The science-philosophy connection

In this article published in the Guardian, the theoretical physicist Michael Krämer says all the right things about the connection between science and philosophy. Here’s a brief summary. He points out that, up until the middle of the twentieth century or so, scientists profited from philosophy. He also points out that post-war physicists do not find much to gain from philosophy, presumably referring to philosophy of science and its cognates. (Actually, this point is not exactly right. e.g., It is difficult to imagine Bohm‘s research project unmoored from his holistic ontological convictions. But I digress.)

From this, one might be tempted to heap scorn on philosophy. One might say we ought to just stop doing theoretical philosophy, since what it gets right is not distinctively philosophical, and what is distinctively philosophical is not right.

Refreshingly, Krämer does not travel this route. He acknowledges that philosophy crafts its arguments around certain general kinds of questions, and hence enjoys a degree of disciplinary autonomy — but also that it is ultimately studying the very same universe that the physicists are, and hence that it overlaps significantly with science. Krämer’s conclusion is even-handed. He concludes that the physicists can benefit from listening to the philosophers only so long as the philosophers keep focused on providing a critical understanding how the actual scientific methods are used. In contrast, if philosophers spend their time making armchair pronouncements about what counts as science, they ought not be listened to.

Like I said, I think Krämer’s got it right, and I think he said it well. And, I might add: my goodness, do philosophers need to hear it. Many of my colleagues and mentors are both actively involved in philosophy and in specialized sciences. They are, to a person, well acquainted with how things go on both sides of the fence, equally comfortable in graduate courses in cognitive science as they are in courses on philosophy of mind, or in courses on anti-realism as they are on theoretical physics. Yet I am heartbroken to hear that their work is often dismissed by reviewers in philosophy journals who have a simplistic normative conception of ‘how science works’. Instead of researching the diversity of methods that scientists actually use, many commentators working in the philosophy of science are interested in policing the boundaries of science through normative fiat. As a result, my colleagues have their papers accepted in top-notch science journals, and turned down by ostensibly top-notch philosophy journals.

One day, the philosophy of science may turn out to be of great importance to science. But that day will not come until philosophers prove themselves willing and able to read the contents of a bibliography.

Though I think Krämer has got most of it right, I do think that he has got one thing wrong. The fact is, the quips offered by theoretical physicists do not, by themselves, tell us anything about the relationship between philosophy and the sciences. It may be agreed that physics is the most developed among the sciences, and it may also be the case that all sciences will need to cash themselves out in physicalist terms. But even having admitted that much, it should also be agreed that physics is not the spokesperson of all the sciences — natural or otherwise. Even if it were true, you cannot conclude from the fact that ‘physicists don’t need theoretical philosophy quite so much anymore’ that ‘science doesn’t need theoretical philosophy quite so much anymore’. Mind you, it may indeed be the case that philosophy has nothing to say to any of the sciences. My point is that this inference needs to be demonstrated, and cannot be inferred from a single exceptional and arbitrarily selected historical period.


  1. Spot on. I feel sure philosophy can contribute, both from philosophers steeped in science and from scientists themselves. Natural philosophy seems alive and well in science. Science is, after all, only doing what humans do, but in a more rigorous manner than comes naturally.

    But then I ask this in all ignorance of current deep academic philosophical research, of the kind where “philosophers spend their time making armchair pronouncements about … ” [anything]…

    Is there anything new in philosophy of this kind in this century? Not being a professional philosopher the only public evidence I see of this type of activity, in publications like TPM, is rehashing of old philosophy, and not always productive rehashing.

  2. @Ron Murphy.

    To answer your question, no serious academic philosopher simply makes “armchair pronouncements.” This is simply a straw man pop writers like to use to make their point that philosophy is useless. Taking Hawking for example. His descriptions of “philosophy” are those endeavors which were current in the 19th century Europe, not the 21st century. So of course philosophy is useless to 21st century science because philosophy has simply been defined by the tools used in the 19th century!

    Majority of serious philosophers had no qualm with keeping up to date on relevant scientific results to help explain what they wish to explore.

