood from Thales and Kepler as a historical example. Particularly in the discourse found in Thales, science and philosophy become intertwined in a point where unification from a multiplicity of data were experienced before in the past. In other words, among the regularities often found in celestial phenomena long before Thales was even born, was where for the first time in history (in May of 585 B.C.) a formulation of a rule (or law) about those regularities finally took place. Likewise with Kepler, he recognized instances of celestial regularities and then formed a law in light of the phenomena he observed.

As Clark writes elsewhere, “The philosophy of science, in distinction from science itself as ordinarily understood, must consider the significance of scientific law” [7]. My reason for using this quote is to remember the philosophy of science’s relevance with questions regarding the nature of scientific laws, which itself consist of axioms outside of scientific investigation and evaluation. It is why the importance of recognizing the discussion on ‘laws’ is “of “such wide significance [8]. Even more so interestingly, the nature of both science and philosophy show themselves to “reduce their multiplicities to unity.” [9]

Regarding Explanations and Reducing Multiplicity 

The matter of explaining some given phenomena initially presupposes that what we are talking about is rational. In other words, we must understand something in order to explain it (according to the scientific sense of the word). This particular principle is inherent in the notion that explanations at their core depend “on the reduction of a multiplicity of unity” (Ibid., see p. 7). Clark thence writes, “Science may not be able to explain what makes a body fall, but it can answer – how a body falls… Science answers how… Explanation is description” (Philosophy of Science and Belief in God; cp. 1996, p. 37).

In regards to this interchanging of terms between “explanation” and “description” it is perhaps appropriate to quote philosopher Morris R. Cohen when he writes:

A sharp distinction is often drawn between description and explanation, but a scientific explanation is after all only a certain kind of description, a description in which the phenomenon is related to other phenomena in accordance with certain laws… A law is not a force which compels its instances to conform to it. Thus the law of gravitation is a description in mathematical terms of the spatio-temporal relations of all bodies, celestial as well as terrestrial…” (The Meaning of Human History; cp. 1947, p. 99)

In light of this, I think it would be best to say that “a philosophy of science is needed to determine its range of application and its limitations” (G. H. Clark, Philosophy of Science and Belief on God, p. 38).

_______________

Notes:

  • [1] Bob Passantino, quoted from N. Geisler, Reasons for Faith (Crossway: 2007
  • [2] Hume; Treatise on Human Nature; 1738, 1:107
  • [3] see The Nature and Limitations of Science for more.
  • [4] Alexander George, Lost in the Clouds? (New York Times, 2010: The Stone) emphasis mine.
  • [5] Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey (Trinity Foundation: 1989) p. 4
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Gordon Clark, The Philosophy of Science and Belief in God (Trinity Foundation: 1996) p. 36
  • [8] Clark 1989, p. 7
  • [9] Ibid., p. 6
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