Philosophy and Science

By Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

Modern man is fascinated by science. Today he possesses a wider knowledge of scientific truths than ever before, and everything indicates that still greater advancement will be made in the near future. Passing over the extraordinary progress achieved by man during the ages since his first appearance upon earth, let us consider briefly his progress in the field of scientific endeavor during modern times. In the sphere of electronics we note the discoveries that led to the invention of radio, television, and the personal computer. In nuclear physics there is the splitting of the atom and the harnessing of atomic energy. Progress in mechanics has resulted in the construction of gigantic — and at the same time delicately perfect — instruments. Indeed we must conclude that modern man may be justly proud of the progress of science. Since, moreover, nature seems inexhaustible and thus far has revealed only a small part of her mysteries, there is every reason to hope that man will be able to make much more extraordinary and surprising progress in science. Thus no one will deny that with the utilization of atomic and other forms of energy we will be on the threshold of a new era of progress.

However, no matter what scientific discoveries have been made to date, and no matter how great may be those of the future, it is certain that man’s desire to know cannot be restricted to the sciences. Science explains existing facts which fall under the observation of the senses and hence are the object of experience. Science presupposes the existence of nature with all its laws, and the scope or purpose of the sciences is to interpret the laws found in nature and to learn how they are exercised. When we speak of scientific knowledge, we mean the understanding of a fact or law in the field of science. With this knowledge of the law and the conditions for its exercise, we can put such a law into operation and obtain the same result for our own use.

Side by side with scientific knowledge there arises in man the desire for another kind of understanding more profound than that of science. It is the understanding of the “why” of existing things, and the “why” of their exercise in this particular manner and not in another. When the question is posed of the “why” of nature, the “why” of its laws, and the reason these laws operate in a certain determined manner, the limits of science are overstepped, and one enters into philosophy. Science is the study of how nature, accepted as it exists, act; philosophy is the study of why nature exists and why it acts in this determined manner.

Having thus established the limits of both, we can also comprehend the different methods which we must use in philosophy and science. Science is the fruit of experience. “By proving and reproving (i.e., by trial and error),” said Da Vinci, “is science built up.” What does not fall under the perception of the senses, and consequently does not come under the data of experience, does not pertain to science. Hence the object of science is nature and its laws — nature and the laws which are presupposed to exist, and whose function the sciences seek to understand.

It is clear, on the other hand, that all the questions regarding the ultimate “why” (or reason) of things — e.g., why nature exists, why such laws are found in nature, why such laws operate in this fashion, etc.: all questions regarding the “why” of things — do not fall under the perception of the senses and cannot be ascertained through the method of trial and error. Only through reason can we arrive at the root of things, and reason alone can open to us the way to an understanding of their origin and of the forces contained in them.

Science is therefore distinguished from philosophy because the former seeks to extend the field of its investigations by means of data offered by experience, while the latter seeks to do this through reasoning.

Once science and philosophy are distinguished from one another by the object of their investigations and by the method of these investigations, it follows that both the philosopher and the scientist must be mindful of their respective limits. The scientist, if he wishes to remain a scientist, must remain in the field of how the phenomena are produced and of the how of their immediate causes, and not invade the field of the ultimate reason why such phenomena are produced in such a manner and in no other.

Thus, when he asks himself the question of the ultimate reason, he is no longer doing the work of science but of philosophy, in which case he is to be judged not as a scientist but as a philosopher, and his hypotheses will be valid only when his reasons are valid. When, for example, the scientist studies the phenomena of nature and presumes to explain the ultimate reason of these phenomena through an appeal to chance or to motion or to the law of selection, he is no longer a scientist but a philosopher; and the solution of the ultimate reason, which he presumes to derive from chance or from the law of selection, should be judged in the philosophical field. In such a case it is reason which should judge whether or not chance or the law of selection is adequate for the solution of the problem. It is equally true that the philosopher must guard against invading the field of the sciences. To know nature in its principles does not mean to know all the applications of such principles. This latter is the object of science.

When we state that philosophy is distinguished from science, we do not mean that it is opposed to it. Distinction does not necessarily mean opposition. Thus the results obtained by science cannot be unacceptable to philosophy; nor indeed are the principles reasonably established by philosophy to be in contradiction to the findings of science. If either of these two cases should be verified, we must conclude either that the findings of the sciences are not true findings but, at most, hypotheses, or that philosophy must review its line of reasoning.

It is this concordance which should exist between science and philosophy that should lead the scientist to keep in mind the principles of philosophy while making his hypotheses, and should incline the philosopher to be moderate in his investigations of the conclusions of science. Truth is always one, no matter from what point we decide to consider it. Philosophy and science move on different planes and with a different object in view. This does not mean, however, that what is true in the field of philosophy is false in the field of science or vice versa. The one must be allied with the other, even while remaining in its own field of investigation, and the two should work together to give man that which he desires most to know: Truth.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at Self-Educated American. Self-Educated American has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.

Self-Educated American recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s Great Books of the Western World