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When did Philosophy and Science Divorce?

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A Synthesis of Philosophy and Science: When did they Divorce?

Dr. Peter D. S. Krey ——————— April 26th 2010

Asked by a scientist to come up with a schema to represent the unity of science and philosophy, it occurred to me that the schema used by William F. Lawhead to present Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of theology with philosophy would be helpful.[1] Thus I changed his schema to represent a synthesis of philosophy and science. The concept of Spirit on the left is supposed to be taken in the German sense of the essence of the search for truth by the Humanities, which are called the Geistes Wissenschaften or the “sciences of the spirit” in German.[2]

The history of the relation of philosophy and science is a far reaching topic, which I can only present briefly and insofar as my meager knowledge of this subject goes. We have to start with the founder of natural philosophy, as science was called in those days, Thales of Miletus, who said that water is the source of all things and that the world was full of gods. We date him about 580 BCE. He started trying to give natural explanations for natural phenomena, a very novel way of thought, when mythological explanations had long sufficed. After Thales we would have to present all the other Pre-Socratics and how they fashioned logos out of mythos, reasoning out of mythology that explained the phenomena of nature by telling narratives about the gods. The Pre-Socratics hammered out the ideas of the elements: earth, wind, water, and fire; substances, their properties, etc. Pythagoras studied forms and numbers while many of the others concentrated on substances, for example whether, it was air rather than water as the source of all things as Thales argued, or fire (energy) as Heraclitus thought.

Pythagoras thought that forms were basic and that mathematics and music could describe nature. Movement, he reasoned, had to cause sound and as a mystic he heard the music of the spheres.[3] Heraclitus taught that change is a constant and Parmenides taught that change is a logical impossibility and the paradoxes of his disciple Zeno, conceived of infinitesimals that took a step toward calculus. Leucippus (440 BCE) and Democritus (420 BCE), both of Abdera in Asia Minor, would have to be mentioned, because they reasoned out an atomic theory for all things.

Some of the Pre-Socratics were more natural philosophers than moral philosophers and some were veritable religious figures like Heraclitus, the obscure prophet; Empedocles, a healer who jumped into a volcano to prove he was a god. The volcano spewed out only one of his golden sandals. Even Pythagoras was the leader of a secret mystery cult.

Socrates, or Plato, really, through whom we know Socrates, was much more of a moral philosopher than a natural one. His disciple, Aristotle, whose heart was really in natural philosophy, makes great contributions, however, to the humanities and especially in logic, the art of reasoning. Alfred North Whitehead said that all of Western Philosophy is a series of footnotes on Plato. But Aristotle’s thinking took a giant step beyond that of Plato. In medieval times he was referred to as The Philosopher.

When with Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274 CE) the emphasis swings from Plato to Aristotle, philosophy now wedded to theology, opened up far more than before to what we call science than the religious emphasis of Plato and his theory of forms had done. For Aristotle forms did not ascend vertically into heaven, but were inherent dynamically in things, and there was only one world, the natural one, and he argued that we are smack in the middle of it. Augustine (354-430 CE) had incorporated Plato into his theology as Origen (ca. 185-ca.254 CE) had done before him, while Thomas Aquinas incorporated Aristotle into his theology and throughout the Middle Ages and medieval times, philosophy was done by theologians, who reacted to the philosophy of Greece and Rome, if we can really speak of Romans as thinkers. The only Roman who is said to have participated in a math problem was a soldier, who killed Archimedes with his sword when he refused to stop drawing on the ground and working out a solution to a problem, while the Romans conquered his city. Doing calculations with Roman numerals, however, is horrendously difficult.

No one improved on or overtook Aristotle’s logic until the late nineteenth century and meanwhile he was the authority in science and was referred to, to settle any question or issue in natural philosophy until early modern times. The story goes that a young monk tried to settle a question about how many teeth horses had in their mouths. The monks searched one Aristotle text after another and the debate raged on. “Why not just take a horse, open its mouth and count them?” the young monk asked. They laughed him to scorn, because different horses could all have different numbers of teeth. Inductive thinking, however, suggests getting answers right out of the horse’s mouth.

The rationalist, René Descartes (1596-1650 CE) thought out a very foundational philosophy that was very important for launching modern science. Cogito ergo sum. “I think therefore I am.” He was followed by the other Continental Rationalists Spinoza (1632-1677) and Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz discovered calculus at the same time that Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) did. The Continental Rationalists were opposed to the British Empiricists, who held that not reasoning, but the observations of the senses produced reliable knowledge. Their names were John Locke (1632-1704), Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), and David Hume (1711-1776).

The British also produced a strain of thinkers, who went to the edge of using their senses for observations. Way back in ca.1212-1292, there was Roger Bacon, who disparaged philosophical speculation for curiosity about nature. Then there was the nominalist, William of Ockham (ca. 1280-1349), who emphasized experience, opposed metaphysics as unwarrented, and taught that – other than revelation, knowledge could be attained only by the direct observation of objects and events by the senses; and then there was Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose inductive method made him a pioneer in an early version of the scientific method.

It was the skepticism of the British Empiricist, David Hume that awakened Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) out of his dogmatic slumbers. His transcendental idealism is a great synthesis of rationalism and empiricism. Now with Kant we are already into the Enlightenment and many discoveries in medicine, genetics, and chemistry are beginning to take place, like the earlier ones in astronomy with Galileo (1564- 1642) and the great Copernicus (1473-1543) before him.

