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While philosophy and science as held as separate disciplines (and often taught in completely different colleges within a university [i.e. College of Liberal Arts vs. College of Science]), it is patently clear that there is an immutable relationship between philosophy and science. Philosophy can often be seen as providing justification for particular scientific theories -- but why/how is this so?

In science:

  • A theory must have observable consequences that can be tested and be falsified.
  • Theories also must agree with previous theories in the domains where they had been successfully tested.

For example, special relativity reduces to Newton mechanics in the domain of velocities much less than the speed of light.

In philosophy, while new theories must comply with existing theories, there is clearly much less testing/retesting.

So, how does philosophy fit into this framework while maintaining the rigor required for scientific inquiry? Are there any examples of philosophical discussions that have significantly influenced or changed scientific theory?

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Well, my context (which was probably obvious from my previous version of this question), is that it seems to me that a lot of philosophical discussions become arguments about the meanings of words and there does not seem to be a way to settle philosophical arguments since there is no experiment that can be performed to determine the validity of one or another philosophical point of view. –  FrankH Oct 21 '11 at 20:58
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The relationship is an interesting one. In response to the below answers, I would also recommend looking into experimental metaphysics and what Michael Heller calls "philosophy in science". –  danielm Dec 18 '12 at 13:16
    
I would point those interested in answering this question to the later Wittgenstein. His view is that philosophy is (or rather, should be) concerned with conceptual (in fact, linguistic) analysis, and so is not empirical. Philosophy correctly practiced makes no discoveries, yields no new knowledge, but facilitates understanding - by identifying and correcting conceptual confusions. Philosophy and science are, on this view, entirely distinct. –  adrianos Feb 10 at 18:15

5 Answers 5

1. Philosophy isn't concerned with empirically testable theories

In philosophy, while new theories must comply with existing theories, there is clearly much less [empirical] testing/retesting.

This observation is quite correct (leaving aside the remark about new/existing theories, see below).

However, the claim that philosophy doesn't (shoudn't) deal with scientific (empirical/mathematical) questions and methods is rather new, compared with what philosophers have been actually doing for most of philosophy's history. This new claim appeared ca. 250 years ago, which is a rather short time period compared to philosophy's 2500 years of existence. Up to German idealism it was customary for philosophers to be not only deeply informed about scientific matters, but to engage in scientific questions as well.

(To be sure, there were always battles within philosophy between rationalistic and empiristic inclined philosophers, and so Descartes would contribute to mathematics, while Newton would contribute to physics. But all these philosophers wanted to advance, in different ways, our actual knowledge of the world.)

One important symptom in the modern self-(re)imaging of philosophy as non-empirical was a debate occured in the 19th century about whether psychology, which was at the time a subdiscipline of philosophy, should use properly experimental methods in research. The faction supporting this view could succeed only at the cost of leaving philosophy (institutionally) in order to become an experimental discipline. The so called Psychologismus-Streit (psychologism debate) which followed sanctioned that logic and, most importantly, epistemology shouldn't have anything to do with psychology, thus consolidating the claim that philosophy shouldn't employ empirical methods and should deal with conceptual issues only. This is pretty much the status quo today.

There are, however, current attempts to return to the older view, i.e. that philosophy should employ experimental methods (check out experimental philosophy).

2. Does philosophy meet scientific rigor?

In science: A theory must have observable consequences that can be tested and be falsified. Theories also must agree with previous theories in the domains where they had been successfully tested.
For example, special relativity reduces to Newton mechanics in the domain of velocities much less than the speed of light.
In philosophy, while new theories must comply with existing theories, there is clearly much less testing/retesting.

You seem to imply that in order to be called a science, a discipline has to produce empirically testable theories. This certainly isn't an evident premise, as formal sciences do not meet this criterion. Are they therefore not scientific? This would seem an odd conclusion (and I don't think you would like to draw it).

(Results of formal sciences are clearly used in constructing and testing scientific models dealing with observable reality, but these sciences are certainly not tested themselves this way.)

So, how does philosophy fit into this framework while maintaining the rigor required for scientific inquiry?

Well, when philosophy aims to maintain a certain rigor, it does so by adopting instruments used in the formal sciences (such as logic, probability theory, theoretical linguistics, etc.). But some branches of philosophy do not actually aim to emulate the epistemic values found in science, they orient themselves more at epistemic values found in other fields, such as literature. But still, they are certainly bounded to common standards of academic inquiry.

(As to your characterization of scientific theories, see the answer of Michael Dorfman's reply. There is a common problem when speaking about "what science is" or "what scientific theories are", as it is not clear if one means to give a (widely shared) definition or a factual description. Most of the time it is meant both as a definition and a description. Historical and sociological research showed that some widely shared definitions are simply false when used as factual descriptions of science - which still doesn't invalidate these claims qua definitions!)

