Home / Why Philosophy Precedes Physics  
Image of Why Philosophy Precedes Physics

A few months ago, I was discussing certain aspects of quantum mechanics with somebody. I got around to saying that certain claims within the realm of physics can be rejected outright on philosophical grounds, without having to consider the alleged evidence scientists might have for such claims. He firmly rejected that, at which point I cut the debate off as it started to degenerate from there and I did not wish for it to get uncivil (past experience with the person in question indicated that it would do so).

Now, why is this approach of mine valid at all? Why can I dismiss certain claims within the realms of science using philosophy and not the science itself? Why can I skip the process of bothering with scientific proof of such claims?

Let us consider why philosophy is so important to physics (and the other sciences but, for the sake of brevity, I am going to use physics to make my point, though the same arguments apply to all the special sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology and so forth).

What is philosophy first of all? Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of reality (metaphysics), of whether it is possible to gain knowledge of reality and, if so, how, how man should think (epistemology) and, accordingly, on what basis should man choose values, and which actions are proper in order to achieve these values (ethics). It is metaphysics and epistemology which are of concern to us here however.

Metaphysics is the study of the fundamental nature of reality. It involves those questions which must be answered before the study of anything else (including physics) is possible; fundamental questions about the nature of the universe such as: is reality governed by constant laws? Or by mutable laws which change at random? Is what we see even real? Or do we live in a dimension of illusions? Do observations create reality, or does reality exist independent of our consciousness? All these sorts of questions must be answered before physics is even possible.

It is only by answering these questions that one is able to know enough about reality in order to be able to study epistemology, and epistemology must be studied so that one knows how to use one's mind in order to deal with reality and how it might be studied (if this is even possible).

No amount of scientific proof can validate claims which involve things which are fundamentally impossible, and one should not even attempt to do so

Epistemology is the science that tells man how to use the evidence of the senses and how to think in order to gain knowledge of reality. It tells man whether or not to apply reason or to rely on mystical revelation. If he chooses to reason, it tells him how to apply reason to gain knowledge of reality and how to organize that knowledge into a hierarchical system of knowledge.

Once all these questions are answered properly, one is able to define "special sciences": "The process of using logical reasoning based on observation in order to gain a systematic knowledge of reality. Except for the subject matter studied by the sciences of philosophy and physics". Philosophy makes possible the knowledge, which makes the discovery of such a definition possible, and which allows one to discover the proper means by which to conduct experiments and to then reason in order to gain such knowledge.

But the importance of philosophy to the special sciences does not end there. Philosophy can be used to identify fundamental flaws in one's thinking, including fundamental flaws in one's attempts to deal with issues in the special sciences. For instance, if one claims that a particle has no definite position, then one can point out that the Law of Identity (a metaphysical axiom of philosophy which states that everything which exists exists as an entity with a specific, non-contradictory nature, which implies that it has definite properties) says that this is nonsense, and that nothing is exempt from axioms of metaphysics, including electrons. Therefore, this claim must be rejected outright, as science is the process of LOGICAL REASONING based on observation.

No amount of scientific proof can validate claims which involve things which are fundamentally impossible, and one should not even attempt to do so. Instead one must use philosophy to identify such errors and to correct the errors in thinking which may lead to them so that they do not happen again. Else one's science becomes full of falsehoods - cognitive dead-ends which impede the development of one's science (no amount of reasoning can lead from falsehoods to valid theories, which is why I say that falsehoods such as these are cognitive dead-ends).

My unworthy opponent thinks that the fact that one's philosophy could be wrong pokes a hole in this. Sure, one's philosophy could be wrong. But science depends on philosophy all the same. The answers to the questions of philosophy informs how one will attempt to do science (if he attempts to do it at all). It is only by the use of philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology) that one can identify fundamental errors in one's thinking which lead to fundamental errors in one's science which must be corrected.

Proceeding to try to validate such errors by the special sciences will not help; more physics will not correct or validate bad physics. One must apply the science which tells man what reality is and how to think: philosophy. If one's philosophy is correct, the errors will hopefully be identified and corrected; if not, they will not and eventually one's science will be riddled with errors and will collapse. But the fact that one's philosophy MIGHT be wrong is no reason to evade the fact that the special sciences depend on philosophy in order to proceed correctly and to identify possible fundamental errors.

By rejecting philosophy as a starting point in judging the merits of a scientific claim, one rejects the means by which one protects the special sciences from bad thinking. One renders oneself blind to errors which arise from flawed thinking and makes it impossible to detect such errors. Far from being "dogmatic" or whatever else people like this claim, this is nothing but madness. Making one blind to errors of a fundamental nature does nothing but doom one's science to errors which will make science impossible.

I would like to point out that scientists today have an alarming habit of dismissing philosophy as either irrelevant to science or dependent on science. As we have seen, it is most definitely not irrelevant to science and, in fact, science depends on philosophy. Neither does science dictate philosophy as some claim; quite the reverse.

Why then might they believe either of these things? Well, I would say because a lot of philosophers have failed to provide valid questions to some of the most important questions within philosophy, or have provided partial answers at best. Some, such as Immanuel Kant, have developed philosophies which brazenly attack the human mind and its ability to know reality, and so forth. When faced with a lack of philosophy which is of practical use to them or which attacks the mind, it is small wonder that many of them might turn against philosophy.

However, there is one philosopher which provides a philosophy which scientists can rely on: Ayn Rand. Her philosophical work is covered in many books, but her epistemology is covered in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology; her entire philosophy is covered in Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff. I highly suggest that, if you have not read these books and Ayn Rand's other works, you do so. Also David Harriman's The Logical Leap is a must read.

I don't know about you, but I cannot accept this. For the sake of science, I will continue to examine it through the lenses of philosophy. I hope you will do the same.


Original posting by DwayneDavies on Feb 23, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=481

You need to be logged in to comment.
search only within braincrave

About braincrave


We all admire beauty, but the mind ultimately must be stimulated for maximum arousal. Longevity in relationships cannot occur without a meeting of the minds. And that is what Braincrave is: a dating venue where minds meet. Learn about the thoughts of your potential match on deeper topics... topics that spawn your own insights around what you think, the choices you make, and the actions you take.

We are a community of men and women who seek beauty and stimulation through our minds. We find ideas, education, and self-improvement sexy. We think intelligence is hot. But Braincrave is more than brains and I.Q. alone. We are curious. We have common sense. We value and offer wisdom. We experiment. We have great imaginations. We devour literacy. We are intellectually honest. We support and encourage each other to be better.

You might be lonely but you aren't alone.

Sep, 2017 update: Although Braincrave resulted in two confirmed marriages, the venture didn't meet financial targets. Rather than updating our outdated code base, we've removed all previous dating profiles and retained the articles that continue to generate interest. Moving to valME.io's platform supports dating profiles (which you are welcome to post) but won't allow typical date-matching functionality (e.g., location proximity, attribute similarity).

The Braincrave.com discussion group on Second Life was a twice-daily intellectual group discussions typically held at 12:00 PM SLT (PST) and 7:00 PM SLT. The discussions took place in Second Life group chat but are no longer formally scheduled or managed. The daily articles were used to encourage the discussions.

Latest Activity