“Since the Enlightenment, people [have] been increasingly convinced that it is science that truly reveals reality to us and all other ways of comprehending our experience must be subservient to the scientific outlook.”[4] So in the times after Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the field of science called Physics was developing and the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle in the 1920’s and 1930’s felt that it replaced philosophy, which they now referred to as “Metaphysics.” They used a verifiability principle that relegated all things opposed to experience as nonsense. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was part of that circle and came to a crisis when he realized that his own verifiability principle also could not stand the test and could be considered nonsense. He left the philosophers who were laying a more and more precise language for the scientific endeavor (e.g., Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and the early Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), in order to launch ordinary language philosophy.

The verifiability principle stated that a factual statement is meaningful if it can be verified by experience. That relegated much of philosophy to the waste bin of history. It was much like the “scissors” that David Hume wielded. “Does divinity or metaphysics contain abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No? Does it contain experimental reasoning? No? Then commit it to the flames as sophistry and illusion.” Or Ockham’s razor: “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity” or if there is a complicated explanation and a simpler one, then the simpler one should be chosen. These principles did much to divorce philosophy from science.

The rise of modern science undermined philosophy, whose representatives dedicated themselves to the service of scientists, first by making language more precise between the mathematical equations that described the workings of the universe and then by taking language as the object of philosophy and coming up with the Philosophy of Language – speech acts, performatives, intentionality, the theory of action, the philosophy of the mind, etc.

The analytic philosophers, G.E. Moore (1873-1958), Bertrand Russell, the early Wittgenstein, and Willard van Ormand Quine (1908-2000) are in this school with the Logical Positivists, who pull the ground out from under philosophy and make it completely ancillary to science.

The Continental Philosophers following in the shadow of Kant and Georg W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) go into different directions. Hegel’s great thought experiment was fruitful for four schools of thought: German idealism, Marxism, Existentialism, and Phenomenology. Marx, for example, takes Hegel’s dialectic of the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and turns the idealism Hegel intended on its head for dialectical materialism, to describe the history and theory of the class struggle. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the father of Existentialism, uses Hegel’s dialectic to develop the different stages of our individual existence: the aesthetic (pleasure), ethical (responsibility), and religious (taking the leap of faith).

Phenomenologists speak of subjective experience and a life world that scientists tend to be unaware of. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) defines the life world as “an all inclusive region of ordinary experience, out of which all meanings must emerge. It is the total background of our pre-theoretical experience.”[5] Husserl observes that scientists are first and foremost human beings living in the world of everyday experience before they formulate their theories.[6] He opposed naturalism, which “claims that physical nature encompasses everything real and all reality can be exhaustively explained by the natural sciences.” But “if consciousness and our beliefs,” he countered, “are simply products of blind and irrational physical causes, then we cannot have rational justified beliefs (including the belief in naturalism).[7]

Husserl does not at all denigrate science, but considers it a great achievement of the human spirit. But he shows his independence from science, when he states: “The investigator of nature, however, does not make it clear to himself that the constant foundation of his admittedly subjective thinking activity is the environing world of life. The latter is constantly presupposed as the basic working area, in which alone his questions and methodology make sense.”[8] There is a large gap between life experience, the life world, and the atomic, subatomic, and molecular scientific level of description.

In terms of religion and ethics, the divorce between philosophy and science has become more pronounced. Science does not provide a way of life the way a religion does and if it should, it would become scientism, destroying its very mode of operation. Some try unconvincingly (from my point of view) to derive an ethics from evolution, while others have developed and promulgated a nefarious social Darwinism from evolution by collapsing sociological principles into biological ones. Ethics is basic to the scientific endeavor as it is in every other realm of human life. Without ethics trust and credibility would soon evaporate, and like an unethical economy, would soon grind to a halt.

I believe the schema with which I started, speaks to a synthesis of science and philosophy that would be very helpful for today. At this point I would merely suggest reading another non-scientific way of viewing nature (Google Peter Krey Notes from Moltmann) without at all disparaging the wonderfully fruitful contribution science and scientists have made to our modern lives. Not to say that this contribution has not been ambiguous. Religion has also brought good and evil into the world. Immanuel Kant, who put the golden rule into a rational formula called the categorical imperative, said that the only unambiguous thing in the world is the good will. I believe that the good will of scientists and philosophers could bring about the atonement and marriage of science and philosophy once again or at a higher level of description never achieved in the world before.


[1] William F. Lawhead, The Voyage of Discovery: a Historical Introduction to Philosophy, (Stamford, CT: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002), p. 171. Merely Google “Peter Krey Thomas Aquinas Lecture” to see W. Lawhead’s schema online.

[2] In German science is called Natur Wissenschaft, so they refer to the sciences of the spirit and nature. In English the usage of the word “spirit” is usually more restricted. But we sometimes refer to sociology, psychology, and anthropology, etc. as the social sciences.

[3] Scientists today say that a very low B flat is supposed to issue from the universe.

[4] William F. Lawhead, The Voyage of Discovery, p. 532.

[5] Ibid., 532.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., page 528.

[8] Ibid., page 533.

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Written by peterkrey

April 28, 2010 at 1:52 am

Posted in Philosophy

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