I'm a word geek and it came upon me to look up the word philosophy tonight:

philosophy - the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.

The thing that immediately struck me by this definition is that, all things considered, the process of science seems to fall squarely under this definition as well. Science is certainly rational, and it certainly investigates the truths and principles of being, knowledge and conduct.

The distinction between the act of philosophy and the act of science, then, to me seems to be one largely of testability. Science is a process which uses very intricate machinery and mechanisms to finely investigate the properties of objective reality, and actually come to conclusions about that reality. What we call 'philosophy' is for all practical purposes doing the same thing, except with less effective tools, and comes from a time when scientific machinery and mechanisms were just not available.

So if we want to get really real for a second:

Is 'science' just a more effective method of what philosophers of old were doing? Is there any wisdom or insight to be gained by the act of 'philosophizing' that can't be even better understood by learning verifiable properties about reality? Is it silly to make an 'us vs them' distinction between philosophy and science?

I wasn't sure how to tag this guy, so feel free to update.

  • I don't think the definiton suits science. Science is building knowledge directly, not establishing the principles (or truth) of knowledge, and it has nothing to do with conduct or being. Jun 6, 2015 at 12:52
  • Note: conduct is not behaviour (a possible object of science). Jun 6, 2015 at 12:54
  • Science builds knowledge, but in doing so indirectly builds insight and wisdom. Strictly speaking science is amoral and unprincipled, but without it we don't really know much about anything and can't form testable principles.. that well. So if we re-define science as the process of obtaining knowledge to acquire insight, it becomes a refined philosophical practice. imho
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jun 6, 2015 at 23:57
  • I'd say the result of scientific inquiry can serve as input for philosophy. The demarcation is not always clear but there is a slight difference. Jun 7, 2015 at 9:45
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    Does this answer your question? What is the relationship between philosophy and science?
    – user64125
    Jan 30, 2023 at 1:14

9 Answers 9


I think the question you're asking has two features.

One part is merely historical. What is now called "science" or perhaps "natural science" is what was once called "natural philosophy." You can see the remnant of this in the title of the academic degree "Doctor of Philosophy." Philosophy was one of four classical doctorates at one point in the European system (the four being: law, medicine, theology, philosophy). Philosophy is the most expansive of those in its objects of study. In a sense, disciplines separate out from philosophy as the amount of specialized knowledge required to perform them goes up to the point where it is no longer possible to study them as a part of philosophy. Stated in the opposite direction, philosophy keeps only those questions and subject matters which do not resolve out into other methods of inquiry.

The second issue in your question is that you seem to be assuming a certain definition of what "science" means and what it accomplishes. This question to some extent remains a part of philosophy. To put it another way, it's clearly "science" to do the experiment; something is still happening that is science in the interpreting the physical experiment and improving our understanding of the theory, and it's not always clear we can say what that means within the realm of science itself.

Also understanding what specifically the science is doing remains a question for philosophy (are were overthrowing old theories? are we improving and refining the same theory? What is the "scientific method"? Is there one? Are there many? Are they a family of methods? Are they (merely) dogma?

  • It's worth noting first, that science is divided into hard and soft sciences (with even finer grades), and secondly, that currently there's widespread acceptance of various math-based hypotheses as science in spite of not being falsifiable and in spite of total lack of experimental evidence or even the possibility of such. Dark matter comes to mind. Everywhere you'll find alleged evidence of dark matter, when it's only evidence of the phenomenon that dark matter was invented to pseudo explain. Evidence of problem = evidence of interpretation; this is now called scientific. We're in bad shape. Jun 6, 2015 at 10:46
  • @Cheersandhth.-Alf With respect to dark matter, it is falsifiable. All current developed theories that avoid dark matter by not being metric theories like General relativity cannot account for galaxy clusters. Those which account for Galaxy clusters (general relativity and similar metric theories) need dark matter to explain other galactic phenomenon. In short, there is no alternative to the dark matter model which accounts for as much phenomenon. When such a model is developed, then people will gladly abandon dark matter. Till then, the most successful model will reign.
    – Cicero
    Jun 7, 2015 at 16:30
  • @Cicero: Some specific concrete proposals for dark matter are falsifiable. I'm no expert, but I find e.g. Jay Wacker (a physicist from Stanford) saying this on Quora: «The ultimate issue is that at this point, dark matter's non-gravitaitonal interactions may be arbitrarily weak. It doesn't make it non-scientific, it just means that we may be forever ignorant of the details of the non-gravitational interactions of dark matter.». The phrase «forever ignorant» is, as I see it, the same as «not falsifiable». And I think, if that's not so, then it would be such glad tidings that I would have heard Jun 7, 2015 at 18:03
  • That is only for non gravitational interactions, and it's a maybe. As for gravitational effects, dark matter is falsifiable.
    – Cicero
    Jun 7, 2015 at 22:01