  3. Plenty of ‘serious’ academic philosophers make armchair pronouncements, if by ‘armchair pronouncements’ we mean ‘aprioristic arguments’. There is no question about it.

    Of course, some philosophers of science do the research, and they do it with admirable clarity and conviction. (Ned Block, Helen Longino, and Phillip Kitcher all come to mind.) The problem is with those who do not.

  4. Socrates Schultz

    For a development engineer, as I was for some thirty years, science and philosophy can play an important role in product and system design where the goal is to create a product or service that functions and is usable. I can’t imagine a philosopher being effective without knowing the current science influencing the area of philosophy he or she is addressing. Thanks for the article.

  5. kelby,

    Then, “Is there anything new in philosophy of this kind in this century?”, that isn’t specifically taking into account modern (i.e. 20th century plus) science.

    I ask because I would think that in philosophy, as in the general population, there are plenty of people that live a life of literary and visual arts and aesthetics who are quite comfortable with their near total ignorance of science – they get by using little of it (they think) and are in near complete ignorance of it. I know people that only ever showed interest in the humanities, and remain convinced that all scientists are making absolute claims to certainty, and with that view in their heads dismiss science as arrogant nonsense – which it would be were that the case, and which has been on occasion in the hands of some mediocre scientists ignorant of philosophy 101. And then there are the religious philosophers – a bit of a contradiction in itself, if philosophy is to be given its due as a discipline of inscrutable inquiry.

    So, anything new at all? Could you give specific examples? I am genuinely interested. I can hardly complain at philosophers being ignorant of science while remaining ignorant myself of philosophers making breakthroughs in reasoning, about solipsism, for example (clutching at straws here in my ignorance).

  6. Ron, hopefully you won’t think it rude if I try to answer your question, even though it was not directed at me.

    There is arguably nothing new under the sun, and so many ideas are echoes of ideas that have come before. Still, some projects received the bulk of their development in the 20th century.

    1. Dialetheism in philosophical logic, and paraconsistency in logic.
    2. Functionalism in the philosophy of mind.
    3. Modal realism in metaphysics.
    4. Gettier’s debunking of the JTB theory of knowledge.
    5. Epistemic contextualism, considered as a serious solution to skepticism.
    6. Logicism, the analysis of mathematical truths in terms of logical ones.
    7. Feminist philosophy of science.

    Those are off the top of my head, and only draw on my loose historical sense of how these things are laid out. Caveat emptor.

  7. Be aware that I will use this in a future Post (MWF)in my website/blog, (I’m a former tenured prof of English–SUNY with a PhD in science education. I will certainly be accused of “arm-chairing” in my “Post-It” posts. But I’m trying hard to make the man-on-the-street aware of big issues. This is a cogent post–with its responses. It with freak out certain visitors but will be archived with other comments on science, philosopy, and religion [among other things.]. The tabs under the picture at say enough about what I’m up to.)
    Thanks for your work!

  8. BLS Nelson,

    Thank you. It was an open question really, but addressed to kelby because it seemed he might know of some examples.

    “the bulk of their development”, maybe, but then not exactly new.

    1. Dialetheism in philosophical logic, and paraconsistency in logic. Wiki: “In Western Philosophy, a number of the Presocratics endorsed dialetheism.” That hardly seems 20th century. But anyway, I can’t figure out what it has to offer. Seems more a linguistic fudge than anything, and also seems to turn on the interpretation of logic (6).

    2. Functionalism in the philosophy of mind. It seems to me that this is a development that comes out of an empirical understanding of the brain, albeit, like many philosophical ideas, with a quasi-theological feel to it, as if it is begrudgingly accepting the physical nature of the brain while not having to give in to any cognitive dissonance caused by accepting the full physicalist model. I’ll accept it may be a new approach.

