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Posted by on Sep 20, 2012 in Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Skepticism | 47 comments

Does Science Render Philosophy Useless?

A few years ago I asked this exact question on my Facebook page. At that point, I was almost convinced that the answer was yes. Now I’m no longer sure, so I wanted to get your input on the matter. But before philosophers and philosophy students get angry with me for even posing the question, let me explain what I’m not referring to. Obviously, the study of philosophy (and thus, its teaching) is useful, as it tells the story of human intellectual development over time. Second, I don’t believe that individual philosophies are useless; we all have them, and they are crucial to finding meaning in a potentially meaningless world. Finally, there are some philosophies that  either run parallel to science or fail to contradict it, and are thus important to explore; for instance, naturalism, nihilism, and existentialism. If you’re not interested in the latter two, it’s quite possible that your love of wisdom isn’t as strong as it could be. Alternatively, it may be that you’re too busy living life to think about things that are inconsequential to our existence, and that’s fine too. 

But here’s where I think that philosophy is, in fact, irrelevant:

1.  Morality and Ethics: Morals are not natural laws handed down by god. Morality is our personal (or cultural) sense of right and wrong, and as all things, it is driven by our desire to survive and reproduce. As social animals, it is easier for us to do so if we learn to live in peace, without harming others, and without being harmed ourselves. Science suggests that this is the governing principle behind human morality and ethics, rather than some nebulous form of higher wisdom. In other words, we’re no more moral than any other animal and no less, though we’re quite probably the most destructive. But if you look at this from a nihilistic perspective, why does it  matter?

2. Free will: The combination of nature and nurture leads me to the conclusion that our decisions are causally linked to and determined by prior events, which are, in turn, determined by earlier events, even if some of those events are, at some level, random.  Thus, I would argue, and compatibilists would disagree, that we have no true free will, even when we think we do. But for all practical purposes this is irrelevant. The only imaginable relevance has to do with punishment, in which case lack of free will indicates that rehabilitation, restitution, and restraint should be sufficient, without the useless component of revenge. Then again, revenge is not useless to the person or persons seeking it. And, in any case, the issue is moot because if free will does not exist, the decision is not ours to make.

3. Epistemological Issues: No philosophy major or pseudo-intellectual will live her life without having used this word, and as the latter of the two, I frequently succumb to the temptation. After all, as explained in the previous paragraph, I have no choice. However, I believe that questions about the nature of knowledge are best answered by science. How do our senses work? How is memory structured? To what extent does perception influence knowledge? What is certainty? Can we ever be certain of anything? At what point is empirical data sufficient to take something out of the realm of belief and place it the realm of knowledge? To date, science has been the best tool for answering these questions, and philosophy has shed no light on the issues. It has been suggested that philosophy is the driving force in the quest to know the answers, yet this is mere speculation. Who is to say that similar questions would not arise as a components of scientific inquiry, especially considering the fact that they have?

4. Metaphysical and Ontological Issues: What is matter? How do time and change affect matter? Is there a soul? What is the nature of existence? Even if you’ve never studied either philosophy or science, these questions probably sound familiar to you. Almost every curious human being has thought about them at one time or another. The best science fiction movies are rife with this stuff. And yet, philosophy provides no answers. To find answers, we must, yet again, look to science. And, at present, science can explain the nature of matter, and many, if not most, physicists and evolutionary biologists/psychologists/neurologists have rejected the notion of mind/body duality. To those who aren’t familiar with the science behind this, think of brain damage and its effect on a human being’s personality. Think of how the human body responds to psychoactive drugs. Think of what occurs when you’re unconscious or sedated before major surgery. Arguably, and, in my opinion, quite probably, science leaves no room for a soul, and absent new evidence, the concept of mind/body duality is no longer worthy of examination. As to the nature of existence?  Good question, but whether you’re a grand philosopher or a beggar living on the streets, your answer is no more or less valid than anyone else’s.

5.  Political Philosophy: In my opinion, politics are more important pragmatically than philosophically. As such, it is better to study what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. An empirical approach is best whenever possible, and, in my opinion, the goal should be to determine what is of greatest good to most. There are many competing political theories and they are all worthy of examination, if only because they are relevant to issues of ethics, morality, survival, and reproduction. But political theories do not exist in a vacuum, and must be analyzed not only as lofty ideas, but as pragmatic solutions to the everyday problems of living. While science may not be the only approach to such an analysis, certainly the processes and tools of science are important to the discussion. In other words, politics must be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thought.