The answer has to be 'no', assuming contemporary understandings of the words 'science' and 'philosophy'. The primary reason is that science assumes more than philosophy. For example, nearly all scientists tacitly work within the assumptions of scientific realism, meaning that they assume the existence of mind-independent reality, and that their knowledge of that reality - observations and theories - is a reasonable reflection of that reality.

There are many philosophers and branches of philosophy, e.g. anti-realists, arguably nominalists, hard sceptics and so on, that do not live within these assumptions.

Science's main project is to generate reliable theories about reality by observation of / interaction with reality, making inferences of various kinds to create and refine those theories. Its method(s) of doing so are not discoverable with those same method(s), since the essence of the method itself (let's assume a modern rationalist hypothetico-deductive approach) consists of elements that are not themselves discernible in reality, but are rather ways of doing things and ways of valuing evidence. Due to this, the scientific method has to stand in an axiomatic relationship to the practice of science, rather than being part of it.

It is up to the philosophy of science to help find, evaluate and improve the methods of science.

The remit of philosophy in general is considerably larger than that of science, since entire branches of it are concerned with things like religion, morality and post-modernism, none of which are topics easily investigated by science.


Ask yourself the following question :

Can we use science exclusively to determine a Mythos or Weltanschauung upon which to ground a solid moral standard?

Philosophers tend to be divided on the answer to that question, because they are divided on another, more fundamental question :

Can we use science exclusively to determine not just what the current state of the universe is, but also what the future states of the universe ought to be?

Atheistic naturalists like neuroscientist (and philosopher) Sam Harris tend to believe that (1) we can use science exclusively to determine the optimal conditions for both human and animal welfare and that (2) a scientific insight into how to evolve towards those optimal conditions is all we need upon which to ground a solid Mythos / Weltanschauung. Atheistic naturalists consider science to be a more reliable, more testable equivament of philosophy, making traditional philosophy rather obselete.

Others, who reject Atheistic naturalism, typically argue either that (1) science does not allow us to determine the optimal conditions for both human and animal welfare or that (2) the optimal conditions for both human and animal welfare fails as a solid foundation for morality. The opponents of Atheistic naturalism therefore argue that philosophy remains necessary to co-exist as a framework alongside science to answer those (usually moral) questions they believe science can never answer.

In my experience, whether people answer your question with a "yes" or a "no" will depend on whether they are proponents or opponents of Atheistic naturalism.

  • 2
    My intuition is that determining how things 'ought' to be can't be objectively identified, only conjectured about, so the only way to really move closer to an 'ought' is to better understand the framework that we're discussing, which is done via scientific inquiry. So maybe it's not so much that science can't answer these questions, but science is needed to ground the answers to these questions in evidence. At that point the distinction between science and philosophy isn't exactly clear, or in other words arbitrary.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jun 6, 2015 at 15:31
  • @CanadianCoder : What's your opinion on this scene? -> youtube.com/watch?v=wV5s-Jgbw68 Jun 6, 2015 at 15:38
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    Heh, all sounds like nonsense to me. The more you know, the easier it is to achieve your goals, and the more people know, the better society can collectively become. But there's always going to be mental hang-ups, nonsense and the like.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Jun 6, 2015 at 21:20
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    @CanadianCoder : The arguments made in that particular scene (from the TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett's genius novel "Hogfather") is that all morality is essentially subjective and arbitrary to some degree. Jun 7, 2015 at 3:42
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    As to your first question, I'd modify the question to: "Can we use science exclusively to determine a facts upon which to ground a solid moral standard?", the answer is simple: "yes". The original question didn't make sense; science is based the assumption/world view/Weltanschauung that nature can be described empirically. To do science, you must start with this world view. To verify whether this world view is correct, science claims that so far it hasn't been proven wrong.
    – Lie Ryan
    Jun 18, 2015 at 14:18

