Science and philosophy relation is a wide array of questions in this site. I'd like to add another, that's related more to the way of researching in both fields.

When a scientist does his work (natural science), he's "applying the scientific method" (lots of debate on what that means, but for this question I'll assume it is "experimenting").

Now, my question is, do we (or should we) count the research scientists do ("experimenting") as philosophizing?

And if so (do note, that's a second question), is it possible to treat it as a philosophical stand such as another one can reject/argue with? And I mean (possibly a third question), when a scientist experiments and come to a conclusion from his scientific standpoint, can a philosopher argue with that?

This goes in two levels: the first is the theoretical one, but the second (and arguably the more important one) is the practical one, as in can a philosopher, today (IMPORTANT: while examples from the past might help, the main concern here is the present), argue against a scientific claim/fact?

I know this question probably contains more than should be in a single post, and if you'd ask me to separate it I would definitely do that, but I think there's a deep relation between all of these questions that makes them kinda like "sub" questions that can be asked in a single post.

  • For "most" cases, the answer is NO. Consider e.g. gene "editing" for cancer treatment: it is clearly an experimental procedure based on (current) theoretical understanding of genetic mechanisms. It may work or not... but what contribution we may have from a philosopher "arguing" pro or con it ? Feb 16, 2018 at 15:44
  • It may not be the answer you're expecting but I should make a connection between science and philosophy via 'thought experiments' - Einstein's gedankenexperiments. These are conducted in both science (the sciences) and philosophy. I should regard Einstein's gedankenexperiments about time as conceptual exercises and therefore as a kind of, or as having an affinity with, philosophy. When Einstein re-conceptualises space and time one can equally say that he is doing physics or that he is doing philosophy.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 16, 2018 at 16:19
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA let's say, for example, that a philosopher says these experiments won't contribute to our understanding of the phenomena (mere example). Feb 16, 2018 at 20:14
  • @GeoffreyThomas I have no doubt that Einstein did philosophy in that regard. I even considered opening a question about whether we should (or do) consider theoretical physics as philosophy. Might do that tomorrow. Feb 16, 2018 at 20:15
  • @Yechiam Weiss. I look forward to the fresh stimulation. All the best - GT.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 16, 2018 at 20:44

1 Answer 1


Philosophers can and do criticize scientific research and findings all the time.

Philosophers of science sometimes think of scientific research as divided into "phase" or "stages." This way of thinking about research can be misleading — scientists don't actually move discretely from stage or steps, and they typically we move back and forth between different stages — but it's useful for understanding the variety of ways in which philosophers critique scientific research.

So here's one way of dividing scientific research into stages:

  1. Asking research questions
  2. Designing studies to address those questions
  3. Analyzing and interpreting data gathered from those studies
  4. Combining findings from several studies to formulate answers to the research questions

I'll run with Mauro ALLEGRANZA's example of gene editing to treat cancer.

In the first stage, philosophers can critically identify questionable assumptions or framings of research questions. For example, the idea that we can use gene editing to treat cancer might assume that cancer is "fundamentally" a molecular biology process. This is a reductionist way of thinking about cancer. We can also view cancer as a tissue-level process (the formation of cancerous tissues) or an ecological process (exposures to toxic chemicals cause a lot of cancers). Or, indeed, we can view cancer as process that unfolds on all three of these levels. These different framings might lead us to pose different research questions.

When designing studies, scientists must build a "ladder" of procedures and data, connecting theoretical concepts (cancer, genes, "gene editing") to the kinds of things we directly observe (Manhattan plots, microscope images). Here again, philosophers can critically identify questionable methodological and conceptual assumptions. For example, philosophers might argue that conventional genomics methods don't allow us discover disease mechanisms. That is, roughly, these methods give us correlation rather than causation, and so have limited clinical value. Philosophers can also point out that different researchers operationalize central concepts or phenomena in different ways.

For the third stage, a large body of recent work on "inductive risk" shows that ethical and political values play an essential role in the interpretation of data. Inductive risk directs us to consider the ethical significance of false positive and false negative errors. If we're doing a very rough, proof-of-concept gene editing study, we can probably tolerate very significant errors in our analysis and interpretation. But if we're trying to decide whether clinical trials provide sufficient evidence that a treatment is safe and effective, our standards should be much higher in general. And some kinds of errors (the treatment turns out not to be safe after all) are much more significant than others (the treatment turns out to be more effective than we thought).

Finally, with several studies completed, scientists need to synthesize the results and draw an overall conclusion. Many scientists argue that we should do this using meta-analysis. But philosophers have argued that meta-analysis is an extremely messy and contingent process, suggesting that it's much less reliable or impartial than its proponents claim. In addition, meta-analysis isn't well-suited to dealing with evidence from many different kinds of studies, and doesn't give us the kind of knowledge we need to extrapolate across cases.

  • While this is an excellent answer, I'd like to specify one of the "sub questions": can a philosopher argue against a scientific claim/fact? And I mean, not about the implications or the meta-research (the "borders" of the research), but the actual research itself. Feb 17, 2018 at 17:26
  • First, all four stages that I identified are "the actual research itself." Stage 4 might be considered "the 'borders' of the research," but even that is an integral part of the research process. One implication of inductive risk arguments is that, in many fields of research, it doesn't make sense to distinguish "the research itself" from its "implications."
    – Dan Hicks
    Feb 17, 2018 at 20:08
  • Second, scientists also use these same kinds of argument strategies in scientific debates. Sometimes they'll draw explicitly on philosophy of science; other times they'll be less philosophically precise but still make very similar arguments. So it seems like either both scientists and philosophers are "argu[ing] against a scientific claim/fact" when they do this, or neither are.
    – Dan Hicks
    Feb 17, 2018 at 20:09

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