6. Religious Philosophy: To the extent it contradicts science, religion is beyond the scope of modern philosophical relevance, even though it provides great insight into the nature of tribalism and human behavior. At some point, it overlaps with politics to form a particularly toxic brew. Personally, I don’t think we have the right to interfere with the religious beliefs of others unless those beliefs or the actions stemming from those beliefs are socially harmful. Unfortunately, “social harm” is not the easiest concept to define. But once again, this isn’t a philosophical concern, but a pragmatic one.

7. Aesthetics: Is there an objective standard to art? Is art an intellectual or representational endeavor? What is the relationship between art and math? What is the value of beauty? I find these questions fascinating, but no matter how long they’ve been asked, philosophy has not provided answers. On the other hand, math and science have. For instance, we find beauty in symmetry and repetition, and this is true for both visual art and music. Symmetry and repetition exist everywhere in nature, so it isn’t surprising that humans would find such attributes aesthetically pleasing. Further, we find value in creativity, a trait that surely has evolutionary advantages. These are indeed intriguing topics, and I could spend years discussing them, but without further research, I don’t think the answers to these questions can be found.

8. Solipsism: Only a solipsist would want to approach this.

I’m certain everyone will find plenty here to disagree with here, as well you should. Any thoughts?

  • Steve Zara

    I think that science has meant that some philosophy has become more important, not less. The reason I believe this is because I so often come across scientists doing philosophy badly without even knowing it. There are very good examples of this in the early history of quantum mechanics, with discussions about observation collapsing wavefunctions, and the reality or unreality of quantum phenomena. Then there has been Roger Penrose which his strange version of Platonism, and more recently Stephen Hawking with his bizarre model-dependent reality.

    • Great thinkers and great writers of any given time do philosophy best, regardless of their credentials or lack thereof, but I think that modern philosophy must take science into account to remain relevant. Nor am I asserting that science is perfect, but it has led to the greatest amount of substantive knowledge about our world to date.

      • xtog42

        There are three basic forms of scientific investigation — observation, experiment and modeling. Philosophy has always involved the first and last but is becoming experimental,…in fact there is a discipline called experimental philosophy. Science itself is known as Natural Philosophy.

        Philosophy is a primary source for hypothesis, and is therefore a part of the scientific method. So the answer to your question is,… no, since science indeed uses philosophy all of the time. When our observations roll around in our consciousness the wonderings that are precipitated necessarily are steeped in our philosophical disposition, so it is difficult to imagine hypothesis generation without some measure of philosophical influence.

  • I’m perfectly happy with that. Besides, the philosophers are kicking my butt on some of the other blogs. 🙂

    Seriously though. Ten years ago, Stephen Hawking said the Higgs Boson would never be found. Soon it may be almost common.

    The unknownable becomes magic becomes philosophy becomes technology becomes common.

    • I haven’t seen direct proof of the Higgs Boson yet.

      • Well, we’ll never see direct proof. Confidence is high however and additional tests are being run.

        The point is that things that were thought impossible (like science being used to explain aesthetics or consciousness) is becoming the norm.

        It almost (not quite, but almost) resembles a God of the Gaps argument from creationists. As science does more, the places philosophy is important shrinks or moves.

        • Egbert

          Science does not explain consciousness.

          • It does, actually. Not to everyone’s satisfaction, but to mine.

        • I agree.

  • TheRant

    Philosophy is good for asking questions, but only science is good at answering them. Any answer that comes from philosophy is almost always biased — just wishful thinking by the one asking the question.

    • Science is imperfect, and it’s important to question science as well, but at the moment, I believe that any modern philosophy that doesn’t take science into account does not have much practical utility. That doesn’t mean, of course, that philosophy isn’t an interesting intellectual exercise, especially for the young.

      • xtog42

        Hypothesis (asking testable questions) is a part of the scientific method. Asking questions is science, not just answering them.

    • nami

      the problem is that most of the time philosophy does not even ask the kind of questions that science can answer. The subject matter of philosophy is non-empirical and abstract in nature. Using science to answer philosophical questions is like expecting using computer programming languages to evaluate the works of Shakespeare: the two just don’t belong to the same standard of judgment.

  • Rystefn

    To be fair, science itself is actually a subcategory of philosophy. The questions of whether reality is knowable, whether we can predict what will come to pass based on what came before, whether and how much reality is observable, and others of the sort have been very contentious philosophical issues historically, and will no doubt become so again.