(This whole argument can be captured by reading just the bold bits. The rest is packing and details you could look up anywhere.)

Science is, as virmaior points out, historically part of Philosophy. It remains such, and always will. Any discipline hopefully becomes a more effective version of itself over time, and philosophy has done this by including science. Science is more effective than older philosophy. But so is the rest of philosophy. No part of something can be uniformly better than the whole of it. There is space around the part that remains to be considered.

We have a tacit understanding that the internals of any given science are best left alone by philosophy, to the degree they are working and not causing damage. And we refer to only 'what is left over' after partitioning off science as 'philosophy per se'. But that is a polite convention, and not a fact.

Every science is more refined than philosophy as a whole, in that it presumes certain truths which are part of what Kuhn calls its paradigm, and below that, it assumes a group of meta-paradigmatic truths that let it better agree with other sciences -- basically, that anything useful can be approximated well enough in a certain brand of physicalism that all science can be tested with other science.

We know that philosophy is not totally covered by the range of existing sciences because as areas of thought establish enough data to base a paradigm, work being done by philosophers becomes the content of new sciences. Psychology was philosophy at the start of the careers of Wundt and James, and a science at the end. It is hard to argue that this discontinuity changed philosophy, surgically sealing off the domain, or that the work of psychologists itself became totally different by establishing its independence.

But a certain set of principles was established enough that further philosophising in that context was temporarily ready to uniformly accept them. Everyone agreed that if you violate those principles, you are probably wrong. So we had, for the first time, something against which we could test this kind of idea fairly directly. And voila, philosophy becomes science.

As the emergence of new sciences points out, a science, is at root, only more testable than other parts of philosophy, because it has a paradigm, and it is only more refined to the degree that it can look closer and see more clearly when it restricts the breadth of its view by accepting a paradigm.

The refinement of being scientific, which is gained by paradigm establishment, is meant to improve the efficiency of science, and I think that we can all agree that that really works. Modern sciences can move forward cleanly and efficiently. But efficient and effective are not the same thing.

Sciences use up the predictive range of their paradigms, or slowly come to admit they cannot work out some internal inconsistencies which make them less and less convincing. When a science's paradigm becomes overtaxed or weak, the science founders, and stops being efficient. At those points a science needs to fall back on the rest of philosophy to reshape its ideas and give it a new paradigm. Historically, this happens with great regularity. Kuhn calls this a 'revolution'.

When we re-injected the notion of atoms into physics to explain Brownian motion and thermodynamics, those 'new' ideas came from very old philosophy. And philosophy had developed, over time, many of the arguments that let physics make peace with this new perspective and integrate it. Atomists had existed all along, just banished from physics (sometimes literally, q.v. Boltzmann)

I would argue that as information accumulation increases, this refinement of the paradigm happens more and more often, at a smaller and smaller scale, and we don't see as much of the disruption that the word 'revolution' implies. Recent 'revolutions' like relativity caused much apprehension and dynamic interest, but preserved almost all of the existing knowledge.

Since the rest of philosophy bears up science when it becomes confused, without the rest of philosophy, it would eventually fail absolutely. The sciences really cannot be declared more effective than the very thing that makes them up, and upon which they rely to save them when they get stuck. And that thing is 'philosophy per se'.


