Daily Archives: December 22, 2013

Science & Philosophy


It has been said that were they alive today, Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, and other philosophers might be in departments of computer science. I agree. In fact, I believe that the best philosophy today is done in the departments of the natural sciences, not departments of philosophy.1


In Western civilization science developed from philosophy. For the ancient Greeks, philosophy meant using reason—rather than myth, supernaturalism, or superstition—to understand the world. Using this rationalistic or scientific method, the Greeks were able to build and engineer bridges and ships, calculate the circumference of the earth with great accuracy, advance an atomic theory, and lay the rudimentary grounds for medical science.

After a thousand years in which the light of reason was practically extinguished, this rationalism re-emerged in the Renaissance. Despite the setback of the Reformation, the seventeenth-century scientific revolution burst into human consciousness, bringing along with it unprecedented scientific achievement. Since then, as we have learned more about specific scientific disciplines, those disciplines have completely removed themselves from their philosophical ancestry. Astronomy and physics began to break from philosophy in the 17th century, chemistry and economics in the 18th, biology and psychology in the 19th, sociology, linguistics, and computer science in the 20th. Thus a clear pattern surfaces—scientific answers gradually replace philosophical theorizing.

As we look at the 21st century, other territories once the exclusive purview of philosophy are ripe for takeover by the sciences. At the moment, philosophy lays claims to four fields of study: 1) metaphysics, the study of the nature of ultimate reality: 2) epistemology, the study of the nature and limits of knowledge; 3) ethics, the study of values; and 4) logic, the study of the good thinking. If we consider each, in turn, it is easy to see how all are becoming increasingly scientific, and particularly how computer science plays a significant role in this development.

Metaphysics has become increasingly informed by general relativity, astronomy, mathematical understanding of infinities, theories of computation, information and chaos theory, quantum cosmologies and theories of everything. Epistemology is continually altered by the explanations of evolutionary biology, learning theory, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, robot learning, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology. Ethics will make no progress until it is placed on an understanding of biology and of how the mind works. Furthermore, all of the fields that comprise cognitive science, including artificial intelligence, are indispensable to understanding human behavior; they are thus essential to ethics. And logic, though taught primarily in philosophy departments, has already been taken over in large part by the mathematicians and computer scientists.

It is no secret that, for the most part, math and computer science majors are better logicians than their philosophical peers; a claim easily verified by teaching upper-level logic to computer science and philosophy majors. Moreover, the world’s premier logic journal, The Journal of Symbolic Logic,  is filled almost exclusively with papers by mathematicians and computer scientists; philosophers are no longer at the cutting edge of the field, and few can even read the articles that appear there. As I tell my own undergraduate computer science majors, you have received better preparation for philosophy than philosophy students—they have learned to think clearly. It is well-known that Plato believed that only those students trained in mathematics ought to enter his academy. While that is still excellent advice for potential philosophers, computer science is now the other indispensable discipline to serve as a prerequisite for philosophical theorizing. (Physics and biology can make a similar claim.)


If science encroaches on philosophical territory, what then is the role of philosophy? I argue that philosophy is important in the embryonic stages of a science’s development when the science cannot yet exist on its own; but, upon the birth of a science, the lifeline is discarded. Philosophy is useless in the practice of science since it lacks a method for uncovering truth. Philosophers rely on reflection, introspection, and intuition to discover truth but the results of their methods are subjective and suspect. They often claim to possess some supra-scientific means of ascertaining knowledge, but their record of uncovering truth is abysmal. Of course, philosophy may be valuable as reflection on science, and it may develop interesting theories that science is relative, imperialistic, or western or male-dominated. But such reflections reveal two things: 1) most philosophers are ignorant of science; and 2) philosophers, like other humanists and social scientists, are envious of the extent to which the natural sciences dominate the modern academy.

Moreover, such strategies try to stop the encroachment of science upon philosophical territory, much like the preachers and priests try to do the same in the realm of religion. But this strategy will fail. Philosophers see themselves, like the theologians they generally despise, as marginalized from the mainstreams of the advancement of knowledge. While the simple-minded cling to their holy books in the face of this onslaught, philosophers rely on the subtlety of their arguments and the keenness of their intellect to thwart science’s invasion. But do they really think that the study of mind or ethics or freedom will remain entrenched in territories upon which science will never trespass? If so, they are mistaken.