    From a practical standpoint, the philosophy of science has been kicking the Hell out of all opposing philosophies for quite some times… but it’s one of the founding principles of scientific philosophy that any or all of it might turn out to be wrong.

    • It’s true, many useful disciplines (science, mathematics, logic) are branches off of the philosophy tree, but now that those branches have been cut, what’s left?

      And, of course, everything must remain open to question and new evidence, but that’s simply not practical most of the time, though it’s both philosophically and scientifically sound (setting religious philosophies aside).

      • Egbert

        Do you read much philosophy, Maria? Just wondering exactly why you’re throwing philosophy under the bus.

        • If you read my opening paragraph, you’ll see that I’m doing no such thing. In fact, I explicitly state that philosophy is an important part of a solid education. And yes, I’ve read a ton, and when I was young it fascinated me, as it raised many of the same questions about life and existence that I had as a child. But now I’m no longer young, and philosophy has provided none of the answers, while some of its offshoots have. So my post is merely a meandering musing, as it were, wondering what’s left of philosophy today and what *practical* use it has. I mean, you’re not telling me that we need to read philosophers to be moral, are you? Or to wonder about the nature of knowledge or existence? My argument, if any, is that we are all philosophers in some sense.

          • Egbert

            Maria, I read your opinions carefully, because I respect them. And I have to disagree, we’re not all philosophers. If philosophy is to be taken literally, as love of wisdom, then most people do not seem to devote their life to wisdom, but rather foolish adventures. It is true that, at least in our modern age, much of philosophy is useless, because most philosophers are foolish. But even a fool might have something useful to say.

            It is a shame we can’t see eye to eye, because I respect your intelligence, but clearly we view the world very differently.

          • I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion. Asking a question and making an argument in support of a position, as I did in this post, is not the equivalent of asserting that something is true. I change my mind about things all the time; that is the essence of learning. (And so do people holding philosophy degrees, by the way).

            Here’s an article for you to consider:

  • Nicholas Covington

    Hi Maria! I’ve written a blog response to this here:

    Hope to hear from you soon!

    • My response is awaiting moderation. 😉

  • Egbert

    Short answer: no.

  • Copyleft

    You might want to check out Rosenberg’s “Atheist’s Guide to Reality,” where he addresses these Big Philosophical Questions from the standpoint of science-driven and wholly science-dependent atheism.

    It includes some disturbing observations, such as the fact that our intuition and introspection are simply unreliable guides to reality, and that our notion of “consciousness” might be as much a self-serving delusion as religion’s notion of “souls.”

  • Achrachno

    No, but some branches of philosophy seem to be working on making philosophy useless.

    Science and philosophy should be compatible and working toward the same end. Once upon a time I think they were.

    • Once upon a time they were largely the same thing; in fact, philosophy embraced all knowledge, while questioning what knowledge was. Now it’s all fractured into bits, and I’m not sure what’s left under the actual title of “philosophy,” that isn’t also covered elsewhere. Mostly, it appears to be questions without answers.

  • Clare45

    Regarding your point 7 about aesthetics, there are some scientific principles behind the appreciation of what makes a good painting, for example. There is the Golden triangle, the Fibonacci numbers and the rule of thirds. There a rules about colour, values, composition and design that apply even to the most abstract of paintings. Of course, you can have personal preferences and like a velvet Elvis painting, but most people would not consider that great art.

    • I agree. There’s something scientific about it, there’s pure personal preference, and there’s something intangible, as well. I’m amazed at how much negative comments I got on this post for merely musing out loud (especially since I never said philosophy was without value). I just posited that modern philosophy does not solve problems. I have yet to see anyone offer any evidence or argument to the contrary. (On the other hand, this was the most widely liked post via FB clicks, go figure…)

  • Academic philosophy has suffered greatly over the past 20 years or so thanks to the intrusion of Post-Modernism and other ilk. Thankfully, the influence of Post-Modernism has been waning (particularly since the “Sokal Hoax”) but there is still room for improvement.

    I could literally write volumes concerning this topic….but I will attempt here to be brief:

    I see an unfortunately growing number of people wondering at the usefulness of philosophy due to an apparently confused understanding of what philosophy is and/or does. Granted, the fault lies partly with the Philosophers themselves, as they have (in the past) been too quick to confine themselves to Ivory Towers, or to embrace the Post-Modernist trend….both of these have damaged the credibility of the philosophical enterprise greatly. Correcting this confusion can be difficult in an online setting, where the opportunity for sustained interaction is relatively rare and some concepts require lengthy “back-and-forth” to prove productive.

