Preface: I know nothing about physics, and little about philosophy.

This Scientific American article of 2015 May 8, this question, and this blog post of 2009 Nov 11 by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci reference some famous physicists who have opposed or rejected philosophy in public. I am assuming that they have not read it clandestinely and hypocritically.

So if philosophy matters to science, then how have they succeeded still as scientists?
Should their opposition to philosophy have disrupted or impeded them?


7 Answers 7


3 Responses to the question:

Why have those scientists who rejected or opposed philosophy, still succeeded?

Either (1) they are succeeding because they are correct in rejecting philosophy. (2) They are succeeding, but they are engaging in philosophy without knowing or acknowledging it. (3) They are succeeding because they are, per Kuhn, in the normal phase of science. If they were in the the revolutinoary phase or pre-paradigm phase they would not succeed unless they engaged with philosophical (metaphysical and epistemological) questions.

(1): Scientists who reject philosophy are correct, philosophy isn't relevant to science:

Those oppose philosophy as useless or no longer relevant to science are subscribing to a colloquial version of the philosophical view called Logical Positivism. Logical positivists held that the only meaningful statements are those based on logic and empirical facts (i.e. scientific statements). They were strongly opposed to metaphysics, which they considered to be literal nonsense since metaphysical statements could not be verified experimentally. And although they didn't reject philosophy all together (after all, they themselves were philosophers), they saw it merely as a set of linguistic and logic tools that served mainly a method of clarifying scientific statements and questions. Although Weinberg, Krauss, and co. don't agree on the details with the Logical Positivists, they are in the overall same epistemic ball park with them, in the sense that they view empirical observation as the only source of truth.

From this perspective, the scientists who reject philosophy are indeed correct. Philosophy is irrelevant (specifically metaphysics and epistemology) to their field, and that is why they are succeeding in their chosen filed.

(2): Scientists who reject philosophy are doing philosophy, they just don't know it (or won't admit it):

There are several criticisms of the Logical Positivist position, but in the context of your question, the relevant one is that claiming that the only meaningful facts are empirical ones and that non-testable metaphysical statements are meaningless is itself a metaphysical statement. So the scientists who reject metaphysics and epistemology as irrelevant to science are implicitly taking a philosophical position when doing so.

2.1. Dennett in his book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" says: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination”

Daniel Dennett gives a similar criticism of Lawrence Krauss's view (one of your rejecters of philosophy) in this debate between Massimo Pigliucci, Lawrence Krauss, and Daniel Dennett -- starting at 1:17:00 to about 1:24:00: Lawrence Krauss is engaging in metaphysics as much as any philosophically inclined scientist (Such as Roger Penrose or Lee Smolin). In his response to Dennett's criticism, he admits that he does engage in philosophical questions and philosophical thought experiments, and tries to give a more nuanced distinction between philosophy and science.

(3): They are succeeding only because they are engaging in what Thomas Kuhn calls the normal science phase as opposed to revolutionary science phase or pre-paradigm science phase. If they had to engage into some of the other phases of science, they would not be able to succeed without engaging with metaphysical and epistemic questions:

In his book "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions", Thomas Kuhn divides science in to 5 phases:

  1. The pre-paradigm phase: This is the primordial situation when a given scientific topic was based mostly on competing philosophical speculations. Think physics before Newton or psychology before the 20th century.
  2. The normal science phase: A specific paradigm (or theory) has been established and now scientists are engaged in confirming and elaborating on the consequences of that theory. Think Physics between the time of Newton and the late 19th century.
  3. The crisis phase: Experimental results start to seriously contradict the predictions of the theory established in the normal phase. Scientists will try to resolve these contradictions according to established theories. If they fail then science goes into the next phase. Think physics in the 1890-1910 period.
  4. The revolutionary phase: The previously established paradigm is being abandoned due to too many conflicting experiments and different paradigms and frameworks are competing to establish themselves as the new paradigm. Think of the period between 1910 and 1940 when Quantum Mechanics was being elaborated.
  5. Post-paradigm shift: Scientists agree on a new paradigm and start work on elaborating it and confirming it, thus returning to phase 2.

