The Philosophical Method, the Scientific Method, and Theology

So, for the longest time I’ve thought that theology was basically philosophical, and didn’t really see the difference between them, despite a number of people saying that I was wrong and that theology wasn’t philosophy.  So, now, let me clarify:  I think that theology uses the philosophical method, and as such doesn’t use the scientific method.  The philosphical method is quite different than the scientific method, which explains why a lot of scientist don’t really get either.

My first blush work in progress shot at describing the philosophical method is here:

So, how does that differ from the scientific method?  Let’s go through the points in order:

1) Science works with things, with objects.  Philosophy works with concepts.  Now, a lot of the time these are mostly interchangeable, which is why people don’t really notice this difference.  But philosophy is conceptual analysis, while science is object analysis.  They aim at two compeltely different types of ends.

2) Science has to be grounded in the empirical and empirical observations to achieve its end.  Philosophy has to be grounded in reasoning to achieve its end.  Both can use either, but philosophy accepts propositions that are not ultimately grounded in empirical observation and science doesn’t.  Philosophy accepts that you can find out interesting things with pure reasoning and science doesn’t.

3) Philosophy deals with things that have to work in all cases, whether inside or outside of the real world; science doesn’t care about anything outside of the real world.

4) Philosophy uses thought experiments and modal logic that don’t have to be real world situations to do its work.  Science always has to look at the real world to do its work.  In fact, philosophy wants to take things out of the real world to effectively examine their concepts while science wants to situate things as much as possible in the relevant real-world situations to do its work.

Note that the philosophical method doesn’t have to ignore completely empirical data or the results of science.  You can even naturalize — ie make scientific — parts of philosophy if it helps or if that’s the best way to do it.  In fact, science was born from natural philosophy because people discovered that the scientific method really did work best there.  But ultimately, philosophy has a different — though still important — goal than science, and thus has different methods.  Thus, good philosophy will naturalize only as far as it needs to to be able to properly analyze the concepts.

This also doesn’t make philosophy necessarily impractical.  All category judgements are philosophical because they involve determining what a category ought to contain regardless of what we think it does.  This is determining, for example, the concept of a mammal as opposed to simply talking about mammals directly.  Why are whales mammals and not fish?  If we’re going to appeal to natural kinds, we have to know what properties make up the concept “mammal” and the concept “fish” to make that determination.  Otherwise, all we’re left with is a pragmatic decision that’s subjectively determined by everyone based on what they think is the best way to classify.  Thus, general classifications at least ought to be relying on conceptual analysis to work.

Another example is, in my opinion, morality.  To me, once we know what the concept of morality means then we can go out and decide how to determine what moral rules — if any — we should follow.  This is independent of what people think is moral; they may well be wrong.  Only by analyzing the concept can we really determine what morality is, even if we end up determining that it really is just what people think it is.

Ultimately, the only thing scientific that even comes close to being the same as the philosophical method is  theoretical physics, and we can note from that that:

1) They are the only area that really uses anything like thought experiments, although at a far more concrete and much more elementary level than philosophy (see Schroedinger’s Cat).

2) Theoretical physicists get a lot of the same complaints tossed at them as is tossed at philosophy/theology, specifically about what empirical data there exists to validate their theory and how they plan to test it.  They also complain about the experimental focus of experimental physicists as much as philosophers/theologicans do.

So, does theology use the philosophical method?  Well, it seems quite reasonable to say that it does.  Most of the time, it is aiming at examining and defining the concept of God and cares less about the specific details or specific existence claims.  It accepts that you don’t need empirical data to ground a belief or a theory.  It uses thought experiments, modal logic, and pure analytical arguments to make its case.  It does use some empirical data, but it doesn’t place the importance on it that science does.

Okay, so it’s using the philosophical method.  Should it?  Some might argue that since it’s trying to establish the existence of something, that’s the balliwick of science.  However, the reply to that is two-fold:

1) The concept “God” is so poorly defined as a concept that science can’t even hope to get started talking about it.

2) It’s quite possible that “God” is a concept that can be proved without appealing to the empirical, and possibly that as a concept it cannot be proved by appealing to the empirical.

Anything supernatural has this issue, since we haven’t conceptualized it well-enough to know how to test it scientifically.  This applies specifically to the oft-cited “prayer experiments”, which didn’t take into account at all any of the conditions where prayer might be said to work, and worked with an extremely shallow view of prayer. Ghosts, telepathy, and telekinesis also fit into these cateogories.

These would suggest that, at least for now, the philosophical method is the appropriate way to analyze God, and that’s what theology is doing.  Thus, if scientists want to criticize its method, they have to criticize the philosophical method.

Which, since that method produced science, is not a method they want to discredit.


One Response to “The Philosophical Method, the Scientific Method, and Theology”

  1. Lou Ploch Says:

    The scientific method according to my college training, looks for known facts, objects, or formulation to prove or disprove a concept or establish a premise can be relied on as a fact. There is always the problem “WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE DON’T KNOW” a profound statement in itself. The absence of data or evidence does not prove that something doesn’t exist, rather than the results may not be totally reliable. Philosophy in my approach to accept what it stands for, seems to be an attempt to fit a problem into a conceptual answer [An answer that could fit the problem without the additional proof of a scientific analysis which may not be available in a particular category]. In reality, they both have their place in the real world in which we live. Philosophically GOD exists, Scientifically the concept has no concrete way to prove or disprove. In my limited knowledge scope, I accept the concept that intelligence created the universe because in many aspects, mathematical formulas can be used to solve problems that exist in time and space. It has taken many great thinkers many years to come up with these scientific observations. It seems so hard to comprehend that all we know and all we are learning wasn’t established by a greater power and left for us to understand and discover. But then its just 1 person’s analysis of the “MEANING OF EVERYTHING”

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