    First of all, when you construct a blog post such as this one, your doing philosophy. Do you think your own post has been “irrelevant”? You said at the beginning of your post that your see a “personal philosophy” as not being useless, and that “we all have them”….and then you seem to go on to claim that philosophy is irrelevant in the areas of ethics, epistemology, and even politics. This is quite odd to hear considering ethics, epistemology and politics, etc are philosophical topics to begin with.

    You say that one should take into account scientific facts or risk having one’s philosophy become removed from utility….I don’t think the philosophical work of Susan Haack, Daniel Dennett, Nick Bostrom, Mario Bunge et al. are even close to failing in that regard. It simply isn’t the case that philosophers don’t take into account scientific advances when doing their work…in fact there are a growing number of philosophers who are actually doing scientific work themselves. This is, in my experience, the crux of the problem for many people who seem unsure of the usefulness of philosophy – there is a lack of acknowledgement that science and philosophy overlap and support one another. This has always been the case, being that science was originally a branch of philosophy (“Natural Philosophy”) and has grown more complex over time as science has branched out and become the massive creature it is today.

    When you say:

    “An empirical approach is best whenever possible, and, in my opinion, the goal should be to determine what is of greatest good to most.”

    You are doing philosophy. When you say:

    ” At what point is empirical data sufficient to take something out of the realm of belief and place it the realm of knowledge?”

    You are doing philosophy. You cannot justify the answer to this question empirically (as far as I am aware). This is reminiscent of some of Susan Haack’s work in Philosophy of Science and Epistemology.

    When anyone, scientists included, place data sets before them and take time and effort to interpret the data set and/or construct a theory to explain many data sets….they are doing philosophy. Logic and Philosophy of Science has much to say about this, as does Aesthetics. This one is perhaps the most controversial but, I think, one of the most important points to make on this topic. When you construct experiments, gather data and organize data you are (mostly) doing science. When you look at your data for, say, the wave-function(s) of electrons and attempt to decide whether the wave-functions are epistemological tools, or metaphysical descriptions you are doing philosophy. This really does matter and I do see academics who are not philosophers make mistakes regularly due to their mistakes in reasoning which would be considered “amateur hour” by most philosophers.

    I think it would help if more people were able to get straight answers from the academic philosophical community on just what philosophy is. Even this, however, can be a point of contention among philosophers who argue over “meta-philosophy”. (Well….what do you expect when you turn a group like this loose with libraries and funding? Ha!) Simon Blackburn has defined Philosophy as “conceptual engineering”. In his Dictionary of Philosophy (Oxford, 2008) he says, “In philosophy, the topics with which we approach the world themselves become the topic of enquiry” (British, so mind the spelling).

    Therefore, applying Blackburn’s basic principle to our own thought processes, we wind up with something like Richard Paul’s definition of critical thinking: “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking – about any subject, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking
    by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and
    imposing intellectual standards upon them.”

    I hope this has been of some help. I am sorry for the length of the post but, as I said, this is an imminently difficult subject to tackle in sound-bites. Do feel free to continue the conversation here or, if you prefer, by email. You can find me at I am currently President of that organization and would be more than happy to dialogue with you (or anyone else) about this.

    • Excellent comment, and I realize that much of this post (if not all) is inherently philosophical. Most of my posts are and probably will be, in one way or another. Because when you’re addressing metaphysics and politics, you’re addressing philosophy. And certainly when you mention people like Dennett or Haack, I don’t find them the least bit irrelevant. When people speak to real problems and propose solutions, it’s never irrelevant, whatever you call it. I’m also fond of Sam Harris, though I’m not sure if I consider him a philosopher per se.

      My questions to you, then, are as follows:

      1. When you strip philosophy of all of its offshoot disciplines, what do you have left?

      2. Does modern philosophy, without the academic disciplines that fed it and gave it strength provide any solutions to real life problems?

      3. Are we not all philosophers in some way?

      4. Can we hope that modern philosophy alone will provide us with any of the answers that we seek? Or is philosophy, perhaps, an overarching and all-inclusive field that embodies all human knowledge and inquiry?