    3. Modal realism in metaphysics. Is bollocks. It is an obfuscation of meaning of existence; an atrocious lack of clarity of meaning. It’s all assertion with no justification whatsoever, fur coat and no knickers. It’s theology without a god. Attributed to David Lewis?: “First, there doesn’t seem to be a reason not to.” Well, take this from John Lennon: “I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?” This is no more than solipsism, and David Lewis is playing just the same sort of mind games. Given the unbounded capacity of humans to make stuff up and assert it as true, I don’t think that counts it as philosophy just because a philosopher came up with it. “Many abstract mathematical entities are held to exist simply because they are useful. For example, sets are useful, abstract mathematical constructs that were only conceived in the 19th century. Sets are now considered to be objects in their own right…” More obscurity on the meaning of existence. Quine seemed to think that concepts existed too. I could never figure out why. I can only attribute it to not being able to explain what they are, and so an ontology of the gaps. But I don’t see concepts as anything other than the conscious experience of brain states – so we’re still left with the age old problem of explaining consciousness.

    4. Gettier’s debunking of the JTB theory of knowledge. I don’t think Gettier debunks JTB. There are responses to Gettier that maintain a vague notion of JTB. The problem with JTB as far as I can tell is the use of the notion of ‘truth’ upon which it depends. If knowledge is instead merely information in context (see 5) then we can allow that theists can learn a heck of a lot of knowledge about God, even if there is no God; just as we can know a lot about Middle Earth from Tolkien. If fantasy can count as knowledge then the important criteria becomes whether the knowledge has empirical backing or not. See (5) on how infants acquire knowledge. I think the ‘truth’ issue arises because in logic (6) we seem to have a clear meaning: a true/false dichotomy; while in more the complex world into which philosophers and scientists delve the notion of ‘truth’ is a poor fit. There are ideas and there is correspondence according to empirical investigation. All non-testable ideas are fantasy. Some may be reasonable speculation, implications from other results. So, for example, we have the feeling of having free will; and yet everything we know about the world empirically implies that we cannot have it – there is no evidence for anything like a dualist mind other than our personal feeling, and we know that mental illusions can fool us. Other speculations are plausible, such as some vague God hypothesis, that some entity might have created the universe, but that begs more questions than it answers and there is nothing to link that concept with the personal God of religions. In comsology the speculations about the pre-big-bang, if meaningful at all, multiple universes and so on, are reasonable because they have some relation to the maths and physics we feel comfortable with; and, they are not used for prescription and proscription of human behaviour in the way theological speculations are. All these can be considered knowledge, confirmed to greater or lesser extent, viable speculations to greater to lesser extent, and so reasonable and rational to accept as tentative contingent working ‘truths’, to greater or lesser extent, without the need to assert logical binary truth in opposition binary to falsity. So, let religions have their ‘truths’, though they are quite meaningless truths. Scientific truths on the other had turn out to be useful.

    5. Epistemic contextualise, considered as a serious solution to skepticism. I have some sympathy for this, and in some respects is what I consider to be a far better approach to knowledge. While it might be an armchair origin I think its force lies in an empirical understanding of the brain and knowledge in the context of the brain. But is it really new? A kind of contextualism is compatible with how infants learn. There is no context for an infant’s first sight of a toy car, so intellectually, as intellectual as an infant yet without language can be, the car has no meaning but merely starts to cause brain patterns by virtue of visual signals in the visual cortex. Eventually, after lots of contextualisation the learning child gets to ‘know’ what a car is. Think of it as a relativistic effect, like the frames of reference in physics. Just as a bouncing ball on a train looks different to a passenger and an onlooker, so information in brains depends on frames of reference. This is why it is sometimes disconcerting to see very different cultures interact – knowledge takes on relative contextual meaning. It explains why non-scientists often don’t get the contingent nature of science that scientists take for granted. Of course there’s a similar problem in that it takes some effort to get at what a theologian means, but the trouble there is that he doesn’t mean much of substance and when pushed resorts to all sorts of waffle – as evidenced when Dawkins has pinned down theologians sometimes, and they simply run out of explanation ad resort to ever more meaningless platitudes. Having said all that I don’t see any need to solve the problem of scepticism. Scepticism, like most things, is good in moderation. I am quite happy to be sceptical about materialist reality, in that solipsism might hold. It just so happens that I’m massively more sceptical about solipsism. Why is scepticism applied so unequally? Theologians and philosophers seem too keen to point out their scepticism in the face of scientific ‘truth’ despite that fact that it brings result; and yet, theologians especially, seem to lose all sight of their scepticism when applying it to their own appalling presupposition that there might be a God. Bonkers.

