The Philosophical Method and the Scientific Method

Submitted by Tom Last on Thu, 08/25/2011 - 9:20am.

The Philosophical Method and the Scientific Method

By verbosestoic

So, for the longest time I’ve thought that theology was basically philosophical, and didn’t really see the difference between them, despite a number of people saying that I was wrong and that theology wasn’t philosophy.  So, now, let me clarify:  I think that theology uses the philosophical method, and as such doesn’t use the scientific method.  The philosphical method is quite different than the scientific method, which explains why a lot of scientist don’t really get either.

So, how does that differ from the scientific method?  Let’s go through the points in order:

1) Science works with things, with objects.  Philosophy works with concepts.  Now, a lot of the time these are mostly interchangeable, which is why people don’t really notice this difference.  But philosophy is conceptual analysis, while science is object analysis.  They aim at two compeltely different types of ends.

2) Science has to be grounded in the empirical and empirical observations to achieve its end.  Philosophy has to be grounded in reasoning to achieve its end.  Both can use either, but philosophy accepts propositions that are not ultimately grounded in empirical observation and science doesn’t.  Philosophy accepts that you can find out interesting things with pure reasoning and science doesn’t.

3) Philosophy deals with things that have to work in all cases, whether inside or outside of the real world; science doesn’t care about anything outside of the real world.

4) Philosophy uses thought experiments and modal logic that don’t have to be real world situations to do its work.  Science always has to look at the real world to do its work.  In fact, philosophy wants to take things out of the real world to effectively examine their concepts while science wants to situate things as much as possible in the relevant real-world situations to do its work.

Note that the philosophical method doesn’t have to ignore completely empirical data or the results of science.  You can even naturalize – ie make scientific — parts of philosophy if it helps or if that’s the best way to do it.  In fact, science was born from natural philosophy because people discovered that the scientific method really did work best there.  But ultimately, philosophy has a different — though still important — goal than science, and thus has different methods.  Thus, good philosophy will naturalize only as far as it needs to to be able to properly analyze the concepts.

This also doesn’t make philosophy necessarily impractical.  All category judgements are philosophical because they involve determining what a category ought to contain regardless of what we think it does.  This is determining, for example, the concept of a mammal as opposed to simply talking about mammals directly.  Why are whales mammals and not fish?  If we’re going to appeal to natural kinds, we have to know what properties make up the concept “mammal” and the concept “fish” to make that determination.  Otherwise, all we’re left with is a pragmatic decision that’s subjectively determined by everyone based on what they think is the best way to classify.  Thus, general classifications at least ought to be relying on conceptual analysis to work.



The Philosophical Method

An outline of the key components of the philosophical method:

1) Its objects are concepts.  The philosophical method’s prime role is conceptual analysis, and so the objects it works with are concepts of things, not necessarily things themselves.

2) It is rationalist, not empiricist.  Since the philosophical method deals with concepts, it grounds its knowledge in reasoning.  You don’t have to ground or test any philosophical theory empirically or in empirical data; the concept can be tested regardless of any details of any instantiation, or even if it actually is instantiated.

3) It is generally abstract.  Again, since concepts exist and can be examined regardless of whether or not they exist, the philosophical method works as well or better with abstract notions than concrete ones.

4) It universalizes across all possible worlds.  The concept has to apply in counter-factual situations.  In order to have a good concept, you have to be able to say what it would do if the world was not like this one, even if that means that it couldn’t be instantiated or would have to work a lot differently.  Thus, concepts formed by the philosophical method don’t  just work in this universe, but work in all possible ones.

5) Possible world examples are as good or better than real world examples.  Again, the philosophical method has to universalize to all possible worlds.  Because of this, examples of the concept from possible worlds or thought experiments are as good data as real world instantiations are, since those examples need to be handled by any properly defined concept.

6) The main drive of specific philosophical tools is to abstract away from real world instantiations as much as possible, to eliminate distractions.  Again, the philosophical method is abstract and has to universalize and generalize across all possible worlds.  The specific details of a specific implementation can detract from this, as you can get caught up in thinking that a specific trait must be a property — and a critical one — of the concept simply because a specific instantiation possesses it.  But, for example, a red colour doesn’t make a house a house even if all the houses you know of are red, and this applies generally to concepts.  Thus, the philosophical method wants to abstract away from specific examples to ensure that it captures the pure concept, and not just the one that we’re most used to seeing.

7) The main philosophical tools are thought experiments, modal logic (possible worlds), and analytical reasoning.

8 ) The philosophical method does not require lab work; it can be done from the armchair by one person examining their own concepts.  The philosophical method doesn’t in and of itself require anything other than someone sitting down and thinking about what they know, and much progress can be made with that method.

9) The philosophical method is validated against the thought experiments, analytical reasoning, and modal logic (possible worlds) of others.  Even though you can do a lot on your own, ultimately everyone has a worldview.  Only by testing your conceptions against other worldviews can you ensure that you’ve covered all the bases and universalized properly.

 

The original blog article

The original blog article has more on theology. What I am interested in is a distinction in POF between scientific thinking which is based on observation and pure thinking which is purely conceptual thinking not concerned with perceptual content. It is thinking versus thinking about thinking. My ethics video script includes this distinction.