      • Fantastic questions! I’ll provide my answers with the caveat that my views do not necessarily reflect the philosophical community as a whole. I speak only for myself, and to be honest, some of my views are a bit unorthodox as they relate to academia.

        With that said:

        1) I assume that you mean to say what is left when one does not count as philosophy those disciplines which have become subjects of study in their own right (ie, the empirical sciences, politics, psychology, etc.). If I am mistaken in this interpretation, by all means correct me.

        My answer to this question is you have logic/critical thinking. While the term “critical thinking” is thrown around quite a bit, it possesses a specific framework (which I defined in my previous comment) and is not meant here to refer to the often vague noises people make when sounding support for “critical thinking”. The ability to navigate the world by applying intellectual standards and logical axioms is what has given us our advances in every field…and indeed even the fields themselves.

        2) Here, I will again assume you are referring to physics, chemistry, psychology, etc when you say “academic disciplines”:

        Without the framework of logic/critical thinking, how would you even identify what your particular “real life problems” are? “Do I go hungry today and hope I get a meal tomorrow, or do I steal this man’s wallet now?” Assuming you wish to study a particular discipline that is not philosophy, “Upon what basis do I decide which field to go into? How do I know the basis I have used to decide this is rational as opposed to merely picking something out of a hat?”

        3) Are we not all doctors in some way? Are we not all scientists in some way? Yes, although it does not then follow that a lay scientist is just as likely to produce good science as a professional one. This seems similar to a question I am often asked after I explain that the core of philosophy is “critical thinking” as such: ” But we all have the ability to think. Why would I study philosophy if I already have that ability?” My answer is this: “We all have the ability to heal from illness and injury. Do we then choose not to go to the doctor or to use medicine?”

        4) I am tempted to answer that yes, philosophy is an all-inclusive field that embodies all human knowledge and inquiry. That answer, I think, would prove less than satisfactory and it oversimplifies the issue.

        Empirical science may be the study of the natural world through a particular process of inquiry….but philosophy is the study of inquiry as such. To give a particular example: Every discipline possesses certain assumptions at its core. These assumptions are seen most easily by the methodology employed by practitioners of a particular discipline. Historians, for example, assume a range of things about culture and human behavior which make up what is called Historiography. Historiography is how one does History.

        An example:

        A notebook has been found which was written by a man named Jack who died 8 years ago. This notebook tells of a secret affair between two men while they were both married to women. This notebook was not known to Jack’s family and no recognizable names were used in the notebook. Is this notebook a diary written by Jack about himself? Is is a novel Jack was working on secretly for fear of being laughed at or hated for its subject matter? Assuming it proves difficult or impossible to verify the stories written of in the notebook, upon what basis do we determine the most likely explanation?

        These questions are answered using methods of historiography…which operate on certain presumptions decided upon using logic and critical thinking. The methodology which underlies the discipline of History is itself a philosophical argument.

        Another example:

        One day, engineers and scientists at Carnegie Mellon Institute of Robotics announce they have successfully created a humanoid robot with A.I. so advanced, that it can mimic human behavior nearly perfectly. The world is amazed, but the scientists become concerned that there is a glitch in the programming. They want to turn the robot off in order to examine it but the robot wants no such thing. The robot insists it is frightened and deserves to make its own decisions just like a human. The scientists insist the robot is acting this way because it was designed to mimic human behavior. If the robot claims to feel pain/fear at the prospect of having itself altered without consent, how do we decide who to listen to? What if the scientists insist that failure to investigate and correct the apparent glitch could result in the robot’s shutdown anyway…or perhaps cause the robot to become dangerous at some point in the future even though it seems perfectly safe now?

        I could provide examples all week. You are right to point out that philosophy divorced from the data born of empirical research is problematic (at best). The other side of that is that there is no way to conduct research (empirical or otherwise) without utilizing the tools of philosophy and the work of philosophers. One of my goals is to see the two fields (philosophy and empirical science) reconciled in the culture.

        I hope that helps. I have tried to be as brief as possible but as I said, these issues are complex and simply don’t allow for sound-bite argumentation.

  • Hambil

    I have had recent struggles with the idea that I am going to die. I’ve had issues with it since I was a child, but it’s become more serious lately. I find that there is no relief to my suffer in science, so perhaps where science leaves off philosophy begins? It’s just that in the old days science left off a lot earlier, so philosophy had a lot more to fill in.

    I have certainly not found an answer to my fear of death yet in philosophy, but I’ve only just started. If you can find it in science then I’m all ears.

