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Are there questions that science can't answer, but philosophy can? I can't think of any such questions. But, perhaps there are such questions. I would like some examples. Note, such questions have to satisfy both clauses: 1) Science can't answer it but 2)Philosophy can answer it.

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    Science cannot answer the question you have just posed. I suspect philosophy will answer it shortly. Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 16:39
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    Philosophy deal with a lot of fundamental questions, included those regarding foundations of science. But answer... very few. Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 17:30
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    It's not so much whether the question can be answered, but what methodology is used to satisfy the community that the answer is useful or correct. Logic (which is a discipline of philosophy) has a stricter standard of proof than science, which in turn has a stricter standard of proof than metaphysics (which is another discipline of philosophy). All of them attempt to answer questions, but they differ in the extent to which the answer is disputable. Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 11:28
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    Broadly, science answers questions of what can be done, and philosophy answers questions of what should be done. Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 15:29
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    Are there questions that philosophy can answer? Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 20:13

12 Answers 12

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Yes if by answer you mean attempt to answer. But no if by answer you mean finding the correct answer.

There are some questions that arguably have answers. Those can be answered by science or atleast arguably help us get closer to the truth. There are others that don’t have a correct answer. Those can’t be answered by philosophy in general including science, where the latter is a subset of the former.

Let’s take the example of ethics. Science can’t tell you why you should do X or Y. But neither can philosophy outside of science. You can’t get an ought from an is.

Scientists don’t pretend to have the answer to questions that can’t be answered such as moral questions or when one is justified to believe X. There is no correct answer to either of these so scientists stay quiet.

Arguably, to the dismay of perhaps some here, philosophers do pretend to have these answers. They are no more qualified in answering these questions than an engineer or doctor or anyone else, believe it or not. Every justification for any position deals with the problem of regress and having foundational assumptions that can’t be justified non circularly. This applies to every human, philosopher or not.

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Science can't answer ethical questions (though it might provide useful input). For example science can tell us why we love and care for our children (evolution giving rise to instinctive behaviour which improve propagation genes to future generations), but it can't tell us why we should (the main thing about being human is that we are not complete slaves to our evolutionary inheritance, we can make a deliberate choice to go against our all too human nature - generally that is for the better, but this would be an example where it would be a bad thing).

"What should I do about climate change?" is another question science can't answer. Science can tell us the likely outcome of different causes of action, but which is best is a matter of economics, politics and ethics. For instance how much suffering is it O.K. to offload onto future generations to maintain lifestyles now (which is called "discounting"). Should I take action to benefit me personally and be selfish, or should I consider the needs of society (or some compromise in the middle)? That is about personal values, and science can't help us with that.

Philosophy can answer these questions, for instance if I assume I am not in an ethically privileged position then it would be inconsistent with my beliefs to ignore the "Golden rule" (treat others in the way you would want to be treated in their position). So as I would want to be loved and cared for as a child, it is incumbent on me to love and care for mine.

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    How did you come to the assumption that you are not ethically privileged?
    – Passer By
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 11:17
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    @ScottRowe Indeed, for many problems the "why" and the "should" are not too difficult to connect! But in this particular example, for me at least, the "why" is completely irrelevant to the "should". I have no interest in propagating my genes to future generations - I would love and care for my child just as much were they adopted. Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 6:59
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    Respectfully, I would assert that the Golden Rule has been scientifically demonstrated, using Game Theory. This is something everyone needs to know, because it melts the old is-ought distinction which I never agreed with anyway. I'm an engineer, so finding things that function correctly is the most important to me. "A knife always works." The lowest common denominator is a very safe place to be: you can't fall off the floor.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 10:47
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    @ScottRowe can you give me a reference for that? I'm curious as I can see how science can show that the golden rule gives rise to some particular measurable outcome, but I can see how it can show that it is what you should do (a bit like climate models showing what to expect if we take some course of [in]action, but it can prescribe which action we should take unless we specify the desired outcome, which science can't tell us). Science is a great contributor to these questions though, especially as it works so well at what it does. Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 12:11
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    @ScottRowe I think game theory can give us some insight into why humans decide to cooperate, but it doesn't really give us insight into "ought". For instance, in the Dictator Game (Player A gets $10 and can choose how much to give to player B, who does not make any decisions), the optimal strategy for A is to keep $10, but I'm not sure we'd say that's what's right or just. Obviously you can argue that in real life, we are always playing iterated games, and so a notion of trust and reciprocity emerges, but I don't think that fully bridges the gap between is and aught
    – Kaia
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 18:31
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The premise of this question is incorrect, in basically all particulars. It is a statement of scientism, which has not been self-examined by looking for falsifications to the asker's preferred scientistic worldview.

