Source: p 87, Philosophy ; A Very Short Introduction (2002) by Edward Craig.

Charles Darwin: The Origin of Species

  The first thing we can learn from this fascinating book is not to bother too much about drawing a neat sharp line between philosophy and science.
[1.] The point is not that the line isn’t sharp, although I believe that to be true.
[2.] The point is that the line (if it exists) is not of much importance for philosophy.
On any reasonable way of drawing it Darwin’s Origin is science, more specifically biology. But because of its subject-matter, and the claims it makes, very few books have had greater philosophical impact. For it implies a startling thesis about us and how we have come to be as we are. It may not startle us today, but it startled most of his contemporaries to the point of shock; and there are still a number of people trying to perform the difficult balancing act of rejecting it without appearing merely ignorant and prejudiced.

Central Question: Why is the bolded true?

To me, [1.] (belief in the line's sharpness) contradicts [2.] (disbelief of the line's importance), because if a line between science and philosophy really matters not for philosophy, then: why is there a line at all, and why did the natural sciences (and maths and other independent subjects now) separate from philosophy?


2 Answers 2


I think this claim is false: the line is important since it is a problem that interests many philosophers. Perhaps the author means that when doing philosophy on a specific subject (here biology) we can ignore this problem. Even then I don't agree. For example one could think philosophers should refrain from making scientific speculations because it's not their role, and the premises of an argument being a scientific result or a philosophical hypotheses certainly matters, so one should know where the line is.

The argument provided is a non-sequitur: the fact that a scientific theory such as evolution has huge philosophical consequences does not imply at all that the line is unimportant. To the contrary I would say: if it were a mere metaphysical position rather than a scientific theory, the theory of evolution wouldn't have the same impact.


Both science and philosophy try to understand the world around us. Both accept that knowledge must be justified, or it is not truly knowledge (philosophy also explores other definitions of knowledge, but permit me to narrow it's scope to make the wording simpler). From philosophy's perspective, the path towards science is just an increasing level of strictness in what a justification looks like which is paired with an increasing level of trust we have in the knowledge once the justification occurs.

The line appears when you look in the other direction, going from science towards philosophy. From science's perspective, there are several bits of knowledge that are presumed not to need any particular justification. The most powerful of these assumptions, at the root of the natural sciences, is the assumption that there exists a physical world whose behavior is governed by rules. From that assumption, many processes like the scientific method spring forth.

From science's perspective, this is the key for any bit of information to be deemed scientific knowledge -- it has to follow these processes based on these assumptions. From philosophy's perspective, those assumptions are just assumptions, like any other assumption we make. They have their good sides, they have their bad. Philosophy can consider the philosophy behind Traditional Chinese Medicine and the philosophy of science as similar enough to compare and contrast. Science must consider TCM to be "pseudoscience," and refuses to compare against it other than to state that it is not science.

In the middle, there is the philosophy of science itself, which serves as a way to go backwards against this one-way gate. A scientist can consider the philosophy of science as a way to relax the constraints put on scientific knowledge, and explore the question of whether there is or is not non-scientific knowledge.

  • There is no reason why scientists cannot ask whether TCM does or does not follow a model that leads to justified knowledge as the standard scientific method does. If it were the case that TCM were better in finding out some things (or curing some things) than typical scientific approaches, it could be demonstrated scientifically. However, the problem with TCM is mostly that you can't tell if you've found anything out. The label "pseudoscience" isn't blindly applied to "anything that looks different than me". (Needn't be. But it's hard for humans to be nuanced or investigate carefully.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 20:53
  • @RexKerr That is true, if you start from the assumption that all valid knowledge can be proven scientifically, which is what science tends to start from as I mentioned in the answer. As for "pseudoscience," I believe that label is applied to any body of knowledge which does not follow the scientific method, but claims to be scientifically validated. A great deal of strife can occur when you take a system of knowledge which is not scientific in our sense of the word and then presume you can act on that information in a way similar to scientific information.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 21:23
  • I don't think science in practice asks that valid knowledge be "proven scientifically" (whatever that means), but just that it be justified in some reliable way. Philosophy has been (and can continue to be) useful in understanding what is "justified in some reliable way", but that doesn't mean it must come from philosophy. Science has the tools to investigate these things too. (I agree about the definition of pseudoscience. I am not sure TCM is, since it often doesn't pretend to be scientific. It hasn't done much to incorporate negative results from studies into its practices.)
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Feb 22, 2016 at 16:47

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