But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead . . . Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.Stephen Hawkings, The Grand Design
Statements like these are not at all surprising from scientists. Consider for example what physicist Lawrence Krauss has to say about the matter,
Lawrence Krauss, interview in The Atlantic
And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science.
And if you thought that it was just the physicists who hold a grudge against philosophy, the chemistry department also dismisses scientific philosophy. Professor Peter Atkins of Oxford University declared most philosophy useless after having read a book on the history of it.
What none of these individuals understand is that everything they allude to has some form of philosophy of science embedded within it. But what is philosophy of science, and why is it so important? To put it in layman’s terms, philosophy of science investigates both the hidden and explicit assumptions we use to derive our scientific conclusions and examines the epistemic and metaphysical claims that various theories make.
To give you just a simple example of the kinds of questions philosophy of science asks, consider the following: “Why will the sun rise tomorrow?” While the naïve answer will be something along the lines of “because it arose yesterday,” someone more scientifically astute, however, will respond with “because the laws of nature – whatever they are – compel objects to behave in this regular way.” But hold on just a moment there! If we use past-experience to justify another past-experience would that not be circular reasoning? That is the famous, old problem of induction and it has plagued both philosophy and science for years.
We don’t have to stop there either! Consider the statement, “compels objects to behave in this way”. Here, the individual would be referring to some kind of law of nature, but that begs the question, what exactly is a law of nature? Are the laws of nature just consistencies that we observe in objects? i.e., are they just brute-fact regularities with which certain objects behave? Or are they necessary principles by which objects must behave? What exactly is a necessity – can you see or touch it? Are the laws of nature just mathematical descriptions of what happens? But if they are just mathematical descriptions, we must further ask ourselves: can mathematical equations, which are abstract objects, cause anything to happen? 2+2 = 4 never doubled anything in my bank account without me first putting in the money. And while we are on that note, what is ‘free will’ anyway?
That is enough to give you a broad flavor of the hidden assumptions within our theories but we can go further than this to include issues that aren’t so “philosophical” as they may initially seem. Consider for example what constitutes a good theory. What kinds of virtues must a good scientific explanation have in order for it to be true? When we choose from a list of competing theories – all of which are empirically adequate, i.e., describe and take account of all the relevant data – why do we choose the one that has the most simplicity? This principle is known as Ockham’s Razor and is always used by scientists. To make it sound more relatable and intuitive, consider a murder trial; if all the evidence can be explained by positing only one killer, why would you then posit multiple others?
What does Religion have to do with it?
Whenever you hear people say that “God is a bad explanation,” what you never hear is what constitutes an explanation anyway. If you are immediately told that ‘explanations’ are those things that can have testable empirical predictions, you ought to ask two things: 1) what constitutes a good scientific explanation? and 2) are there more than one kind(s) of explanation? God is not a rival explanation to the empirical sciences, but a reason why there are any empirical sciences in the first place.
Consider the popular argument against miracles and divine intervention, where naturalists claim that God cannot break the laws of nature. Return to the previous section where I mention some preliminary questions about the laws of nature. What exactly are they? Is General Relativity a law of nature? Perhaps, but we have no way of knowing for sure what the probable chances are that it will be replaced by an even more fundamental law that may or may not be a law of nature. What we know for sure is that the laws of nature are the fundamental principles that describe (or govern) how nature operates.
I purposefully separate “describe” and “govern” because there is still a debate to be had about what is the fundamental nature of the laws of nature themselves. Let us assume that they are simply contingent regularities that have no necessary power within themselves (necessary in the philosophical sense of entailing a logical contradiction if we deny them). Then there is no problem with God intervening since there are no ontological laws to begin with! In other words, if God exists and is the ultimate basis (being) for all of reality, then His continual creation (or upholding of causal powers) are the laws of nature! God simply decrees out of His libertarian free will – again, another philosophical concept – what the laws of nature will be, and this is what causes objects to behave in the regular way that we observe and describe within the sciences. Put another way, we are simply peeking into the mind of God.
Another interesting intersection is the idea of reality itself which concerns the problem of perception and scientific realism. There are two keywords that need to be understood here namely epistemology and ontology. Epistemology is concerned with how we acquire knowledge and to what extent, whereas ontology is what is actually ‘out there’ in the world regardless of our ability to comprehend it. Here, the problem of perception becomes apparent. When we “see” objects we don’t directly perceive them but what actually happens is particular light rays bounce off specific objects and hit our sense organs which then create a mental imprint in our minds.
So in essence we don’t view objects directly in any way but simply have a perception of them. The late philosopher Dan Robinson put it brilliantly when he once quipped to an audience of students, “So you really think there is a Mind-Independent physical reality?” The answer to which you have probably guessed by now is no – or maybe yes but you’d have to do some philosophy of science (and mind too but let’s leave that for now). 
What about the realism debate then? Realism is the idea that our best scientific theories are true regarding unobservable entities – or at least approximately true descriptions – about the actual world. The philosopher Hillary Putnam puts it best when he says “the positive argument for scientific realism is that it is the only philosophy that doesn’t make the success of science a miracle.” However, is that really true? Do our scientific theories not change all the time? We often change our standards of evidence; we discover unconceived alternatives all the time and we make many assumptions when using mathematical models to describe complex systems. Does history not show that we are probably wrong about our theories today?