Science cannot establish the methodology of how to do science, that is done by philosophy. Science cannot establish a metric of goodness for a scientific study, that is done by philosophy. Science cannot identify ANY objective to pursue in one's life, including for a scientific investigation. That is generally done at a much lower level of intuition, in pre-philosophic motivations. Philosophy provides the methodology to evaluate, question and possibly change one's intuited objectives.

We humans have a wide range of subjects and questions we must answer in order to live successfully in this world. We have a range of skills that we have developed to try to answer those questions. The core methodologies are intuition, reasoning, and empiricism, and these are applied in different degrees to different questions. How to think about how to answer our multitudes of problems and questions is -- explicitly in the realm of philosophy.

One of those methodologies is the scientific process, which uses a formal empirical methodology, supplemented by deductive reasoning, and intuition to develop hypotheses. Unlike the presumption of this question, science does not provide certainty. It instead is the most precise of our empirical methodologies.

In addition to science, we use empiricism in a much less formal way to do most of our interaction with the world. Informal empiricism, operating in the first person not the 3rd person, is how we developed our world model, our belief in other minds, all practical movement and crafting skills, etc. For a simple example, how one realizes where one is when one wakes in the morning, and what to do next, is entirely based on informal first person empiricism, not science.

Engineering is an intermediate set of empirical skills that cannot satisfy the formalism of science, but is not as loose as informal empiricism.

Both mathematics, and logic, are non-science fields. Logic is a subset of philosophy, so it too provides answers that science cannot.

There are other fields of knowledge that are intrinsically not amenable to science, and are more wholistic and intuitive than pure empiricism can address. These include the humanities of history, literary theory and criticism, comparative mythology, etc. It also includes the fine arts: acting, theater, sculpture, pictorial art, architecture, landscaping, etc. are methods to communicate and affect people that cannot be characterized scientifically, or even fully characterized empirically, as we have no currently plausible method to pursue any of these without significant elements of intuition and holism within them.

And ultimately, values and goals cannot be set scientifically. Morality, ethics, these are philosophic questions.

Note that NONE of these methodologies provides certainty. Within each of these fields, one can dispute basically every question. And how to address that -- is a philosophic question.

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Yes there are such questions. I agree with the answer of @Dikran Marsupial.

Adding to his/her answer I want to point out the following distinction between answers from science and answers from ethics, the latter considered a typical philosophical domain:

Science bases its answers on facts, while ethics bases its answers on norms. A scientific claim is an indicative (= it is), while an ethical claim is an imperative (= it ought to be). Therefore scientific explanations can be confirmed as right or wrong. While ethical norms can be confirmed as targeted-aimed or misleading in the light of a fixed goal.

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  • Science is a hammer, ethics tells you how to pound nails in the best way. I don't see how that is not scientific. 'Best' is pure science.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 11:07
  • @ScottRowe that quote is not in the answer your replying to.
    – TKoL
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 13:23
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Many of the "Philosophy of ..." disciplines cut straight to the heart of this question, such as the philosophy of mathematics or (ironically) the philosophy of science.

For example, science cannot answer the question resolved by Turing's Halting Problem or Godel's incompleteness theorem. They are resolved from the logical application of axioms, not from subjecting a hypothesis to empirical scrutiny. For that matter, modern scientific practice with its P values and effect sizes makes extensive use of probability, but the very questions of "What is probability?" and "What is the relationship between Bayesianism or Frequentialism?" are fundamentally philosophical questions.