    • I, too have struggled with this feeling. My answers work for me, but I doubt this is the kind of issue that can be fixed by simply transplanting my views to you. Dealing with death is a highly personal process.

      With that said, ask yourself:

      Why do I fear death? When I actually experience this fear, is it death itself I am afraid of, or something else?

      I had to dig deep and really face my own ideas about death and life before I came up with any answers concerning this. I still deal with it sometimes but it’s a process and it’s ongoing.

      Whatever you do, please seek counseling if you begin to feel that you might harm yourself or you become depressed enough about this that it affects your day to day life. Don’t allow your fear of death to rob you of the life you have now.

      • xtog42

        Read the the ancient Greeks if you haven’t already (the stoics, the skeptics, the cynics,…a lot of anxiety smoothing wisdom in there) or Bertrand Russell

      • Hambil

        Yes, it is actually. Or at least part of one. We live our lives by our own philosophies. They may not be as conscious or defined as a formal philosophy but we do it. Golden rule, do no harm, etc…

        It’s just not a philosophy that works for me.

        • Hambil


    • Clare45

      Hanbil, we all fear death, or rather the process of dying, and we are all going to die, some sooner than others. Forget the “what if’s” and enjoy “what is”. Make a bucket list and work your way through it. Is that philosophy?

  • Copyleft

    If Aristotle had been right, we’d be able to figure out how the universe works via pure reason, with no need for empirical evidence or experiments. This was the concept of “rationalism,” the idea that correct reasoning from correct starting assumptions will always lead to inarguable truth.

    Sadly, it was dead wrong. Pure philosophy doesn’t lead to right answers; it only leads to _satisfying_ answers, many of them at variance with observed reality. Hence, the scientific method of messy empiricism took over, much to the dissatisfaction of many supporters of ‘pure reason.’

    I see science as superior to philosophy for that reason, tied to its primary virtue: science actually WORKS. Philosophy can build entirely self-consistent arguments with 100% flawless conclusions that turn out to be dead wrong in the real world; science, meanwhile, constantly checks its answers against reality. It’s not as pure as philosophy, and maybe not even as logically rigorous in the abstract, but it has the advantage of actually getting the right answers.

    • I’m afraid you may misunderstand what philosophy is. Philosophy does not equal “rationalism” as you say. Aristotle was one philosopher, granted a very important one, but only one and there was much he was simply wrong about. Aristotle’s work is studied still but not worshiped and there are even some circles today where Aristotle is referred to as “the philosopher who made the most errors”.

      “Empiricism” as you describe it is itself a philosophical position and so it makes little sense to create a dichotomy between “rationalism” and “empiricism”. Very few scholars today actually ascribe to either of these two classical viewpoints in their entirety. A mid-way point between the two is fairly standard with some leaning one way and others leaning the other.

      As far as the ability to construct “…entirely self-consistent arguments with 100% flawless conclusions that turn out to be dead wrong in the real world…” I think you’ll find the truth is not quite as simple as that. While it is true that one may create a sound argument in logic and still have the conclusion be wrong, this is due simply to the presence of an incorrect starting point (premise).

      Philosophers are constantly challenging one another on their premises and much like the scientific community their is a special delight in successfully identifying an error in reasoning (whether in one’s own reasoning or someone else).

      Respected philosophers simply do not go around making claims which fly in the face of modern scientific research without being challenged by their own colleagues quite forcefully. Alternatively, scientific work involves (as I explained above) doing some philosophical work while constructing definitions and theories and interpreting data sets. Increasingly, scientists and philosophers are working together to produce exciting work (research in the field of cognitive science and artificial intelligence are two examples).

      As I alluded to earlier, when philosophers ignore science they risk getting things horribly wrong. When scientists ignore philosophy they risk getting things horribly wrong. The fields are complimentary not in competition.

  • Science absolutely *needs* philosophy as one of it’s basic underpinnings, the same way science needs math. After all, mathematics is not actually a science either and does not proceed according to scientific methodology, and yet, it is a critical, fundamental tool of science.

    Likewise, philosophy forms the underpinnings for basic logic upon which any kind of inference from direct empirical observation is based. And philosophy helps scientists better understand the nature of the questions they ask and process they use to gather knowledge. This is why the work of philosophers of science like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn has been so *extremely* important, after all.

