Scientists making use of philosophy

A few months ago, on my old blog, I did a “so what do people want me to write about?” thread, and got one request I wasn’t sure how to respond to at first: “I’d like to see the proper relationship between science and philosophy.” The problem with trying to answer this question is that I’m not sure I know how to “do philosophy right,” and it’s hard to say you can say the “proper” way for science and philosophy to work together before you know the “proper” way for philosophy to be philosophy. But I think I may now have a halfway-usable answer.

The idea came to me when re-reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. One of the driving ideas of the book is the computational theory of mind, which Pinker attributes in large part to the philosophers Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor. Yet Pinker manages to avoid making the section look much like a standard philosophy of mind. Certainly no quibbling over arcane distinctions. In philosophy circles, Putnam and Fodor are known for (in my opinion rather confused) complaints directed at “reductionism,” and Pinker just ignores those while using the ideas from those philosophers he wants to use.

Reading this, it occurred to me that one way you could do the division of labor between scientists and philosophers is to let philosophers muck about coming up with all sorts of ideas, and let the scientists decide which bits of philosophical work contribute to scientific progress, and which are best ignored. That seems to be how Pinker handled the philosophy in How the Mind Works.

Though I wonder how much role the philosophers really played in developing the ideas in that book, and to what extent they merely served as window dressing, to allow Pinker to claim for his own book some of the positive associations people have with philosophy. As we’ve seen previously the role of philosophers in progress is sometimes less than meets the eye.

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  • B-Lar

    I always thought of philosophy as un-quantifiable science. The science of intangible/subjective processes

  • Richard Wein

    The question seems to assume that “science” and “philosophy” are discrete entities with “proper” roles. I think this is the wrong way to look at things. I would say, instead, that we should investigate each question using the methods most appropriate to it, without worrying so much about whether we label those methods “science” or “philosophy”. Those labels can be useful, but it helps to see them as fuzzy categories with no clear line of demarcation between them.

    Science and philosophy seem more distinct when you look at traditional philsophy, with its emphasis on a priori and deductive arguments. But I would say the traditional way of doing philosophy is misguided. Philosophers are increasingly turning towards a more “naturalized” approach, which has more in common with the methods of scientists. So science and philosophy no longer look as clearly demarcated as they once did.

    Very roughly speaking I would say that we tend to use the word “science” to refer to questions which are more susceptible to empirical investigation and less conceptual in nature, and use the word “philosophy” to refer to questions which are the other way around. I like Wittgenstein’s famous statement that, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” That’s a bit simplistic, as any single-sentence summary is bound to be, but I think it captures something important. Once we sort out the conceptual confusion over our meaning (to the extent that we can) difficult philosophical questions tend to be dissolved or reduced to more obviously empirical questions.

  • Physicalist

    The division of labor is pretty straightforward: If it requires careful experiments, it’s the scientist’s job. If it involves fun notions that connect up with other fundamental ideas, it’s the philosopher’s job.

    (You can see why I opted for philosophy.)

  • J. Goard

    Bah. Such “fields” aren’t much more than how you chart your career path if you’re gonna stay in academia. “Science” and “philosophy” are not somehow ontologically discrete. Reasoning more carefully and understanding the history of thought are things that scientists in general could benefit a lot from.

  • Bronze Dog

    I tend toward the idea that science is the most practical and successful branch of philosophy.

    One issue that comes to mind: You can posit that induction doesn’t work, but science has something of a practical stance: If induction is reliable, your hypothesis based on past observations will predict the future with confidence. If induction isn’t so reliable, you’ll at least be able to falsify your hypothesis when it doesn’t go as expected.

  • Shirl Fehl

    Good resource. I read a lot of classical philosophy, but I’ve been branching out further into more contemporary philosophy. Thanks for the posts.

  • John Morales


    Please elucidate, Irving, because I find the post to which I am replying to be indistinguishable from spam.

  • Chris Hallquist

    I think it was, and I marked it as such.