As a pragmatic implication, there is a serious problem with the presumption that science is the only worthwhile route to truth. For example, a terrifying number of people have enough mathematical training to know how to calculate a P value, but don't have the epistemological depth to know what that means beyond "The magic number I need to get my paper published." On this one, as it happens, science can spot that its standard practices didn't actually work by measuring the number of papers which fall down under replication attempts. It has finally done so, after much pain and waste. That's why there is finally discussion about the replication crisis and people get warned against things like "p hacking". But even now, to understand why the problem occurs, they have to turn to philosophy.

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  • +1 Required reading for users of p-values: library.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/ft/gg/GG_Mindless_2004.pdf ( doi.org/10.1016/j.socec.2004.09.033 ) Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 7:47
  • I'm not sure why p-values are a matter for philosophy, and not something like metascience or probability. For instance, "Why is p-hacking a problem" and "why do p<0.05 studies frequently fail to replicate" are both questions that can be modeled and answered using math and science without really getting into the weeds on "what is the nature of probability." Though at some point, trying to limit things to a single discipline is silly and there's certainly overlap here. -- It's also unclear to me that philosophy has any more tools beyond math for resolving the halting problem.
    – Kaia
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 19:08
  • That's a very fair question, and perhaps I wasn't clear enough. Other answers (on both sides) are talking about philosophy as if it was fundamentally concerned with questions like ethics. I'm considering a different part of philosophy, epistemology, which is how you know that you know what you know. It is the absence of epistemological rigor which leads to things like the replication crisis.
    – Josiah
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 19:45
  • As to the Halting problem, it is fundamentally shown by constructing a logical paradox around the notion of simulating a family of computer programs. Such a construction with reductio argument is a very philosophical form of reasoning dating back at least to Plato! You're right that it can also be expressed in mathematical language (or, delightfully, poetically!) but what it absolutely cannot be answered by is the empirical examination used by science. (And just for fun, here's the nerdiest of poems I ever read: lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/loopsnoop.html)
    – Josiah
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 19:54
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Yes. For example, the one you are asking.


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The claims that everyone is as good at philosophy as everyone else and that only science can be true are both vacuous nonsense. There is very much disagreement in philosophy, and for people who need consensus this can be very unsettling. Does that mean we only know scientific facts? I don't think so.

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On a more serious note, the Wikipedia article Outline of Philosophy mentions the fundamental branches of traditional Western philosophy:

  • Aesthetics (what is art and beauty);
  • Epistemology (what can we know);
  • Ethics (what should we do);
  • and Logic (how should we reason).

Of these, surely Aesthetics and Ethics are outside the realm of science. There are, for sure, overlaps (e.g. game theory in Ethics, physiology of perception in Aesthetics) but the fundamental questions are not scientific (in the sense of nature sciences).

A more principled discussion might be in order here: I'd contend that "human condition" and "human culture", fuzzy as the terms may be, are emergent phenomena. Even if we say that humans are essentially complex natural phenomena which strictly follow the laws of nature (which in particular implies the absence of gods and "soul" as something not based in ordinary matter): Even if we do that, natural science is not the right tool to investigate the emergent complexity of humanity. It is as if one tried to use quantum physics to analyze a chess game. Yes, the figures are all condensed matter etc., but that is not what we are interested in here, and the approach misses the point.

Yes, we are all carbon, but that does not determine what we consider beautiful.

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Philosophy, by nature, deals with questions outside the realm of where there are settled, reliable, widely accepted answers. All philosophical questions are unsolved and/or controversial, by definition.

If a philosopher does definitively solve a question, it passes out of the realm of philosophy. All sciences originate in solved philosophies.

So the original question misunderstands the relationship of science and philosophy. They are different kinds of inquiry, and one leads to the other. There are no current questions that philosophy has a solution to that science lacks, but future sciences might yet be born from work philosophers are doing today.