Science and philosophy study different things. Science studies empirical claims. These are claims about how the universe is. Empirical claims can be tested, verified, falsified. An example of an empirical claim is that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). We can test this claim by making observations and attempting to falsify it.

Philosophy, on the other hand, studies normative claims. These are claims about how the universe ought to be. How should we conduct ourselves in the world? What should count as 'knowledge'? Should one believe in the existence of God? These are normative questions in the sense that they ask how things ought to be rather than how things actually are.

There is of course some overlap between science and philosophy. Some philosophers engage in what might be considered science while some scientists engage in what might be considered philosophy. But there are things which it is impossible for scientists to study and which philosophers do try to understand--e.g., the nature of morality, the existence of God, etc. And vice versa. So I do not believe that scientists are simply philosophers with better tools and methods.

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    I think metaphysicians and epistemologists might greatly disagree with your claim to study "normative claims". Most epistemologist wants to study what is knowledge not merely what is normatively called knowledge. (Precisely, they disagree with you about whether they are referring merely to "how things out to be rather than how things actually are).
    – virmaior
    Jun 16, 2015 at 5:26
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    Moral philosophy is interested in how some aspects of the world e.g. human and animal rights, should be, but this is specific. Much of philosophy is concerned with working out boundaries and relations between 'the universe' and what is going on in our heads; what categories of thought there are and so on. Even the existence of those boundaries is debated by many philosophers, not to mention the nature of 'existence' itself. Only some part of philosophy is concerned with normative claims, and those claims are more often about methods of relating to the world than the world itself.
    – wolandscat
    Jun 16, 2015 at 9:16

My answer would be perhaps Yes.


But an adequate, exhaustive scientific exposition of this interconnection, the formation of an exact mental image of the world system in which we live, is impossible for us, and will always remain impossible. If at any time in the development of mankind such a final, conclusive system of the interconnections within the world — physical as well as mental and historical — were brought about, this would mean that human knowledge had reached its limit, and, from the moment when society had been brought into accord with that system, further historical development would be cut short — which would be an absurd idea, sheer nonsense. Mankind therefore finds itself faced with a contradiction: on the one hand, it has to gain an exhaustive knowledge of the world system in all its interrelations; and on the other hand, because of the nature both of men and of the world system, this task can never be completely fulfilled. But this contradiction lies not only in the nature of the two factors — the world, and man — it is also the main lever of all intellectual advance, and finds its solution continuously, day by day, in the endless progressive development of humanity, just as for example mathematical problems find their solution in an infinite series or continued fractions. Each mental image of the world system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively by the historical conditions and subjectively by the physical and mental constitution of its originator. But Herr Dühring explains in advance that his mode of reasoning is such that it excludes any tendency to a subjectively limited conception of the world. We saw above that he was omnipresent — on all possible celestial bodies. We now see that he is also omniscient. He has solved the ultimate problems of science and thus nailed boards across the future of all science.

So from a materialistic viewpoint ( or a Marxian viewpoint ), the science, is an interpretation of the history of the world, as well as the Nature-The-Human-Beings are the "historical "materials" too. So, only if we try to discuss the relationship between the philosophy and the science, well, your proposition that the science is a refined, method, of philosophy, perhaps, is, we might be able to say, true. Since as time passes, we will know deeper and deeper the history ( = what happened in the past in the world ) together with the advancement of ( acquiring knowledge of ) ourselves.

  • After all, had the science not been an interpretation of the history of the universe, then what would we call the -- big bang theory -- instead??
    – user13955
    Jun 17, 2015 at 16:10
  • I dared to have answered knowing materialistic viewpoints are not welcomed here. However, for what reason bothers you always remaining in Hegelian world? -- whose products are mostly using difficult sentences to comprehend???????
    – user13955
    Jun 17, 2015 at 16:34

The subject matter of the natural sciences tends to be a) observables and b) the theoretical objects required to explain them. So, for example, how the brain processes sensory information would be a scientific issue.

