You’ve Got Questions? They’ve Got Answers.

I’ve been spending a lot of time around philosophers lately, and I’ve noticed something.

Before I begin, let me say, for purposes of full disclosure, that although I have had a lifelong interest in philosophy, I was raised by two scientists. My mother is a physical anthropologist, and my father, an immunologist, did the research that led to the eradication of rH hemolytic disease. He was in fact recently considered for the Nobel Prize.

So, despite my deep and genuine admiration (envy, even, on occasion) for the purity and discipline of the trained philosophical mind, sometimes I can feel a bit, shall we say, conflicted. And although what we now call science (a relatively recent arrival) was, in its infancy, known as “natural philosophy”, science and philosophy are two different things entirely.

Here are some definitions of “philosophy”, from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

  • a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology
  • pursuit of wisdom
  • a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means
  • an analysis of the grounds of and concepts expressing fundamental beliefs

Here’s what we get for “science”:

  • knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method
  • such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

It is plain to see that science and philosophy are plowing separate furrows. They both ask questions, and seek answers, but they ask, generally, rather different questions, and they have very different ways of arriving at answers. They also attract different sorts of minds.

Things get interesting when the two bailiwicks overlap, or when scientists start “chatting” with philosophers. We see from the definition above that science is “concerned with the physical world and its phenomena.” There is a bit of a dispute, however about where this frontier is to be drawn, and occasionally armed conflict flares up. Both groups wish, it seems, to expand their Lebensraum, and the philosophers, who in their heyday laid claim to vast tracts of wilderness, now see the smoke rising from hostile camps all about their borders.

The problem is that troublesome bit about the “physical world”. The scientists, who began their program massively ignorant not only about the workings of the physical world, but also about what might even be possible for them to learn, have found again and again, to their delighted surprise, that Nature is orderly, comprehensible, lawful, and willing to share its secrets. Emboldened by their success, they have concluded that there is no territory that lies beyond their grasp. In other words, “the physical world and its phenomena” has become, simply, everything.

It is important to keep in mind, though, how scientific inquiry works. We observe, we guess, we predict, we test. In order for the territorial expansion to proceed as rapidly as possible, we must be sensitive to the limitations of the terrain – if we encounter an obstacle, we must be willing to choose a new line of attack. To unpack the metaphor, this means that an optimal scientific inquiry, however bold, however inspired, must always defer to the empirical results. What’s more, we can never become complacent about our hold on conquered territory, and we cannot even begin to be confident of our possessions until supply lines are brought in from the rear, garrisons established, and the landscape explored and mapped. They can never have complete certainty – scientists are happy to say “we just don’t know” – but what scientists have in spades, and will have as long as they roll like Guderian over every horizon, is optimism.

The philosophers, on the other hand, quite rightly see that the scientists are getting ahead of themselves. It is their job, after all, to think about these things, rather than just scrabbling in the dirt looking for shiny baubles. In the philosopher’s view the scientists, besotted with their winnings in the slag and dross of the material world, have deluded themselves that they can conquer the Moon by climbing trees.

Philosophers have a very different set of tools and methods. Philosophy does not seek, except in passing, to classify and assort the contingent mess of the world, but strives rather to look past the clutter to see not just what is, but what can, must, and ought to be. The philosopher’s instrument is not the microscope or the particle accelerator, but Reason. And this has a very important implication: if your Reason can’t answer the question, you’re done. There will be no further assistance – no forthcoming observation or experiment that might help things along. If you are going to be a success as a philosopher, you’d jolly well better have the answers. And that’s good, because we need those questions answered, and frankly, there are a lot of places science is just never going to go. Ethics, for example, is a notorious weak spot.

But in some of these disputed hinterlands – Mind, for example – the action can get rather heated. The scientists, of course, are perfectly content to claim these areas as well, just like almost everything else. The philosophers insist they are wasting their time – the territory might be overrun, but never subdued. Phooey, say the scientists. Just wait. You’ll see.

So this is what I’ve noticed: scientists assume, arrogantly and quite possibly wrongly, that they are going to turn the entire world – everything there is – into Festung Wissenschaften. But in the meanwhile, they happily admit there is plenty they just don’t know. For philosophers, however, “Beats me!” is simply not acceptable, and you will never hear them say it. They’ll just tell you how things are, and then it’s up to you to prove them wrong.