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  • I think it's funny that in this thread we have both the claim that philosophy cannot resolve any questions, and that it has resolved this question itself. (Peter's answer)
    – Kaia
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 19:12
  • @Kaia - That's actually correct. If you read this answer carefully, it says "unsolved AND/OR controversial." Peter has identified this question itself as an example of problem philosophy has solved. That is not contradictory iff that solution remains controversial, which it has. If it becomes an uncontroversial solution, then it will no longer be a counterexample, and Peter's answer will be invalidated at that time. Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 21:42
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Expanding on the accepted answer by user62907:

tl;dr: No, but philosophy can help in formulating the question so that it's scientifically answerable.

Anyone, even AI, can give answers to questions. But, without a strict argumentative chain, starting with known or proven facts and having no gaps in the argumentation, such "answers" are only opinions. Opinions are a dime a dozen; everyone has more than one.

I suppose the question is about obtaining correct, "true" answers. Strictly speaking, these can only (and only sometimes, cf. Gödel) be obtained within the abstract world of mathematics. We start with a set of statements we, for the purpose of the argument (the "theory") consider true (the "axioms"), we piously follow some pre-agreed set of rules of the game which define how we can combine the axioms, in order to produce other statements ("theorems") which are equally true as the axioms.

Science, which attempts to model the real world, cannot provide "true" answers. The axioms of the real world, the "laws of nature" can only be infered through observation, which is limited in space, time, and precision. It follows that science can only provide opinions. If they are general enough, we tend to call them "theories". But, some theories happen to be more useful and last longer than others. In my opinion (sic!), this suggests that the dichotomisation between "answer" and "opinion" is not really helpful. Some "opinions" are more trustworthy, even if not 100% proveably correct, than others. While the uncertainty may be hard to quantify in practice, it is important to see that it stems from the uncertainty in the laws (the axioms), not from the mathematical aparatus used for relating them.

Now, the question is where does philosophy rank? If it's distinct from science and mathematics, it should use methods other than theorem-proving and measurements. If, by using these methods, it's capable of finding better approximations to the laws of nature or connecting them better than mathematics, I'm sure scientists and mathematicians will be delighted to know and to accept these methods.

Referring to Dikran Marsupial's answer: A question regarding a "should" should always include an "in order to" term, in order to have a unique, unequivocal answer. For example,

Should I love and care for my children?

is not (uniquely, reproducibly, traceably, computationally) answerable without an "in order to". Depending on the objective, like

  • in order to maximise the chances that they'll care for me when I'm 64
  • in order to maximise my freedom, my account balance, and my sleep time

we can scientifically reach different answers. Once the objective function is defined, the question becomes an optimisation problem, for which we already have a rich mathematical aparatus. Questions like "why should we" are "loaded questions"; they presume that we should. As demonstrated above, this is not necessarily the case.

Similarly regarding "what should I do about climate change?". As long as I don't state my objective, no-one, neither a mathematician, nor a scientist, nor a philosopher, can tell me how to achieve it. The objective function can get arbitrarily complex, but the question remains an optimisation task. I can assigne different weights to different partial objectives: my life expectancy, my children's life expectancy, the coral reef's life expectancy, etc. If I don't care about my and my children's life, I can commit extended suicide and reduce our CO2 output immediately. But, if I care about my children, I should probably kill only myself, and only once my children have grown up. Etc.

I belive the confusion stems from the fact that formulating the objective function is not easy (who'd like to place a tag on his or her life?). That's where philosopher's come in. Instead of giving me an answer (which they objectively can't), their job would be to ask me critical questions about me, my values, and my worldview, and lead me to my personal objective function. Once we get there, we can proceed with science.

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There is no reasonable (e.g. not already ruled out by physics) question science can't potentially answer, but there are questions that it can't answer right now, which philosophy might do better at for the moment. So the answer to the question is it's not really needed in the first place.