    6. Logicism, the analysis of mathematical truths in terms of logical ones. OK, I’m fine with this one. But I’d want to emphasise that this isn’t esoteric philosophy but pragmatics, that lies at the heart of 3, 4 and 5. Philosophical deductive logical arguments can never be sound arguments, because there is always the proving of the premises to do, either as an infinite regress or at the dead end of an observation. Similarly for axioms in maths. Deductive logic is only ever a way of being rigorous in getting from A to B. It never confirms A, and so never actually confirms B. B is only ever confirmed in the context (5 again) of other knowledge, namely A. In that sense deduction is no more sound than induction, in the wider context. Premises in philosophical argument and axioms in maths always end up being working premises, something that seems to produce results, even if we can’t prove why. Again, I’m distinguishing clear and precise mathematical logical truth(falsehood) and philosophical and scientific contingent truths whereby and idea conforms to empirical observation.

    7. Feminist philosophy of science. Totally an empirical system of observing biology, gender, neuroscience, psychology. There are aspects of feminism when treated purely as an ideological philosophical concept that border on the theologically persuaded form of argument – making stuff up and passing it off as true. But the whole business, philosophically, can be sorted in pretty short time. All the rest is detail. Biologically there are real differences between the genders, and it would be patently naive to suppose that this does not result in differences between the genders’ physical and psychological behaviour, differences that are often attributed to stereotyped traits: strength, high sex drive, domination, in men; physical weakness, lower sex drive, submission, in women. And the feminists are quite right to oppose the generalisation of these stereotypes as excuses for certain behaviours. For one, biological diversity ensures that each of our traits in each person, as individual traits, or in sets, vary across wide ranges that can be normalised to some extent by the normal distribution curve, throughout the human population. So it’s quite feasible for women to sit high on some or all of the notional male characteristics, and for some men to sit high in the distribution of some of the notionally feminine characteristics. If you could simplify all traits into just one curve for each gender the curves would overlap to a great degree. So logically it doesn’t make any sense to overplay the sterotypicality of traits. And this is particularly the case when it comes to some of the great advances we have made in empathy, fairness, equality. We can, as a species, overcome what unimportant differences there are in gender when it comes to seeking what we perceive as higher goals. Feminist philosophy of science then is about the details of figuring out how gender influences science, and in that context is a socio-psychological issue and not a philosophical one – it’s empirical Way too complex a job for armchair philosophy.

    I’m not sure that these examples would necessarily be something that philosophers should brag about. For example, in the philosophical notion of fairies being real we might get some philosopher asking where they come from. As an armchair philosopher I might come up with Simultaneity of Constructivism, because there seems to be greater value in the name of a philosophical idea than in its content. My philosophical theory consists of the noting that faires and their magic powers cannot come into existence separately, so they come into existence simultaneously – the magic constructs the fairy simultaneously with the magic of the fairy bringing about magical powers. This is about as convincing as I find some of this philosophy. It seems as made up as is Modal realism.

    (hope all that made sense. I was a bit rushed)

  9. I won’t substantially defend any of the theses, because that would be asking me to go beyond the scope of your question. You asked specifically for some modern developments, and I think that list seemed like a nice first shot. I’ll only try to defend the idea that these are reasonably new developments.

    On dialetheism. I think I would emphasize that the form of dialetheism that Graham Priest is doing depends on the development of paraconsistent logic, and the realization that contradictions need not produce logical explosions. That’s why I hedged it in those terms.

    On Gettier. This was a genuine development, but the reason it was a development is in part because we don’t know how to make sense of the concepts that the Greeks were using. Initially, knowledge was conceived as true belief of logos, and logos is something we modern readers find spooky. Our imperfect substitute was something like ‘justification’. Against that backdrop, Gettier offered a puzzle — I think, a genuine and compelling puzzle. People argue about the source of the problem (it a problem with truth? propositions? justification? with know-how?), but that’s not reason to deny that the problem is a new one.