The subject matter of philosophy tends to be significant abstractions. Traditionally, these include values (aesthetic and ethical), reality, knowledge, and logic. However, there are other significant abstractions that philosophers study, including the nature of science and political theory. So, for example, what we mean when we say that we know something would be a philosophical issue.

Philosophy and science can inform each other. For example, a philosopher studying epistemology (theory of knowledge) can profit from scientific information about perception. And, frankly, scientists who have announced the death of philosophy could profit from reminders that this conclusion doesn't follow from any scientific findings.

However, philosophy and science can never replace each other.

Natural science, for example, doesn't commit us to any particular claims about truth or knowledge. If scientific theory A explains all of the data that scientific theory B does, and more data in addition, scientific theory A wins. That's it. Whether the theory constitutes a better approximation of the truth, or whether the traditional concept of truth is bankrupt, is a matter for philosophers.

Philosophy, for example, can't tell us a damned thing about which model of the Big Bang explains the most data in the most parsimonious way. That's a matter for scientists.

There is some confusion in the scientific community about what philosophy is, because the subject matter of some disciplines, such as neuropsychology, used to be objects of philosophical speculation. But there isn't any reason why modern scientists should cling to a eighteenth & nineteenth century concept of what philosophers do.


In a historical perspective, all attempts to organise and justify knowledge claims were once Philosophy, but over time various separate disciplines differentiated themselves either in terms of their objects or in terms of their methods, so that Natural Philosophy gave rise to Physics, from which other Natural Sciences eventually split off ... Philosophy of Mind gave rise to Psychology; Social Philosophy gave rise to Political Science, Economics and so forth - but Ethics stayed behind as a branch of Philosophy.

So that seems to give us a (rather simplified) answer at the level of the History of Ideas. On the other hand, from an actually "Philosophical" perspective, the development of these separate disciplines still leaves philosophical questions, those questions that are pertinent to their investigations but which cannot be answered by their methods. Some philosophers (e.g. Quine) see Philosophy as continuous with Science; others do not. Quine of course was notorious for casting doubt on the idea of the potentially falsifying crucial experiment, which although revived by Popper in the 1930s had been implicitly accepted by most scientists since the time of Francis Bacon. Without either falsifiability or verifiability as a criterion for distinguishing Science from other knowledge claims, it seems that Quine's claim of a continuity between Philosophy and Science becomes vacuous.

Btw, @CanadianCoder, I don't think that dictionary definitions of intellectual concepts such as "Philosophy" are always very helpful, and perhaps the example you have given us is a case in point. For example, Philosophers may believe themselves to be rational, and so may Scientists; but do they have the same notion of rationality? Is there only one kind of rationality? If not, is it really the job of a dictionary-maker to try to distinguish amongst the different kinds?

  • @KentaroTomono This comment really belongs under your previous comments, but it seems that the system won't let me comment anywhere else than here, unless I accumulate a reputation score of 50. Not a very clever aspect of user interface design IMHO! (1) You said materialistic comments are not welcome here - I am not sure why you think so. Perhaps we have had difficulty not so much with materialism as with the Hegelian aspects of your thinking? (2) You criticise some attitudes to science as a reification of being in itself, but I am not clear which participants here you accuse of that. Jun 20, 2015 at 20:56

I would consider philosophy a science, of course. Both use a system in which we find Truth, relying basically on sensory and perceptions. Both also evolve in that when more information is discovered, it is either integrated within the system or the system has to be reconsidered. I agree with many of you that science is empirical, it makes no judgments on what is good and what is bad, it simply claims what exists and describes a lawful change. A lot of cause for skepticism is the doubt that our perceptions are correct or incomplete, but that's not to say it's unknowable or impossible for us to know.

So many philosophers have come up with consistent philosophies that are more or less accurate in their normative claims. The goal of philosophy is to have normative claims line up with the truths of Reality such that there is a correct way that we ought to be so that we are in accordance to our Nature. This can be investigated by studying Nature which includes both the hard sciences as well as human psychology.

Philosophers are scientists discovering how our ethics and morality ought to be based off of the world we live in. Finding that 1 to 1 correlation.

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