When Did Science and Philosophy Separate Into Different Fields of Study?

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Answer by Joshua Engel:

The way I see it, science is still “natural philosophy,” and it’s an error on the part of both scientists and philosophers to see their fields of study as separate disciplines.

They began to separate in the 19th century, when the term science was coined, and over the course of the 19th century, it replaced “natural philosopher.” The two had begun to branch out earlier than that with the development of the hypothetico-deductive model, which locks science into a particular epistemology, beginning with Galileo and really becoming formalized by Descartes in 1637.

There are, of course, a great many other names, and it was a long, slow process. But I’d say that the split really began in the 16th century and was largely complete by the 19th. People identified a particular mode of acquiring knowledge by forming hypotheses and testing them against experiments, replacing earlier philosophical modes of trying to explain the world in terms of introspective models and references to sacred texts.

I’d say it’s a mistake for scientists to identify that their epistemology as the only valid epistemology of the world. Until they have a complete understanding of a “theory of everything” (not just a fundamental physical theory, but one that ties together all of the various levels of science, including the hard problem of consciousness), they can’t validly dismiss other modes of understanding.

Similarly, philosophers have to recognize the prominent place that science has in our understanding of the world. Any philosopher trying to do metaphysics without understanding 21st-century physics is wasting his time, and I think that the field as a whole has an abominable habit of tolerating such time-wasters. There are many fields of philosophy other than metaphysics (and sadly, little good work is being done in metaphysics because it’s so damn hard), but all fields of philosophy (including morality, aesthetics, personal values, etc) can benefit by ceasing to define science as “other.”

Cognitive science is a good model of where philosophers and scientists are continuing to work together. There is a good deal of overlap between philosophy and cog-sci departments in universities. The two take each other seriously and do productive work, each contributing its own strengths. 

Physics, by contrast, suffers from a difficult rift over the last few decades. First a group of philosophers attempted to do away with metaphysics (the Vienna Circle and similar movements). Those movements flopped, though scientists largely don’t recognize the failures and have an odd habit of insisting on their accomplishments without recognizing the limitations. This turned, in the 1980s, into an anti-science movement within philosophy. These science wars contributed little to either science or philosophy, and they ended decades ago (with science being proclaimed the “winner”), and it retains a lot of bad blood.

That needs to end. The program of science is not yet complete, and it is not completely separate from philosophy yet. Nor is the end really in sight for it. There’s a lot for the two yet to contribute to each other, if they stop thinking of themselves as separate fields and start thinking of themselves as various ways of advancing wisdom and knowledge.

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