What's telling about the other responses is that certain fields are considered outside the realm of science. This is due to social sciences being somehow separated from natural sciences, as if humans don't obey scientific laws. So the social sciences are regarded as somewhat pseudo-sciences. Morals and ethics are just what people want, that comes from their evolution, and balanced out with what others want (i.e. the golden rule). Humans are gregarious and co-dependent, thus ostracism is an extreme measure, basically a death penalty in human history. But a bear is fine doing so. Even neanderthals show evidence of taking care of disabled people. But there is a balance of how much people tend to do for each other.

Science can tell people what they should do in some cases already, like if they want to have electricity in a home, they should wire things up as required. The reason science doesn't tell people what they should do in society is precisely because social sciences aren't real sciences. Economics, politics, ethics, social psychology, and others, are not treated fully as real sciences, they work to make people cope with how things are, not how they should be, i.e. what people want. So the golden rule can't be applied at a societal level, not because science can't answer that, but because it's being prevented from doing so. Science is biased to what humans need. But if people don't put resources into science figuring out what people need, science can't advance. Science is evidence based, theories (ultimately based on math) only explain evidence that is already accepted. Hypotheses are just hypotheses.

Society is an optimization problem where incentives need to be created that encourage better conditions for all, what should be produced, what people should work on, what resources to use. It's the only way for humans to all thrive in the long run. Is there a risk humans are too lazy? No, this goes against basic evolution, no animal is evolved to be excessively lazy. Though some are more lazier than others, no species ever died out from laziness.

Is there any social science theory as of now to build off of? Yes, at least one. Enough evidence is there. How do people share a piece of cake? One cuts, the other chooses. This optimizes fairness and satisfaction, and most likely and even cut. So to apply this on a societal level, whoever chooses how resources are divided gets the last choice and portion of the resources. Then they would have an incentive to put resources into social sciences, because they would want to improve things for themselves to a livable standard, and everyone else would be as good off.

To think humans can live together well without real social science would be like thinking they could get to the moon without science. Is is possible to throw things in a pile until a random rocket ship is made? For anyone who did the calculation on whether computer chips writing random letters, filling up the universe since the start of time (instead of, say, monkeys with typewriters), would have a good chance of writing a sentence of Shakespeare, the answer is no.

What incentives do we have now? Acquire more for oneself, lest one becomes someone who struggles to get by. Societal problems are a byproduct of that. Scientific discoveries on how to share could fix them.

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    Game Theory explains why we should share.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 11:05
  • Ok if they also say how with the right incentives to that'd be useful.
    – user67568
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 11:51
  • My gut feeling is that social sciences help the common man the same way engineering helps the industrial worker: Not so much -- they rather help the people in power to do better (social) engineering. Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 11:30
  • "There is no reasonable (e.g. not already ruled out by physics) question science can't potentially answer," does a supernatural deity exist? This is not already ruled out by physics because the laws of nature (including physics) don't apply to supernatural deities. This is a question that is beyond science, and is one of the reasons science is more interesting/useful than philosophy (IMHO). Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 15:30
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Yes. Why? Science is not interested in the reason behind F = ma. As who studied science (astrophysics) I think that if you ask "why", science will fall short always.

-"why is the force igual to the mass time the acceleration? (with constant mass)"

-"because thats what experiments show"

-"yeah, but why?"

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    Welcome to SE. Your answer shows that there is a question that science can't answer. That's fine. But that's not the whole question. You need to show that philosophy can answer it as well.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 18:04
  • In this particular case, the scientist would probably respond something like "this is true by definition: force is a mathematical concept that is defined such that it is mass times acceleration". In relativity and QM and such, force tends to be not as useful. The general idea is maybe solid though, but I think in a lot of cases science is very interested in why properties hold
    – Kaia
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 18:37
  • For instance, one of the most treasured results in physics is Noether's theorem, which doesn't necessarily answer "why is energy conserved", but does show that if physics is uniform across time, energy must be conserved, and vice versa. Sometimes there's not a (known) answer to "the reason behind x", but it is very much something scientists are interested in
    – Kaia
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 18:43

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