3. Do philosophical discussion influence scientific theories?

Are there any examples of philosophical discussions that have significantly influenced or changed scientific theory?

Yes!

As you might see from the above, formal and empirical research was actually a part of philosophy for more than 2000 years. So the answer is: philosophy itself!

But probably you mean "science" in the sense of contemporary science, i.e. as a clearly differentiated set of disciplines with no general institutional ties to philosophy. Even in this case the answer is still: Yes!

As you mentioned Special Relativity (SRT), I'll take this example to mention two cases in which philosophical discussions were involved in creating and defending/advancing SRT as well as General Relativity Theory (GRT).

  1. Ernst Mach formulated repeatedly the (now so called) Mach's principle, which was seminal for Einstein to conceive GRT. (See this page for more info.)

  2. Since the Lorentz ether theory (LET) and SRT were deemed to be empirically equivalent, most scientists were puzzled as to which criteria could be used to solve this problem of underdetermination. Physicist Max von Laue consulted on this matter a still young Moritz Schlick, later to become the founder of the Vienna Circle, logical empiricism and thus of most of modern philosophy of science. Schlick gave a new interpretation of the principle of simplicity, showing why on these grounds SRT should be preferred (the old interpretation of simplicity actually supported LET). Together with Schlick, other soon-to-be logical empiricists, such as Hans Reichenbach, joined the discussion and formulated the first interpretations of SRT. They were also really important in defending SRT against scientifically and not-so-scientifically minded attacks. (Follow this link for detailed info on their contributions to SRT.)

If you need more (or more impressive?) examples, please let me now in the comments.

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The short answer here is that philosophy is not concerned with testable hypothesis and controlled observation; those matters are left to science. Philosophy is concerned, rather, with questions that cannot be answered through this process.

Scientific theories also must agree with previous theories in the domains where they had been successfully tested.

This is not the case; sometimes new scientific theories directly contradict (and replace) previous theories. I suggest you take a look at Kuhn if the history of scientific theories is of interest.

Please give a specific example of a philosophical discussion that has significantly influenced or changed some scientific theory?

The domain of Logic is usually considered to be philosophy; all science piggybacks upon the foundation of classical logic and inference. In this regard, we can say that all Science, therefore, relies on a body of prior philosophical discussion.

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also for the history and sociology of science: lakatos and feyerabend. –  Mozibur Ullah Mar 21 '13 at 0:58

Generally philosophy must help us to see something to the farthest extent that we can possibly achieve gradually by deepening the knowledge from any fields and to see where something to be placed on, so we can be guided to achieve something at best gradually.

Philosophy stands on any fields of knowledge to further deepening knowledge with the purpose to be able to see where ourselves should be placed correctly.

Science must be supporter for philosophy to be working properly, and vice versa.

To be more specific:

  • Science to Philosophy:

    • philosophy is working on reasonable thinking, and science can be a witness for correctness of an axiom from philosophy, and further philosophy will use this proven axiom with another axiom (that may not be proven yet), to gain another axioms, and
  • Philosophy to Science:

    • axioms from philosophy may be used by scientist to see any possible extent as hypotesis that may be followed by scientific observation.

If this kind of relationship can be constructed nicely, it will be a mutual relationship to both. Both will gain assertions, corrections and possibilities wider and wider (applicable knowledge) than before, from both (philosophy and science), one to another.

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In my mind:

The main difference between philosophy and science is that science is not allowed to tell you how to coordinate desires, i.e. what to do with your own and other people's lives.

The main similarity between philosophy and science is that they both try to find out about reality, so good philosophers certainly use scientists or their tool e.g. verifying and falsifying claims in physical reality, trying to be coherent, adding up probabilities, etc.

But I do recognize that most universities for various reasons have got stuck in the analytical school which seem to separate science and philosophy somewhere between fact and definition. Leaving life's most important questions of how we should live our lives to be taken over by religion, astrology, and self-help gurus.

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Naturally, the solution of all the pressing problems of our time depends not only on a rational philosophical orientation. It also depends on the political orientation of nations and statesmen, which in turn is related to the nature of the social structure. Scientific activity is not only logical, it also has moral and socio-political implications. Knowledge arms man with the means to achieve his ends. There can be no doubt that modern natural science is a powerful "motor" of technical advance. In a fierce ideological struggle the specialised scientists who lack any scientific world-view or methodology sometimes turn out to be helpless grown-up children in the face of reactionary ideology and some of them fall into its clutches.

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