Science seems to be all mighty in the 21st century. So, why does science need philosophy? We ask this question, despite the strong historical link between philosophy and science. However, today scientists tend to perceive philosophy as something completely different, opposite to science or even useless. We should not forget that philosophy always had an important impact on science and always will, no matter if we notice it or not. Why science needs philosophy? Philosophy can contribute to science through the formulation of different theories and concepts, through scientific assumptions, and through fostering a dialogue between different sciences, as well as between society and science.
What philosophy can offer to science?
Philosophy offers conceptual clarification which can lead to new experimental investigations. Many philosophers in ancient times were considered to be scientists as well. They did not only talk about science and philosophy as two different fields, but they were interested in math, physics, biology, and other scientific fields. However, they considered that philosophy is everything they researched, and the world around them that they tried to examine and explain was based on their philosophical thoughts and experiments.
For example, the study of cognitive neuroscience and cognition offers an illustration of how long-lasting and deep is the influence of philosophy on science.
Philosophers have created influential theories about many scientific topics such as immunology and cognitive neuroscience. Often, philosophers helped in initiating specific research programs and philosophic ideas that could be scientifically examined.
From behaviorism to cognitivism in the 60s, philosophers had proposed a different modularity of the human mind.
Philosophical reflection has played an important role in many scientific fields, from explaining altruism, the construction of the “tree of life,” to the definition of the genes and microbes in the atmosphere. Topics such as the definition of time were also enriched by philosophers and their ideas and perceptions of time. Philosophy and science are not two opposite things, they are located in the same continuum and philosophy has always been an inspiration and explanation for science. Both disciplines share the tools of conceptual analysis, tools of logic and argumentation used for explaining their findings. Especially, philosophers who have a scientific background can help with developing theories and creating experiments to approve or reject their theories.
However, philosophers can operate with a degree of freedom, thoroughness and theoretical abstraction that practitioners of science cannot afford.
Today, science and philosophy are not as close as they once were. It’s important for each community to take one step toward the other. And this is not an easy task. There are many obstacles. Many philosophers have distanced themselves from science and scientific work. Also, even philosophers who are ready to have a dialogue with researchers often lack knowledge of the latest scientific findings.
From the other side, only a few researchers perceive the benefits of philosophy and what it can bring to the scientific and innovative world. Only a few have time and opportunity to be aware of the knowledge produced by philosophers. Mostly, scientists are not equipped with the knowledge and power of philosophy. This is how we have created a gap between science and philosophy. The reconnection between these two disciplines would be highly beneficial for the world.
In his letter to Robert Thornton, in 1944, Albert Einstein explained very well why science needs philosophy:
“A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”