    This, of course, is not to say that all philosophy is equally worthwhile. One can very easily build entire philosophical systems around ideas that are unsupported empirically. Look at the entire discipline of theology, after all. It’s one of the most massively wasteful undertaking’s imaginable – some very good philosophical brainpower based on at least one premise that has no evidence and is likely false. Or in the more secular realm, one could look at the amount of energy wasted on postmodernism, a form of high solipsism if there ever was one.

    But philosophy that is congruous with empirical observation and a naturalistic world view? That’s absolutely vital.

  • Swifter

    Heres a good video on the topic by noelplum99

  • Guest

    There isn’t a single modern invention that philosophy has helped produce. I only see philosophical arguments as time-wasting sudoku puzzles that some enjoy solving.

  • There isn’t a single modern invention that philosophy has helped produce. I see philosophical arguments as time-wasting sudoku puzzles that some enjoy solving.

  • Mike McTighe

    Perhaps Philosophy was always useless.

    I’ve often wondered this. It seems to be a good idea on paper to develop or live by a philosophy, particularly one dealing with morals, but those morals and that philosophy could be completely at odds with reality, thereby making anyone who follows it at odds with reality. It always seems like good philosophies, or ones that gain a lot of traction the world over have some component in them that lines up very well with reality as it actually is rather than how it ought to be. For example ‘Love thy neighbor’ is a pretty good way to make friends and cause less trouble for yourself.

    The other problem is philosophy can impede action, and is often foregone when the action is needed for survival. For example, if someone were a vegetarian for moral reasons, but then becomes trapped in a situation where the only food source is meat, then the philosophy of ‘do no harm to sentient creatures’ becomes an impediment to survival.

    On a business level there are many examples where unethical things are done for the good of the company. So on and so forth. George Clooney, for example, outright lied to get his first role in film? Yet would we begrudge him for exaggerating his acting talents early on, or do we praise him in hindsight since he clearly proved himself as an actor since? Certainly if everyone lied to get jobs, particularly high paying, demanding ones, that would create tons of problems. So what he did can’t be applied as a philosophy.

    Science does not particularly say anything about morality. It can, I suppose, but it doesn’t on it’s own make such judgments. Science illustrates there is death, and pain, and hurt feelings, and that those things exist, but does not weigh on whether they are good or bad. Obviously with pain it can be motivating for positives, or simply be a negative. Science wouldn’t say.
    Yet it may render morality essentially moot if it could prove humans are docile and moral by nature, or if it could illustrate a way by which a human could be made moral (say through diet, certain parenting skills, etc.) and smart.

    Due to the subjective nature of philosophy, I think it’s tempting to say science renders philosophy useless, because science is more objective. However if I accept the premise that philosophy is useless in light of science, I’d probably go ahead and say it was always useless.

    This discussion reminds me of a joke about philosophy majors I say in regards to business: “what’re they gonna do, philosophize me a sale”. I think if anything what renders philosophy useless is the lack of practical application, something even religion could argue it has. Philosophy doesn’t really make one good at any particular thing, however probably does aid critical thinking skills. But, on the other hand, there are more useful subjects that aid in those as well.

  • nami

    It really depends on what you mean by “useless”. In one sense, philosophy is definitely useless in providing philosophy graduates with jobs related to philosophy (unless one wants to pursue graduate degree and a career in teaching). Unlike engineering or accounting, Philosophy is not targeted to provide practical knowledge to meet our practical needs. Of course, philosophy courses teach students to think critically and write precisely, which are valuable skills for anyone to succeed in any professions. It just won’t provide any practical knowledge. You study engineering and you can use the knowledge to build stuff and make a living, while you study philosophy and can only use philosophical knowledge to engage in person reflections. The topics in philosophy are highly abstract and speculative such as free will, the nature of knowledge, metaphysics, etc. You can’t apply this type of knowledge in any careers other than teaching philosophy. In this sense, philosophy is sort of like intellectual masturbation, and unfortunately I have engaged in it for a couple of years in my college years; since I was a philosophy major. On a side note, I don’t like the fact that philosophy departments in the west are filled with white male faculty members; the field really lacks diversity

    In another sense, philosophy spells out the most profound and fundamental questions about our world and society. Although reflecting on philosophical questions such as the mind-body problem is not going to pay our bills, it is nevertheless a profound question about our own existence. One major features of humanity separating itself from other species is our ability to step back from our ordinary experiences and reflect on these experiences. In this sense philosophy could be studied for personal enrichment and at least can be called “useful” in this regard.