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‘Philosphy’ or ‘Science’ – Is it a zero-sum game?

‘Philosphy’ or ‘Science’ – Is it a zero-sum game?
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Although there is an age old epistemic riddle between Empiricists and Rationalists but if we compromise delaying that discussion and its aftermath for now then there is no doubt if someone posits that physical sciences like physics and chemistry comprise of ‘real knowledge’ where as philosophers seem to merely speculate about ‘abstract stuff’ which seemingly finds no practical relevance in our day do day lives. Let’s also postpone the discussion on philosophy of science and the critique of method of induction and accept for the sake of argument the scientist’s claim that “science works”. These physical sciences with the discoveries and inventions that followed have undoubtedly impacted and revolutionized our world. A common man today relates “knowledge” with “science”. In Philosophy nothing seems to be settled between the philosophers where as Science has undoubtedly instituted a sort of “objectivity” in our knowledge of things. ‘What I think’ or ‘what you think’ has been rendered extraneous and irrelevant instead the principle of validity and experimentation decides what is veracious and what is not. In fact when some philosophers felt that philosophy has began to fade away into irrelevance being left far behind by the wheels of advancement of science and scientific method in modern Europe, movements like Logical Positivism tried to stop the train or at least board on it by “scientifying” the Philosophy. Other than the advancement in science and its practical applicability another reason for this trajectory of philosophy might be that its subject matter is not a result oriented study. May be Kant was right that “pure reason cannot do metaphysics”. It is relevant to mention here that the reason Science achieved pertinence among the masses is that it was cut off from the belly of “metaphysics” with the scissors of Descartes’ dualism and its focus of study entirely turned towards the “observable world” otherwise almost all sciences were within the ambit of the philosophical tradition. Although it is right that we might contest on fixing the boundaries of metaphysics but it seems that due to explosion in knowledge and extraordinary feats of cosmology some theoretical physicists like Michio Kaku & Lawrence Krauss have started to “play” meta-physicians today. Whether we like it or not but it seems that the scientists are taking over and gradually invading the territory of philosophy.

But having mentioned all of this it is very important to understand that none of this is enough to entirely dismiss philosophy as an institution. It is absolutely right that science has achieved a popular relevance because most of the knowledge associated with it directly influences our day to day lives. The gadgets we use day in and day out are the products of scientific endeavor. But just like our food, housing, clothing, roads, buildings, cars, gadgets, medicine and other luxury items, our inherent quest of “metaphysical knowledge” is equally important. In fact the genesis of philosophy may be attributed to this specific thirst of comprehending reality in its totality. Questions like ‘Who am I?’ ‘What is this world?’ What is existence?’ ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Is there a God?’ ‘What is morality?’ can unsettle you and your peace of mind which may take away the taste from your food and all the excitement for those fancy gadgets you have! In other words we need to recognize the fact that we are not robots, what we have in our hands is important but what’s going on in our heads is probably more important. How we live and what we think about everything we encounter in this world in other words the philosophy of life we follow is far more important. Therefore Philosophy like physical sciences becomes necessary. Moreover, we need to understand that philosophy has an applied part too particularly social and political philosophy which has drastically impacted our world like any scientific discovery has. The genesis of Renaissance and Industrial revolution can be traced back to various philosophical works & traditions!

Philosophers like Nietzsche, Freud and Marx continue to shape the world we live in. Therefore to answer the question posed in the title of this article, it is clearly not supposed to be a zero sum game.
Now it depends upon the seeker as to what sort of philosophy of life one believes in. What kind of epistemology one subscribes to totally depends upon the choice of the individual. One might out rightly dismiss ‘pure reason’ as a method of arriving at the truth. Hellenistic Philosophy, Indian, Chinese, Greek or for that matter any philosophy is not binding on anyone. What all of us should share is critical thinking, seeking truth and progressing in that. In other words these are two different things that we need to distinguish: Philosophy as an institution that inculcates critical thinking and generates consciousness about the important metaphysical questions and then its derivative in the form of the speculation of philosophers. We need to learn to maintain that difference. Rejection of someone’s philosophy should not translate into rejection of the whole institution.

Towards the end let me mention a very important point about pure reason, metaphysics and the relevance of philosophical tradition. It is true that metaphysics is not the realm of pure reason. The history of philosophy stands testimony to this fact. In the whole history of philosophy no two philosophers have agreed upon a single metaphysical question. Every successive philosopher disagreed with the previous one (of course that tells you about the freedom of thought in this tradition) but at the same time it tells you about the human incapability of arriving at the totality of truth on any metaphysical question. One philosopher sees one aspect of a thing and the other sees another. Therefore, from this perspective it seems that using bottom up approach i.e. learning piece meal via “inductive reasoning” seems more suitable for human mind than directly doing metaphysics with the help of pure reason. But that should not translate into “Scientism” which itself is a mere ideology having no scientific basis. Having said that metaphysics is not the domain of pure reason, it does not mean that the relevance of philosophical tradition (metaphysics) has ended. As Daniel Dennett says that the philosophical tradition is extremely useful because it serves as a check for scientists so that they do not commit the same mistakes as the early philosophers had fallen into. Philosophers not only ask questions but more importantly they clarify them as well so that a scientist focuses his energies and efforts at the right place.

Author is student of Islam, Philosophy and Mysticism. He can be reached at

Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not necessarily reflect the position or editorial policy of Oracle Opinions.

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