A similar classification is given by Imre Lakatos, who instead of paradigms, speaks of progressive research programs (when a theory is making definite progress) and degenerative research programs (when a theory is mainly defending itself from negative results - before finally having to be changed or abandoned).

Per 2.1, scientists can only ignore the philosophy underlying their scientific approach because they are in the normal science phase - or per Lakatos - in a progressive research program. That is why they are successful despite their rejection of philosophy - they are in a phase where the underlying philosophical assumptions are fixed and don't require any changes. If they were to find themselves in degenerative research program or in a crisis or revolutionary phase, they wouldn't be able to succeed without addressing metaphysical and epistemic questions.

Lawrence Krauss (again one your chief rejecters of philosophy) admits this in the debate video I linked to, although he doesn't use the terminology of Kuhn or Lakatos : When science is at an edge, then philosophical speculation is warranted. He says this about cosmology 40 or 50 years ago, and he also concedes to Dennett that studying consciousness and questions about the mind are much harder than physics because no paradigm has been established and much of the work is very philosophical in nature.


These scientists in question have not rejected philosophy – they've said that they rejected philosophy. Perhaps they have avoided conscious engagement with academic philosophy. But their work depends on a lot of philosophical assumptions. One can choose to be conscious and aware of the philosophical assumptions one is using in one's work, or ignore them, or pay attention to them but decide not to call them "philosophy." But they are there, necessarily.

The confusion here arises because of the ambiguity in the word "philosophy." It can mean:

  1. our views or assumptions which are not determined by the empirical observation,

  2. or the logical discussion of those assumptions,

  3. or the academic field focused on that discussion.

A few scientists have remarked – I think with considerable ignorance – that they don't have any use for the academic field (3 above), or indeed that it is useless. However, they can't get around engagement with philosophy in at least sense 1. If they actually avoid asking hard questions about their assumptions and engaging them logically, then yes they are also avoiding philosophy in sense 2.

It is possible to work based on a set of assumptions chosen unreflectively that turn out to be effective in a particular area of work, and to succeed in part because you started with the right assumptions. But that's luck, not wisdom. And it doesn't even vindicate the applicability of those assumptions anywhere beyond the work you've done.

  • "scientists have remarked – I think with considerable ignorance – that they don't have any use for the academic field" - What is it exactly that you think they are ignorant of?
    – Era
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 18:58
  • The work in current philosophy of science. Criticizing philosophy of science by way of criticizing Kuhn, for instance, is a bit like criticizing pre-plate tectonics geology, in terms of relative distance from now. Commented May 12, 2016 at 19:50
  • 3
    @Era I would also say it's not clear they know what qualifies as "philosophy" when they dismiss it. Many a decent scientist has dismissed philosophy only to go on and write terrible and uninformed philosophy.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 1:29
  • 4
    @virmaior "Those who do not study Philosophy are doomed to repeat it."
    – user16869
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 2:05
  • 2
    Nice one. And those who do are doomed to watch the same movie over and over again.
    – virmaior
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 2:08

In simple logic land, we might be able to say something like "an appreciation of philosophy is a necessary trait for success in physics."

Unsurprisingly, the real world is more complicated. Just because philosophy may matter to science does not mean all scientists need philosophy.

I have found that philosophy only matters to science at its roots. Every scientist develops a set of fundamental axioms that they assume to be true, such as the validity of the scientific method. If said axioms are never challenged, or if you can find a way to avoid responding to those challenges, then you do not need any philosophy to help defend them.

If your axioms are popular, you may be able to go through your entire career without ever having them challenged. In such a case, philosophy would actually slow you down, because you naturally have to be more cautious if you have to consider the possibility that you may be wrong at a fundamental level. A scientist who is unaware of these philosophical issues can actually produce a larger volume of output!

You can see cases where this impedes them, however, if you look. It is easy for such a non-philosophical scientist to become exceedingly frustrated when others don't agree with their fundamental axioms, because they cannot see any way said axioms could ever be wrong. It seems utterly incomprehensible to them that anyone could possibly disagree with their results. Look for those rants, and you've found the non-philosophical scientist that has been impeded.


