Science, philosophy and religion

Where does science come from?  Historically, the predecessor of what we now call the sciences was natural philosophy, which was, evidently enough, a branch of philosophy.  But when we study science at school and university, it's rare to hear much mention of any continuing dependence on philosophy.  We seem to study lots of scientific "facts": about the universe, the solar system and the earth, about impacts and reactions, about microbes, plants and animals, and about humans and society.  We gradually get introduced to experimental methods as ways of testing hypotheses and perhaps to demonstrate the tentative nature of scientific conclusions (after all, school science experiments rarely give textbook outcomes!).  Eventually we're told about scientific models and sometimes even about some controversies.  Some of the "facts" are confusingly known as theories.  But philosophy?  That seems to be just a sideshow - at best a defunct predecessor.

There is another view.  My philosopher friend Richard Russell argues that all of the content of science curricula is dependent on philosophy.  Learning about underlying laws, patterns and structures in the cosmos on the basis of specific data is fundamentally a philosophical problem, raising questions about what these underlying universals might be like and how our specific perceptions can relate to them.  Then there are also questions of error, fallibility, bias and so on.  Philosophy should not be merely of historical interest for scientists!  And Christians should be interested in this view, because of where philosophy comes from.

Where does philosophy come from?  Historically, one answer is that the Western philosophical tradition arose in ancient Greece as a competitor to the prevailing pagan religion.  Now, in some philosophy courses there's even less discussion of religion than there is of philosophy in science courses.  But once again, there's a hidden dependence. Philosophical arguments may invoke concepts like substance, abstract objects, minds, reason, justification, freedom and so on.  And many of these turn out to encapsulate clear or hidden notions of how reality is constituted and where it comes from, what a human being is, what persons are, and so on.  So religion should not be merely of historical interest in philosophy.  In fact there is the possibility of building a Christian philosophy, for example, on the basis of a biblical worldview.  That is what this series of posts is intended to display, albeit rather haphazardly.

The diagram below, conceived by Richard Russell, illustrates two views of the relationships among these areas of thought.  First is the Enlightenment view, in which religion is superseded over time by philosophy, which is in turn superseded by science.  Below that is a view that's characteristic of streams of neocalvinist thought like that pioneered by Herman Dooyeweerd.

The first option makes the challenge of being a scientist look simpler and less susceptible to controversy.  But the second one is arguably far more realistic.  We'll look more at how this ongoing dependence works in a subsequent post - with another of Richard's diagrams.

Add new comment