This is an ongoing debate but consider if scientific realism is false. Wouldn’t that mean that modern theories shouldn’t force us in any way to reconsider our interpretations of Quranic verses? Or perhaps there is a harmonizing understanding such as selective realism which argues for a middle ground between the two. As the philosopher Jason Waller says, “I have never met anyone who is an anti-realist about the existence of dinosaurs.” Of course, I am highly simplifying the issue since there is a deep-rooted tradition of Islamic philosophical theology – also known as Kalam – that seeks to unify these questions along with other highly vigorous subjects such as Quranic interpretation and linguistics. The result must be an interdisciplinary approach to the subject in order to answer these very interesting questions. What remains clear, however, is the role philosophy of science has to play in all of this.
The one debate that characterizes this discussion the most is the demarcation problem, which tries to establish the difference between science and other subjects. The demarcation problem remains largely unsolved as well as the idea of a universal “scientific method.” Here is a generalized version of the scientific method you would normally see in a high-school classroom:
- Make observations
- Make a hypothesis
- Make predictions
- Test those predictions
- Confirm or reject the theory
In fact, scientists will not have a hypothesis in mind and will simply be doing exploratory work in some area. The tools and techniques each scientist uses will also be extremely different. Some may prefer one interpretation of probability over another whilst others will use different sorts of equipment. The idea of what constitutes objectivity will also differ for these scientists with some more concerned with isolating a particular object whilst others want to see the effects in a larger context.
It’s arguable that some theoretical physicists are more metaphysicians than scientists as many of their theories lack empirical support. Are those reasoning that the apparent fine-tuning of the universe requires a multiverse without any empirical evidence really doing science? Leonard Susskind argues for one such theory called “Eternal Inflation,” in which rapid expansion in the early universe leads to many – but not an infinite – number of bubble universes each with their own values for the physical constants. Jason Waller argues that the theory is not scientific in any sense but rather “metaphysical speculations of some thoughtful physicists.” For example, is the string-theory underlying this multiverse necessary or contingent? Susskind also fails to distinguish between metaphysical possibility and physical possibility in his theory. 
Prior to 1833, the word “scientist” did not exist, as most such individuals classified themselves as “natural philosophers.” I believe this historical turn to be of utmost significance because it impinges upon thinkers like Krauss and Atkins who hate philosophy so much. We often assume that empirical investigation is somehow self-contained and requires no further justification. Yet, there is no running away from the shadows of logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. Naturalism – the idea that all that exists is ultimately physical – is an extremely difficult view to prove. According to philosopher Jason Waller, a single discovery of something remotely non-physical would prove it wrong. In fact, many philosophers such as Thomas Nagel – a committed atheist – believe materialism is inherently wrong and requires radical revision based on our best available evidence.
Popular science writers may lead us astray with their exuberant writing styles and vitriolic hate for philosophy, but many of their empirical claims are simply metaphysical ones packaged with forceful adjectives and scientific jargon. Krauss seems to assume that “nothing” is equivalent to a sea of quantum energy when in fact that is a metaphysical claim, not a scientific one. Or take the controversial ideas of “random” mutations in evolutionary biology. While ideas might be epistemically random – i.e. due to the limits/methods of collecting knowledge about the fact – they may in terms of ontology – actual reality – simply be determined. Can a scientist simply claim that science has ruled out design a priori when ideas about “design” and what constitutes an explanation for it are primarily philosophical? These are just some of the questions philosophy of science – and indeed general philosophy – seeks to answer.
The truth is we have all been doing philosophy of science as the very practice of science depends on certain philosophical foundations. There is also more to the debate than just scientific experimentation given that science is primarily a social enterprise. This was brought forward best in a recent Twitter thread by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci where he differentiates the objects of science – planets, viruses, the atmosphere, etc.- and the social dimension which includes us and the power structures that influence us, i.e., grants, corporations, research interests, funding, etc. Whilst this delves slightly more into the sociology of science, the intersection with philosophy of science is inevitable.
In order to participate in these vital conversations, we must not only understand philosophy of science but question it. Understanding the philosophical challenges modern science brings and knowing where dogmatic claims against religion are being peddled not by science but by underlying philosophical assumptions is essential. Everyone does philosophy of science, some of us are just more aware of it than others.
- Mlodinow, L. and Hawking, S. The Grand Design. Random House, 2010.
2. Andersen, R. “Has Physics Made Philosophy and Religion Obsolete?” [online] The Atlantic, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion-obsolete/256203/. Accessed March 13, 2021.
3. Unbelievable. “Lennox vs Atkins – Can Science Explain Everything? (Official Debate Video).” YouTube, Feb. 17, 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSYwCaFkYno. Accessed March 14, 2021.
4. Philosophy Overdoes. “So You Think That There Is A Mind-Independent Physical Reality.” Youtube.com, Nov. 6, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNRAF3AFlqM. Accessed March 14, 2021.
5. Waller, Jason. Cosmological Fine-Tuning Arguments: What (if Anything) Should We Infer from the Fine-Tuning of Our Universe for Life? Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, Taylor and Francis 2019.
Photo: Statue of famed Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) who was instrumental in the development of modern science and psychology, as well as contemporary debates in philosophy of religion. Credit: K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.
About the Author: Ali Talib is a biochemistry and neuroscience graduate with a PGCE in Science. His interests are in the intersection between science, religion, philosophy, and sociology. You can follow him on Twitter here.