A scientific understanding of mind and the means to reconstruct mind will tell us who we are and where we ought to go with more clarity, depth, and precision than armchair speculation. For example, a complete understanding of the origins of ethics and the power to engineer behaviors may not tell us exactly what we ought to do; but what we ought to do must be informed by what we are and what we can do.2 I would not be surprised to see ethics, for example, transformed in the 21st century into social engineering, i.e., a mostly scientific enterprise. But whatever the future of philosophy, you can wager assuredly that the natural sciences will eat away at philosophy’s core.

Still, scientific knowledge is not absolute. If it were, the notion of scientific progress would be meaningless. But that doesn’t mean that science changes by revolutionary paradigm shifts—an idea popularized by the late Thomas Kuhn. Instead, I would argue that science does not proceed by revolution but by evolution.3 That is, science evolves closer to the truth through time, like the asymptotic curve in mathematics moves gradually closer to the line. Most scientists and regular folk support this view implicitly; after all, each year their phone, fax, medicines, and computer speed gets better. How is it, they wonder, that technology—applied science—gets better without science understanding more about the world? The answer is simple. Contemporary science does know more about the world than it did a generation ago, and it knows a whole lot more than Neanderthals did! (Which is one reason why we live longer?) True, we may give up our theories of gravity and evolution tomorrow—but don’t bet on it.  Much more likely, we will increasingly learn a little more about the universe and ourselves as we proceed.


Philosophy has always been a reactive discipline. Whether it was to mathematics in the ancient world, to theology in the medieval, to physics in the modern, or to the quantum, bio-molecular, and computer revolutions that will shape the future of the 21st century, good philosophy reacts to what’s going on in the culture. Philosophers should react and reflect upon those cultural phenomena that will change the world in the near future, and bring to them a semblance of wisdom that may be lost on those actively engaged in discovering and creating new knowledge. Otherwise, I fear that philosophy will continue to retreat to the intellectual backwater, providing neither the truth of science nor the comfort of religion.

Philosophy, defined as a reactive discipline, is for the most part dead in philosophy departments. (Again, areas like philosophy of language and the various philosophies of the sciences are exceptions.)  Contemporary western philosophers respond to each either in a cloistered world, sometimes willing ignorance of what is happening around them. Yet philosophy is not dead; it is flourishing in the physics, biology, and computer science departments. In philosophy it is only preserved in those parts of the discipline that reflect on something important going on in our culture—for example, in philosophy of biology, physics, math, and computer science; as well as in applied ethics.


What other roles might philosophy have besides cultural reflection? It might also contribute wisdom—an understanding of the value and meaning of the continuation of cosmic evolution. Here the preachers lead the intellectually superior philosophers because they know that meaning, values, and wisdom are important to ordinary folk; unfortunately, for the most part, they reject scientific truths, relying on legends and myths that appeal only to the most simple-minded. Philosophers, on the other hand, try to be like the scientists that have usurped them, pretending to be sole guardians of obtuse theorems, fallacies, and insights, but carefully guarding their turf, opposing science’s encroachment at every turn. Their insights, as opposed to the preachers, have not been given by revelation but by mental acumen. Most people respond coldly to this esoteric pursuit, as opposed to the masses that respond to religion’s blatant anti-intellectualism.

What philosophers ought to do—and what some have done—is to embrace the truths of the world’s only cognitive authority, science, react to its insights, and proceed to offer insights, attempt to coordinate values, and search for the wisdom they purport to love. Again, there have been exceptions here. Quine and Sellars both held that philosophy is continuous with science. For Quine, there is no place for a priori philosophy. For Sellars, philosophy is to say how things “hang together,” in the broadest possible sense of the term. After each science works out a detailed map of a certain area; philosophers have the task of trying to see how the various maps provided by the sciences fit together. Still, these great thinkers are the exception to the rule. For the most part, contemporary philosophers don’t attempt such a grand synthesis of knowledge but are content to specialize in the most arcane and esoteric branches of their discipline.


  1. My educational background is in philosophy, not the natural sciences. So I do not make these claims without a thorough grounding in contemporary and historical philosophy.
  2. On the other hand, it may be useless for philosophers to speculate about how things ought to be since that is the way we have found them to be. Just as it is meaningless to ask if things ought to fall downward, it may be just as meaningless to ask if humans ought to be imbued with tendencies toward selfishness, reciprocal altruism, and kin selection.
  3. The list of philosophers who adopt this evolutionary view of science or some other version of evolutionary epistemology include:  William James, C.S. Pierce, Ernst Cassier, Karl Popper, Steven Toulmin, Hans Reichenbach, R.W. Sellers, W.V. Quine, and contemporary thinkers like: Michael Ruse, Robert J. Richards, E. O. Wilson, and Daniel Dennett.