Philosophy versus science

Published on Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Philosophy versus science


Md. Anwarul Kabir


The essence of philosophy lies in "know thyself" as Greek philosopher Socrates defined his motto of life. In ancient India too, philosophy has brewed out of the fundamental question "Atmonang bidhi". Indeed, this quest for self identity arose when human race first experienced consciousness in the course of evolution. So, it may be argued that philosophy is as old as the very beginning of human civilization. 

In quest of identity, philosophy, from its inception has been striving for getting a correlation between human being and the universe. This eventually gave birth to theology as well as different branches of natural science. If we analyze the works of great ancient philosophers, for instances, Aristotle, Plato, then it will reveal that their scientific endeavour was also significant. In fact, they were the forerunners of modern science.  Until medieval age, the separation between philosophy and science was not distinctive.

However, due to dogmatism of the church controlled society in Europe the severe confrontation between science and theology was initiated. Specifically, during 17th century when Galileo through his scientific observation negated the Platonic/Aristotelian concept of the earth centric planetary system which was incorporated in all major religions, and replaced the  heliocentric universe, the era of historical hostility between theology ( and also to a great extent of philosophy) and science began. During this time, due to rapid development of science, the separatism of science from philosophy became obvious as it would not possible just to acquire all fundamental knowledge of science even by a gifted individual with a phenomenal memory and extraordinary calibre.

Unlike theology both conventional philosophy and science follow logical mode to infer knowledge. However, the methodologies they use significantly differ. Philosophy inherently emphasizes on subjective model in deriving knowledge as it asserts the importance of an individual in the universe as well as in the society. So, philosophy first accepts the intuitive conclusion and then follows the deductive logic to prove it. Based on such preconceived knowledge it suggests what the world ought to be. Philosophy always asks the question 'why' with a view to unveiling the cause for any problem. On the other hand, science emphasises on objective model. It concentrates on realistic world and tries to find out correlation among measurements of various facts in the real world.  Science does not answer the questions like, "Why the universe is so complex?", "What are the causes behind very existence of human being in the universe?", "Is there any supernatural being behind the creation?" and so on. In fact 'why' questions are not amenable in scientific inquiry and will always reside within philosophy and theology, which may provide solace if not material explication.   So, science only describes what is, it can not say "what should be".   Yet, science certainly has its merits. It is logical and highly organized and it pays attention to evidential truth. Moreover, it has produced  technological wonders and speeded up the materialistic progress of human civilization.

Now the question is, can philosophy progress by itself, without the  support of science? Can science work without philosophy? The answer is albeit philosophy and science are now two distinctive domains, to achieve meaningful knowledge intermingle of the outcomes of both domains is a must. In fact, philosophy and science have always learned from each other. To find the logical correlation of human being with the universe, use of scientific evidences is essential. New discoveries in science have provided new philosophical  world views. For instance, quantum mechanics and uncertainty principle have changed the deterministic world view of Kant. Big bang theory along with theory of

evolution or have ruptured the established theory of creation of philosophy. Darwinism has produced new philosophy, dialectic materialism in sociological discourse.

Conversely the premises of discoveries of many scientific theories lie in philosophical domain. The latest theory of the unity of matters,  motion, space and time, the unity of the discontinuous and continuous, the principles of  conservation of matter and motion, the ideas of infinity and inexhaustibility of matter were stated in general form in philosophy.        

Due to hegemony of theology in mediaeval age, many perceive a negative notion towards philosophy. Theology due to its dogmatism has lost its appeal to rational thinkers of today. But the basic question of philosophy, "Who am I?", yet to be resolved. So, philosophy is still relevant to answering fundamental questions of life. 

Science can not give ultimate solutions to the basic problems. Though the world has witnessed unprecedented  advancement of science, yet till to date science has failed to unveil the origin of creation. George Smoot, a noted cosmologist of present-time has honestly confessed, "We simply do not know yet whether there was a beginning of the universe,  and so the origin of the space-time remains in terra incognita" 

All great scientists are thriving for new philosophical world view based on new discoveries in science. In this context, the critical observation of Stephen Hawking, a contemporary great physicist is interesting. He, in his illustrious book,

"A brief history of time", has noted, "Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe 'what' the universe is to ask the question 'why'. On the other hand, the people whose business is to ask 'why', the philosophers have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories. In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: did the universe have a beginning? ………However, philosophers reduced their scope of their enquiries so much that Witgenstein, the most famous philosopher said, 'The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.'  What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!"        

However, I am not fully convinced with this assertion of the great physicists.  Indeed, many philosophers have not failed to grab the impact of new discoveries of science to frame new world  views in philosophy. With the evolution of science new world views, like existentialism,  Marxism have been evolved based on modern scientific theories.


However, this is evidential that the present civilization is suffering from acute philosophical crisis. Science devoid of philosophy can not enrich wisdom. Perhaps, observing this reality, T. S. Eliot has asked, "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"   Wisdom, indeed, sows the morality in the human psyche. With the erosion of morality, world is facing  humanitarian crisis. Science essentially leads the world with its technological advancement. But it can not help us to analyze the biggest problems we face—poverty, exploitation, autocracy, violence, war, mental disorder etc. The world is divided into two distinct classes, 'have' and 'have-not'. Immoral exploitation of minority but powerful privileged class has distorted social harmony all over the globe. For real advancement of the world, we must eliminate this sort of unethical exploitation    For this, philosophers must come forward to rescue human race by upholding morality with a new, humanitarian world view based on modern science.    

 Md. Anwarul Kabir is a university academic. 

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