  10. BLS Nelson,

    Fair enough. Thanks for those.

  11. Hi BLS,

    I’m a bit mystified as to what new problem Gettier should be credited with.

    What counts as justification, or truth, or a premise for a knowledge-claim…these are old questions. We can’t credit Gettier with any of these.

    It seems to me that the ‘new problem’ is something like: “Here is a counterexample to JTB; why does it succeed/fail?”

    But, this seems silly, since it can’t be a new problem if what is problematic is one of the ideas that were already recognized as problematic (e.g. justification). Where is the ‘new’?

  12. “The Mind-Body problem…illustrates the relationship between philosophy and other intellectual pursuits, notably in natural science. Philosophy has sometimes fallen into disrepute among sensible men because this relationship has been distorted or misunderstood. The old bad image of philosophy is of an arrogant and foolish armchair dogmatism. Philosophers are seen as proclaiming doctrines as ‘proven by pure reason’ in wanton disregard of what hard experimental and theoretical work might discover. Such a harsh view of philosophy is not dissipated by the spectacle of Aristotle ‘proving’ that the planets move in circles, Descartes rejecting even the possibility of empty space, and Kant arguing that ther can be no indeterminacy in physics.

    Philosopy’s new bad image—miniphilosophy—is one of pedantic triviality. The new distortion affirms that philosophy’s concern is solely with bringing to light the content of the concepts men use in their thought about the world. Philosophy is a modest inquiry into the meanings of words and the implications of sentences, and cannot determine truth or falsehood. This view of philosophy as impotent, as no more significant that butterfly collecting, has complex causes in the despair of twentieth-century intellectuals. It was given its most characteristic expression in the thought of Wittgenstein, who said, for example, ‘Philosophy leaves everything as it as.’

    I believe both images are caricatures of what philosophy can and should be. Philosophy need neither compete with scientific theory from some allegedly superior vantage point, nor abdicate in favor of some allegedly all-competent and all-conquering science. For all intellectual endeavor, all growth of knowledge, involves both an element of research and an element of reflection, We must both establish facts and weigh their significance, gather data and weld it into a whole view. With the rapid growth of knowledge, a division of intellectual labor has arisen in the West which accords to some men (called ‘scientists’) the task chiefly of establishing particular truths, and to others (called ‘philosophers’) the role of making from those truths, by critical reflection and review, a coherent world vision. People calling themselves scientists often do what is here called philosophy, but what does that matter? There is no antagonism between these pursuits; to judge man and his place in nature we must both find out all we can, and evaluate our findings.

    The evaluation leads us into the fields of logic, the analysis of concepts, and studies of the bases of knowledge, all of which are a far cry from observation, experiment, and scientific theorizing. Philosophers specialize on the former tasks, and the differences between these activities and scientific research lead to the caricatures of philosophy. It is true neither that the philosopher in his study can produce unaided a true view of man’s nature and prospects, nor that he can do nothing whatever of importance.

    We can find the right relations between science and philosophy in attempts to solve the Mind-Body problem. The philosophical inquiry takes its material from the sciences, and so is responsive to change in scientific theory. In taking the widest possible perspective, in scrutinizing all the scientific and common-sense material, the philosopher discharges a necessary task which cannot proceed by direct experimental research.

    Science and philosophy are related as ingredients and cake. Ingredients determine what sorts of cake are possible, but they cannot perform their own synthesis. The ingredients change as science changes and we learn more about ourselves, but no scientific theories will[13]alone yield a solution to our general problem about the relations of mind to body in man.
    Any solution of the Mind-Body problem will leave hostages to intellectual fortune. It will share the provisional character of all human opinion on substantial general questions. On our view of philosophy, this is as it should be.”

    (Campbell, Keith. Body and Mind. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. pp. 10-3)

  13. BLS – Thanks for the list – it provides a useful focus for investigation. It really is remarkably thin and some of the work is of dubious significance (not your fault obviously).

    Myron – Nice piece. The philosophers who are most successful are those who fully embrace the science, ask pertinent questions, challenge assumptions and pursue the logical consequences in whatever direction they lead. Two philosophers I would not include in this category are Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, both featured in recent book reviews in TPM and both of whom think they understand evolution better than evolutionary biologists. One further point – your extract is dated 1984 and Dan Dennett has sorted out the Mind-Body problem since then.

