Science and Philosophy: A Search for Truth Op-ed – A Take on an Issue Presented at the Veritas Forum

By Julia Brown | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2014-15)


On Monday, April 13, UC San Diego hosted its annual event for the search for truth, The Veritas Forum. The event featured UCSD Professor of Psychology Dr. Nicolas Christenfeld and University of Oxford Professor of Mathematics Dr. John Lennox in what was originally intended to be a debate on whether the existence of God is necessary for the existence of ethics and beauty. As the evening went on, however, the topic shifted to the greater utility of some ideas over others. Dr. Christenfeld was adamant that an idea is only valuable if it is practical and can make predictions about real-world phenomena. Dr. Lennox seemed to think that this was not necessarily true – that science and philosophy could be compatible. Thus, the underlying question remained the one this article seeks to address: Are science and philosophy compatible with each other?

The way I see it, yes.

A reasonable place to start answering this question is the beginning: with the first thinkers in recorded history. Early philosophers, such as Aristotle, Epicurus, and Pythagoras, were essentially early scientists. The fact that the professions were one and the same means that philosophy and science were compatible from their inception. So what happened that made the two areas seem so different?

Though the split between the two areas of study probably began in antiquity with the likes of Epicurus and his method of using perception to testify for or against ideas about nature,2 it seems to have primarily occurred around the time Sir Francis Bacon wrote down his ideas about reasoning and what is now known as the scientific method.3 Some might consequently use the scientific revolutions of Bacon’s time to explain the apparent division of philosophy and science.

This would be a sound argument, except the methods of philosophy used to argue different worldviews are similar to, if not the same as, the methods of reasoning used in scientific argumentation. In both cases, data and observations, be they melting points or moral afflictions, are collected, and conclusions are drawn from said data and observations. The new conclusions may be tested with future experiments and experiences to evaluate their plausibility. This is not to say that philosophy is completely empirical, but argumentation of philosophical ideas is carried out logically and supported by examples and thought experiments, just as science follows a rational process supported by evidence from observation and experimentation.

Despite this, the term for someone who studied nature did not remain “cultivator of science” or “natural philosopher” 1 but was replaced by “scientist,” which was coined in 1834.1 This linguistically distinguished people who studied the natural world from those who studied other big questions.

In this way, philosophy and science, though currently split, are essentially the same method of answering questions. The argument that utility legitimizes ideas discredits a large portion of philosophical thought. Ideas such as the self being the same as or different from the body, while perhaps not entirely practical, can be useful in expanding one’s knowledge and view of the world. Therefore, the only difference philosophy and science seem to have is that science more often asks how, whereas philosophy more often asks why. Because they are so heavily intertwined in their methods, there do not seem to be significant reasons that the two should not be compatible. In other words, if scientific reasoning can make an idea valid, so can philosophical reasoning. Thus, I feel that Dr. Christenfeld’s assertion that the reasonableness of an idea is necessarily based in its utility in reality, is itself, not reasonable.

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