If the premiss of your question "Why have those scientists who rejected or opposed philosophy, still succeeded?" is correct, then simple logic gives the conclusion:

Philosophy is no necessary presupposition for good science.

In my opinion, the premiss of your question is correct. And eminent physicists like Weinberg or Feynman support the conclusion.

Nevertheless I am sure, that fellows from the philosophical fraction will mention other physicists as counter examples, physicists who admit a certain value of philosophy for physics - possibly Rovelli.

Apparently the subject is discussed in a controversial manner.


A mature science deals with structured, testable predictions, within a preexisting conceptual framework. However, most (arguably all) sciences are preceded by philosophical treatments of the same territory. The philosopher establishes, or at least outlines the conceptual framework the scientist will later use. During the development phases of a science, empirical and philosophical questions are likely to interact.

Even in the case that the subject of study is the same, it's no surprise that science and philosophy can attract widely different personalities. The innovator of a science must have at least one foot in the world of philosophy, but a researcher in a (mature) science often finds success through avoiding the kinds of open-ended questions that most appeal to a philosopher.

It's worth noting that a science can stay in a developing stage for a very long period of time. Logic, for example, only reached maturity recently, after several thousand years of development.

  • 1
    I agree with your latter two paragraphs, but I don't agree that the conceptual framework for science is largely already established. We've seen pretty radical changes in scientific concepts in the last hundred years, across nearly all fields. Moreover, philosophy of statistics and scientific reasoning has been moving quickly in recent decades, and is currently embattled. Commented May 12, 2016 at 18:06
  • 1
    @ChristopherE Edited to address your concerns Commented May 12, 2016 at 20:54

There are two extremes among the many ways to look at the relationship between science and philosophy, which try to reconcile the fact we see them as quite different things in a modern context, but before the success of the modern approaches, there was no way to tell them apart. (Whether or not it is right, is Alchemy Science, or Philosophy? What of the Physics of Aristotle: bad science or good philosophy, but flawed due to limited experience?)

One extreme is that science is properly a part of Philosophy, and should simply remain such, however much it becomes specialized and focused. The other, now that a specific set of strong paradigms that require deep specialization have segmented off various domains, is that the proper domain of modern philosophy is what is left over from that original after all the existing sciences are removed.

From the first perspective, it is logically necessary for science to respect the rest of philosophy. From the second perspective, it is possible to insist that science is a meta-paradigm that it should be applied to the domain of knowledge itself.

If one takes the latter approach, and science is itself a scientific paradigm that attempts to map the entire realm of knowledge into sciences, then what is left of philosophy after the current sciences are removed is a set of failures, not knowledge. From there, addressing questions that are not ready to come under the umbrella of proposed scientific paradigms is simply premature, and constitutes bad science, a kind of childish impatience, rather than some different, still respectable, domain of inquiry.

I think it is members of the latter camp that rail against philosophy. Though from the other perspective, they are, in fact, relying entirely upon a given school of philosophy itself, adhering to it quite strongly and deploying it quite successfully, hegemonizing out all competitors from most domains of discourse.

So science can dismiss philosophy only on the basis of the success of its own philosophy, which as arisen out of the broader discipline only recently. This makes their protestations a bit hypocritical and perhaps narrow-minded, but logically consistent.

  • "Nothing succeeds like Philosophy."
    – user16869
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 2:07

A scientist would generally be considered a success by their success at experimenting. Their experiments would not depend on their beliefs but on the physical nature of the universe and their knowledge thereof.

It could be argued that philosophy is a kind of science as there are things that can be quantified. For example, if somebody had killed another person ever or not. But, if anything, it is a meta-physical science that does not interdict physical sciences.

A mystical person may interdict an experiment for their own beliefs but a thought alone can not stop a physical process such as an experiment. More often than not the various benefits of science is generally seen to outweigh the cost, so the scientist/experiment won't meet many physical restrictions and would be allowed to succeed.

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