What can science do?

As we get into the study of the Enlightenment, we’ll see that Enlightenment thinkers sought to spread scientific ways of gaining knowledge beyond the natural world and into the study of human affairs.  That raises the question: to what extent can the methods of science be applied to subjects in the human world, like history, government, morality or religion?

Coincidentally, The Guardian just published a debate between a philosopher and a scientist about whether science is overstepping its bounds.

The philosopher writes:

…there are some issues of human existence that just aren’t scientific. I cannot see how mere facts could ever settle the issue of what is morally right or wrong, for example….it is an ineliminable feature of human life that we are confronted with many issues that are not scientifically tractable…

while the scientist replies:

science provides the basis for moral decisions, which are sensible only if they are based on reason, which is itself based on empirical evidence. Without some knowledge of the consequences of actions, which must be based on empirical evidence, then I think “reason” alone is impotent.

Who’s right, the philosopher or the scientist?  If you’re up for it, read the debate and post your reply in the comments.  And as we read about the Enlightenment, keep the debate in mind.

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9 Responses to What can science do?

  1. Ross Musicant says:

    I think that the philosopher is right in this situation. Science is more about learning about facts, and philosophy isn’t always right and wrong. There is some gray area in between that requires a person to think for themselves, and they won’t be able to just make an experiment to prove what is right and what is wrong. Moral issues are more opinionated, therefore a study like science cannot always provide the right answers.

  2. Lisa Goldsman says:

    I believe that the philosopher is correct. Philosophy is based with morals and human thought. Philosophy allows someone to create their own ideas and thoughts to find what their own ideas of a specific topic, proving it to be right or wrong. It is not simply based of scientific knowledge but rather the knowledge understood by a persons view. The scientist thinks that someone can prove a point to be right or wrong by scientific facts. Science can prove experiments right or wrong, but not moral decisions- that is where philosophy takes a role.

  3. apai2015 says:

    After reading the article to its full extent, which allowed me to grasp a complete understanding of the argument to why each side’s respective field is the “correct” method to approach life’s biggest questions, I believe that the human mind needs an equal balance between the two (science and philosophy). Science, more specifically empiricism, is necessary for all humans, and is advantageous over philosophy in the respect that, while philosophy speculates and forms numerous ideas about the universe, science can actually give a person that crucial experience and thus a better understanding of a situation. I believe this is very important because if one cannot see or understand something from first person experience, how can he or she truly understand completely whatever it is that he or she is postulating about. That being said, I don’t think the human mind would be able to interpret this “raw data” through the physical experience without some form of reason. Once a person observes something happen, the human mind needs rational thoughts in order to interpret and fully comprehend what it is it just experienced. Without this, nothing can be taken from the observations recorded by a person’s senses. All in all, I believe there needs to be an even distribution between science and philosophy to answer life’s questions and problems. Without science and empirical evidence, philosophy, in my opinion is just pure speculation that cannot be proved, which consequently, serves no purpose. On the contrary, I believe that science, without philosophy and rational thinking, is just simply data that cannot be analyzed, which proves just as useless as speculation.

    • Dr. K says:


      Doesn’t science include “reason”? After all, that’s what the Enlightenment philsophes had in mind when they used the word–empirical reasoning and investigation like scientists do? It’s really a clash between the empirical, inductive reasoning of scientists and the more purely deductive reasoning of philosophers.

      • apai2015 says:

        Well yes, they do have reasoning via induction. However, I think what I was trying to get at was that scientists need more than inductive reasoning (in deductive reasoning) to make use of what they see and observe. The same goes for philosophers and inductive reasoning. My stance still holds true, although maybe just a little revised; I believe we as human beings need an equilibrium between the inductive reasoning of scientists and the deductive reasoning of philosophers. Too much of one will not function in society. Would you tend to agree Dr. Korfhage? Or do you think that one is more important than the other?

  4. Dr. K says:

    Ah, now you’re trying to get me to state my own opinion, which I try to avoid (since I’d rather have you do the thinking). So I will ask you a follow-up question before giving my own response. Here’s my follow-up question: you say we need a balance, but that’s the easy answer, and can too easily become a cop-out. So my question for you is: what is the balance? What is science good for? What is philosophy good for? Where and how do you draw the line?

  5. apai2015 says:

    Science is good for the study and comprehension behind natural occurrences and deals with empirical theories and testing hypothesis. Philosophy, meanwhile helps us use rational thought to explore issues relating to these natural occurrences and empirical observations. In addition, philosophy provokes logic and urges us to question and then analyze various beliefs. In a way, they need each other to function. Honestly, I don’t think there is a line between them. I think they are so blended within our society (throughout the years) that they come hand in hand with each other.

  6. Dr. K says:

    Ok, that’s a reasonable reply. Since you asked, here’s my opinion: I tend to think that science is useful, but of limited utility, in questions of morality. We have no obligation to do what is impossible (the philosophy phrase is “ought implies can”), so there is a certain empirical part of morality. But to a large extent morality is non-empirical; there (again in the language of philosophy) a fact-value distinction. For example, even if it could be shown that people had a “natural” tendency to commit adultery, that wouldn’t make it right. Questions of fact are not the same as questions of value. And then there’s the further problem of all the offensive views that have been justified through “science” (or better, pseudo-science)–there are examples in the last day’s reading for this unit. So I’m a little skeptical every time scientists start to make claims about what is “natural” for human beings. That’s my two-cents, for what it’s worth.

  7. Ben R says:

    Reason and empirical evidence are the limits of science. It is impossible for science to explore the philosophical bounds of the moral dilemma. There are certain innate characteristics, such as the decision of right and wrong, which are not simply black and white, but rather several shades of grey. The concept of empiricism is not compatible with such deep-rooted and intrinsic human values. An interesting analogy I came across states: “that would be like accusing the New York Jets of never having won an MLB title: they can’t they aren’t playing the same game.” A serious example of this would be assisted suicide. Yes, it’s against the law, but if you are eliminating the pain of someone you love, is it morally wrong? There’s no data to turn to in order to make that decision. There are no numbers that state “Yes” and others that state “No.” Empiricism cannot brace someone for an event of that magnitude. A man can look to experience and reason to make a decision, but does that necessarily determine the morality of the situation? In the end, it is my belief that science and morality do not walk hand and hand. There is a subjectivity to moral decisions that is not reflected by science.

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