Is Science a Separate Discipline From Philosophy?

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In our world’s ever increasing specialization, the activity of the physical theorist and that of the experimentalist are often separated, and carried out by different individuals. A friend of mine, in spite of being an accomplished physicist who works for NASA, is by his own admission not very talented when it comes to working with his own hands. Simple exercises of manual dexterity, such as using carpenter’s tools, are not activities he enjoys or is adept at. But he is a very good theorist, and a highly respected one.

This is a rather striking instance of what we call “division of labor.” My friend likes to theorize. He doesn’t like to experiment, or carry on activities which involve actual physical verification of theories. Only a couple of centuries ago, such a division of labor was scarcely heard of. Then, the physical theorist had to devise experiments of his own making, and carry them out. Science had not yet advanced to the point where the arts of experimentation could be conceived of as having, to any appreciable extent, their own distinctive principles; the only principles they had were the very theories that were to be verified, combined with a little talent for using ordinary tools of construction. But today that has changed. Experimentation today can, all by itself, be so involved and specialized that it takes a very specialized person merely to carry it out.

But should one, then, think of the physical theorist and the experimentalist today as engaged in separate disciplines? The answer must be obvious. Of course the two activities are separate in a sense, and yet just as obviously, they are parts of one discipline: that, namely, of learning about how the world really works. One would certainly not say, about the experimentalist and the theorist, that one is concerned with the study of one thing and the other with the study of something else. The meaning of the experiments performed by the one, and the theories formulated by the other, go hand in hand; they are both understood with respect to the same object of knowledge, and they both condition and serve each other in the endeavor to grasp that object. To think of this as two “disciplines” is clearly absurd, on the face of it.

This illustrates the fact that specialization and the division of labor may involve more than one kind of distinction or order among the various parts of a theoretical discipline. It is too simple to merely imagine that one person is concerned with studying this, and another with that. Not that there are no instances of such a simple division; it’s true, for instance, that entomologists study insects, and arachnologists study spiders. But that is only one of many ways in which there can be a division among theoretical endeavors.

Clearly, all this will have a significant bearing on the distinction and relation between science and philosophy. Indeed, we can begin by simply noting that, just as with theorizing and experimenting, the part of philosophy known as “natural philosophy” is really concerned with the same realities as science.

Well, then, why distinguish them at all?

Thus we come to the question. Some scientists think we should distinguish them by saying that there is no such thing as “natural philosophy.” There is just science. And science will eventually prevail over the semi-mythological pretenses of philosophers, if it hasn’t done so already. Then, on the other side — less common, to be sure –, there are those who would like to believe that just the reverse is true: science has little to offer but hypotheses and quantitative models, tools of prediction which are useful for technological applications, but not especially helpful when our aim is towards “higher things,” such as are the concern of metaphysics and theology.

Neither side is right.

To be continued….

2 Comments

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  1. Heuristic Hero

    Quite interesting. One can gather from this piece that science is the art of “knowing by doing”, while philosophy is the art of “knowing by seeing”. It’s funny that you bring up the point of them being respective to one another, because they are both determined by the same factor; experience. Scientists form their experience of physical experiments into theories upon which they build the rest of their belief, while philosophers base their theoretical presumptions off of gathered experience. All in all, these two disciplines are bound by at least one solid practice; empirical observation.
    Funny that I would come across this, as something similar was on my mind earlier tonight. Thank you for giving me more to think about.

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