On Philosophy
© 31 Aug 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Philosophy as a non-scientific field.


A few weeks ago I wrote the following in reply to a comment on a post about science:

Many branches of philosophy differ from science more because the topic of study requires different forms of validation than because of any fundamental divergence from the scientific method. However, some elements of philosophy (and most forms of religion) include a way of looking at what is that differs in kind from logical, scientific thought. I’ll try to clarify what I mean in a coming post.

Welcome to that “‍coming post‍”. I had originally planned to build up to this post gradually, through a series of examples. However, that process proved abortive. We shall see if the single expository essay works better. Since this is a single-draft essay, last week’s post might be worth keeping in mind.

Evidence vs Faith

Science, as I argued recently, is concerned with finding functional models: that is, formalized rational principals with which to distinguish between things we do and do not observe. It does not claim to provide the actual: Electronic fields describe what we observe, but there need not actually be any “‍actual‍” field.

By contrast, many philosophies speak of what is. This need not be only what is real; it may also be what is sufficient, what is appropriate, what is knowable, etc.

One of the odd elements of the “‍stronger‍” claims of philosophy is that they are harder to invalidate than are claims of science. To invalidate quantum physics all I need to do is demonstrate the predictability of some wave function collapse Wave function collapse is supposed to be unpredictable-random. or the disagreement of some experimental setup with the theory. To invalidate the claim that falsifiability is essential Falsifiability is the core of the Popperian philosophy of science. I need to convince you that falsifiability is not as trustworthy as is, say, probabilistic induction. Probabilistic induction is anther popular philosophy of science.

To put it another way, I believe a scientific theory because I have never seen it violated and I prefer it to other not-yet-violated theories in my ken. The weight of evidence is behind it. I believe a (some) philosophy because of preference or instinct alone. I like the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative is key to Kant’s moral philosophy. I choose it over utilitarianism Utility is the objective of Bentham’s moral philosophy. not because either violates my experience, but simply because categorical imperatives seem to me to be more ethical than utilitarianism. The weight of my faith is behind it.


Scientific theories predict something about the universe. Except string theory. I’ve never seen a single prediction from any of the many string theories. Philosophies mostly don’t. I suppose you could say that ethics predicts what I’ll find virtuous, political philosophy predicts what governments I’ll like, aesthetics predicts what I’ll enjoy experiencing, logic predicts what arguments I’ll find compelling, and so on. But ethics doesn’t predict what I’ll actually do—that’s the domain of psychology. Political philosophy predict how government policies will pan out—that’s political science. Aesthetics can’t tell me what experiences will become popular, nor can logic tell me which arguments have true consequents.

Everyone Has One…

One of the odd things I find about philosophies, and one I can’t recall ever encountering in writing, is that they are oddly inevitable. Even if you’ve never heard of Boolean and Heyting algebras and the corresponding differences between classical and constructivist logic, you will still either be persuaded by proofs by contradiction or you won’t. You consider some actions right and others wrong even if you’ve never heard of ethics at all. Etc.

This does not appear to be the case with science. I don’t actually believe that science is avoidable; see the comments for more. You can quite easily have absolutely no opinion about red shift at all. You needn’t have any notion of inertia or philogenetics or guilt complexes unless you happen to have studied their corresponding branches of science.

Inevitably “‍Actual‍”

Philosophy is almost forced to assert what is, not just what works. Efforts to avoid this usually do so by saying something like “‍given philosophical model X, you should chose Y.‍” The problem with this kind of statement is that it isn’t functional. I can’t test it out, since it isn’t predictive; I must simply either decide I believe X or I don’t or I ignore the statement altogether. Even if I do chose Y I usually have no way of discovering if it was the right choice.

Again, this isn’t the case with science. When told “‍given scientific theory X, you should chose Y‍” I can experiment first to see if I like X and if I do chose Y I can also check for the predicted evidences that Y was a good choice.


One of my formative experiences was sitting down and outlining my personal ontology at the ripe old age of 17. The original document, a half-sheet of coral cardstock littered with a non-linear collection of enumerations and short paragraphs, has long since vanished. The ontology I accept then has changed over the years. But in the process I discovered that my philosophy was my own to choose. Three was no way to verify through scientific inquiry whether that choice was a good one. That realization and the choices it led to later changed who I am.

Most of philosophy isn’t like science. It makes not verifiable or falsifiable predications. It is accepted on faith, not on evidence. It asserts things about what actually is, not just what tends to work. And, examined or not, you have one.

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