Friday, 17 June 2011

What is the difference between science and philosophy? (and theology)


I have been reading and thinking about the nature of science, and its definitions, for a long time - probably since I saw Bronowski's TV programme The Ascent of Man in 1972.

Any comprehensive definition must be minimal - in particular there is no characteristic scientific method, nor mode (i.e. Popper was wrong, although interesting and useful) - nor does science have any essential attribute of being self-correcting, nor is science necessarily observational or empirical.

And so on.

So what made the difference between science and what went before?


This is the idea: Science came from philosophy and philosophy from theology - by a process of specialization - a part coming off from the whole, and being pursued autonomously as a social system.

Theology is a social system that aims to discover the truth; and which puts the truths of divine revelation first and reason subordinate (if at all); philosophy aims to discover truth (or used to) but puts reason first - but remains (in its early phases) constrained by revelation.

Then science broke-off from philosophy by eliminating divine revelation as an allowable explanation.


So science is a specialized social system, based on reason, but which excludes all reference to divine revelation.

But what is special about being a social system?

Mainly time and effort, in a co-operative sense (although the cooperation can be between just a few people).

So science is simply some people devoting time and effort to investigating the world using reason and excluding reference to divine revelation.


Naturally, since Science excludes divine revelation, science can have no formal impact on theology, nor can it have any formal impact on philosophy.

Yet, apparently, science has substantially impacted on theology and philosophy - it is, for example taken to have discredited Christianity.

How did this perception arise?

1. Science as (until recently) been perceived as in enabling (somehow, indirectly) humans to increase power over nature (this perception may be subjective/ delusional, or false, as it often is now - or it can be all-but undeniable).

Yet science is (or rather was) successful mainly because a lot of smart people were putting a lot of effort into discovering truth.

(And now that people don't try to discover truth, they don't discover it - naturally not.)

2. Sheer habit. People trained and competent in the (wholly artificial) scientific way of thinking, which a priori excludes religious explanations, leads to human beings who habitually exclude divine explanations.


And it turns out that habit is very powerful as a socialization device.

Such that people trained in an artificial (hence difficult) and socially-approved specialized mode of thinking, eventually do not notice the exclusions of their mode of thought, and assume that their mode of thought is the whole thing; assume that that which was excluded a priori has instead been excluded because it was false.

A mistaken inference - but mainstream in modernity. 


NOTE ADDED: in sum, to put it another way, progress in science was essentially a consequence of the quality and quantity of man-hours dedicated to the aim of discovering truth about the world using reason and excluding religious explanations.

When the most able truth-seeking people with leisure from subsistence increasingly shifted their interest, activity and effort away from theology into philosophy (from, say, the twelfth century onwards in the West) and then from philosophy into science (from, say, the seventeenth century) - this shifted achievement in the same direction.

And when the most able people with leisure from subsistence increasingly shifted their interest, activity and effort away from truth-seeking and into other things (especially careers) (from, say, the early-middle twentieth century) this shifted achievement into... well, bureaucracy and media distractions.



  1. Broadly speaking, James Hannam's thesis in his book, God's Philosophers, is that medieval scholars anticipated the method of modern scientific thinking largely by building on the wisdom of Aristotle.

    But the change from the medieval synthesis, in which Greek philosophy is united with Judeo-Christian theology, to the modern view of humanity's peripheral place in the universe is more thoroughly analysed in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science by E.A Burtt - first published in 1924. This book is still in print and well worth studying.

  2. This stands out to me in physics (of all places!) and neuroscience especially. String theorists have reached far beyond their grasp and are waving about wildly, and every time I read another story about what has been discovered about free will from looking at fMRIs I can't help but laugh. The insularity of the positivist mind is truly amazing from a really open minded point of view.

  3. Yet, apparently, science has substantially impacted on theology and philosophy - it is, for example taken to have discredited Christianity.

    Well, Christianity, not in some platonic sense, but as embodied in the most prominent institutions that claim to represent it, did make some empirical claims that were proved to be false.

  4. What we call "science" is really material science. It goes no further than that, because material science is accessible to everyone in the Crowd.

    Philosophy is the study of patterns, and is not dependent on a media, like materiality.

    This is why philosophy will be perpetually agnostic, and laughs at atheism for being self-contradicting (if you cannot prove God exists, you cannot disprove it, either -- a more complex argument belongs here, but not cluttering up your comments).

    By agnostic I do not mean in the modern sense of "crypto-atheist," just aware of possibility and not discounting it, especially in realms that we cannot access, e.g. are not material.

    I find this view much more mature and scientific than the bold proclamations of scientists which extrapolate far too much, such as "we tortured this planarian, and it had a near death experience, therefore the supernatural doesn't exist because it's the mind projection of planarians."

    It fools the crowd, but not much else.

  5. effectivelydyslexic111223 June 2012 at 20:24

    Science would be - to me -- the study of the tangable.
    Philosphy the intangible,
    With simplicity being the aspiration of both.