Who’s right? Beats me.


  1. Bill says

    I haven’t followed the mental dualism battle with Dr. V, Malcolm, but I did weigh in on the physicalist side of the abstract numbers post. Being a trained scientist, dabbling in philosophy, I have a great skepticism on Platonic abstracts. As far as I am concerned they are enshrined mental concepts. I also have a lot of difficulty with Dr. V’s definition of an abstract as a necessary object with out causal effects. Goes with dualism, I guess. I can’t conceive of an object without causal effects. If it exists, it does something, even if only passively.

    Anyway, this was a very interesting post. I have never approached it from this viewpoint.

    Posted November 9, 2005 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Bill, and thanks for dropping by.

    I saw that you had joined the fray over at Bill V’s place. I need all the help I can get.


    Posted November 9, 2005 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Bob Koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    As someone who moved from Philosophy to History & Philosophy of Science, and who believes philosophers should actually be proficient in the science about which they philosophize, I’m inclined to think that you use a too broad brush to paint the contrasts between philosophy and science. Experimentalism began its life as a “philosophical” method. I think the sciences would benefit from reconceiving themselves as branches of natural philosophy, just as I think experiment can inform some philosophical debates.

    But no philosopher worth her salt is going to say (at least not seriously), “This is how things are, and it’s up to you to prove me wrong.” Philosophy worthy of the name is ruthless about questioning assumptions, clarifying questions, and exposing fallacious inferences — all the while being rigorously (some would say “obsessively”) self-reflective. In short, philosophy earns its keep by asking questions, not by providing answers.

    Posted November 10, 2005 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I used to think so too, but in the course of discussing dualism vs. physicalism over at Maverick Philosopher I was struck by how often matters that are very much still in dispute were presented as closed cases, as in the examples I cited. What I was trying to do in this post was understand why.

    And in reading philosophers as primary sources, rather than reading overviews of philosophical controversies, I have noticed the same approach again and again: ask questions, yes, but then offer a declarative answer, to which the philosopher is going to stick until proven wrong. As I said in the post, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I can easily understand why philosophy would work that way. Aristotle was famous for never failing to have an answer to a question, even though many of his answers turned out to be utterly wrong.

    Yes, scientists might well benefit by being a bit more philosophical, especially when it comes to the physicalist assumption itself. And I did mention that science was, originally, “natural philosophy”. But the classical philosophical tradition tended NOT to rely on experimentation, perhaps because in the Attic slave-owning society dealings with the coarse physical world were considered beneath the dignity of the idle classes who had time for the luxury of philosophy.

    Posted November 10, 2005 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  5. Bob Koepp says

    Point taken, Malcolm. If we look to Plato and Aristotle as our models for philosophizing, I can see where the coarse physical world gets short shrift. Socrates, on the other hand, though concerned with eternal verities, was a stone mason rather than an Athenian gentleman.

    Also, one needs to be charitable when interpreting the pronouncements of philosophers. Controversial theses are often stated in the most absolute, didactic terms in order to maximize clarity of expression. It’s only when we get into fine-grained criticism of the theses in question that we begin to make explicit all the necessary qualifications and nuances lurking in the shadows.

    Posted November 10, 2005 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Right you are, Bob, and I am keenly aware of the difference between my more informal style and that of the professionals. I have learned a great deal from participating in the discussion at Bill’s website, where it looks like a new controversy is brewing.

    Posted November 10, 2005 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  7. Bill says

    I’m taking a side swipe at the issue on my own blog tonight.

    Posted November 13, 2005 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  8. Wow, your father invented RhoGam! I Googled it along with the name Pollack. As a blood banker, I find that fascinating. RhoGam is used every time an Rh-negative mother gives birth, which is to say in about 15% of all births. Your father is a true benefactor of humanity.

    Posted November 30, 2005 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Nice to meet you, Dennis, and thanks for dropping by. I enjoy your site a great deal, and have just added it to my list of links. Glad to see your mention of St Andrew’s Day – my mother is from Scotland, and now I will remember to send her a note.

    Yes, my father did indeed invent RhoGam, and “true benefactor of humanity” sounds about right. I’m very proud of him.

    Posted November 30, 2005 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

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