Are Physics and Philosophy at Odds?

Scientists working with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN have found strong evidence for the Higgs Boson. The Higgs has been postulated for its power to explain the existence of matter in the universe. In other words, its discovery is at least a step towards explaining the biggest of big questions: Why is there something rather than nothing?


This raises an issue. If the sort of question that usually is answered (or at least puzzled over for a few millennia) by philosophers becomes the domain of science, then philosophy would seem to have no real place as a discipline.  

Many philosophers feel that one of the primary tasks of philosophy is to provide a foundation and justification for science. Others, though, feel that science and philosophy are two different channels for getting to the same thing. Still others believe that the two are both entirely separate and at odds with one another.

Modern scientists have about as broad a spectrum of beliefs about philosophy and science as philosophers do, but the prevailing opinion appears to be that philosophy is rendered at best redundant and at worst defunct by science. Stephen Hawking went so far as to declare last year that philosophy is dead.

It is important to note that science and philosophy used to be indistinct. Like nearly every other academic discipline, science was a part of philosophy but split off at some point in history. Indeed, the very first philosopher, Thales, made a scientific claim, that all things are water - it is likely that he wasn't postulating that all things were literally water, but rather, that change was inherent in and definitive of all things - when he did philosophy.

What conclusions, then, can we draw about the philosophy of science and the science of philosophy? Well, primarily, it seems easy enough to agree that we want to make sure we are not barking up the wrong tree with science. We therefore need to answer questions about what is and is not science's place, whether scientific methods of finding things out about the world are valid ways of gaining knowledge, and, most importantly, what is and is not science. All of these are philosophical questions, so science cannot be without philosophy. 

By the way, the predominant view in the philosophy of science now comes from Karl Popper's landmark essay Conjectures and Refutations. Without theories which have the explanatory power of Popper's, science has no way other than insisting to hold up, for example, astronomy over astrology. Given this necessity, it seems that the two disciplines will be able to go on coexisting without killing one another over turf wars for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for the announcement of the Higgs Boson? Philosophy should not be threatened, but, rather, excited. It should thank science, and, to prove Stephen Hawking wrong, start reading up on it

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

7 fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Here are 7 often-overlooked World Heritage Sites, each with its own history.

Photo by Raunaq Patel on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites are locations of high value to humanity, either for their cultural, historical, or natural significance.
  • Some are even designated as World Heritage Sites because humans don't go there at all, while others have felt the effects of too much human influence.
  • These 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each represent an overlooked or at-risk facet of humanity's collective cultural heritage.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
  • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
  • The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Keep reading Show less