  14. Hi Dregs,

    I suspect that Gettier is (or was at the time) considered significant because philosophers tended to take JTB as a precise definition (or reduction) of knowledge, and Gettier cast doubt on that view.

    From my (more Wittgensteinian) point of view Gettier doesn’t seem so significant, because I see our concepts as mostly rather fuzzy, and don’t expect to find precise definitions. I see JTB as approximately right, Gettier notwithstanding.

  15. K James,

    I can’t even figure out why Plantinga is considered to be a philosopher and not merely a theologian. I can see the perceived legitimacy other theologians feel he gives to theology, by them considering him to be a respectable philosopher. But does anyone who goes off the presuppositional deep end as he does really expect to be considered a philosopher?

  16. Dregs, according to the usual story, Gettier showed us that JTB is not sufficient for propositional knowledge. Instead, knowledge has to be something up and beyond that — JTB+.

    There are ways to tell a different story, however. So, for example, here’s a Gettier case. Bob is in a room with a clock; the clock is at 12; Bob believes it is 12; and as it turns out the time is in fact 12 — but unbeknownst to Bob, the clock has stopped, and he arrived at his belief by luck.

    Gettier thought that the belief in this kind of case was justified — Bob has reason to believe that the time is 12. Others, however, have thought that Bob’s belief is not justified, because justification is more than just having reason to believe. Instead, a belief can only be justified so long as there is some reliable causal process leading to the right conclusion. For example, the reliable causal process in clock-ticking is this: the clock ticks all and only once per second. Since that reliable process has failed in the case of the stopped clock, Bob’s belief is unjustified. Hence, JTB is the right theory of knowledge.

    That’s just one kind of answer you can give, though. It’s an interesting conversation, and (I think) a productive one.

  17. Émile Azriel Meyerson, born 1859, died 1933. One of the most influential philosophers most people have never heard of, even the people influenced by him. The reason being, I believe, his works being published in French, and at least I can’t find English translations.

    Meyerson studied chemistry under Wilhelm Bunsen (of the burner fame). So he had a science background. He wrote at a time when a lot of very interesting things were happening – the beginning of what is known as Modern Physics, and the ideas of Freud etc. His thing was to take the new discoveries in science and see if they had an application in philosophy.

    His writings were popular in France in the early 20th century. Significantly influential on people like Lacan.

    Moral Relativism, is Meyerson’s problem child. It’s a reasonably exact application of Einstein’s theory of special/general relativity to morality. And the peculiar thing, some rockstar contemporary people working in philosophy with no background in science (or no real curiosity for the subject), when they give a history or discuss moral relativism they make no mention of Meyerson, but they do use Einstein’s words (no frame of reference being privileged). So somehow Meyerson has come to them invisibly. An interesting thing is if you stick closer to Einstein, the moral relativity that emerges is far different from the contemporary accepted awfulness – which is maybe a Chinese whispers version, but ya have to know your Einstein for that, dontcha.

    I believe Meyerson died before he had an opportunity to think and write on quantum physics.

    Why we don’t have contemporary Meyersons, and instead we have the Sokal affair, etc, is another question.

  18. Thanks for the reference to Meyerson. I had never heard the name before. Evidently he was influential on Kuhn’s SSR, which is surely to his credit.

    For what it’s worth, it is not quite right that Meyerson never worked on quantum physics. His final work was titled “Réel et déterminisme dans la physique quantique” (Reality and determinism in quantum physics).

    There are plenty of philosophers of science who do philosophy in a readable way. I’ve mentioned some already. e.g., Phillip Kitcher is quite readable.

    There are issues with the profession, but let’s not overstate them. The Sokal Affair primarily spoke against a certain kind of literary and cultural theorist. Some philosophers of science were implicated in the “science wars” of the 90s, but they were not implicated by Sokal. There is interesting stuff in the philosophy of science, and good people working in it. The problem, as always, is with the minority who are not so good.