What Are The Philosophical Underpinnings of Science?


January 26, 2015 by Zerub Roberts

1.Methodological naturalism – Experimental results are supposed to have no divine interference. You cannot disprove that some wacky anti-scientific demon interfered with your data, but science would be completely futile if this weren’t presupposed. Although you may not be able to justify such a position, it’s what philosophers call “a properly basic belief” – a person holding such a belief would be justified, even if there’s isn’t any positive support for it, as long as there are no defeaters (or contrary evidence).

Let me illustrate – Consider a belief that we all share: “The universe isn’t created 10 min ago with appearance of age and false memories imprinted on our brain.” How could you possible prove such a thing? No amount of observational evidence would count as support, as all of it could’ve just sprung into existence ready-made 10 mins ago, by some supernatural creature. But surely no rational person would hold this, inspite of having no evidence in favor of the view that this didn’t happen. Others such properly basic beliefs are belief in the external world (that all of this isn’t just happening in your mind), belief in other minds etc. While doing science, assuming that there are no supernatural forces at play in your data collection is also such a belief.

2. Science isn’t a mere model-making quest – it attempts at understanding the true nature of reality (realism). The objects of scientific knowledge are real entities, as opposed to just fictional constructs to better explain observations. There are a few who would disagree with this, however.

Stephen Hawking, in his recent book defends an anti-realist view called model dependent realism, where he claims that science is all about models – models that work and give us better results. No model is more ‘real’ than other model. In his view, science makes no claims about the nature of reality – that’s not its purpose. The problem with this view is that the ‘young earth creationism’ model is just as real the ‘standard big bang model’, which ofcourse is preposterous.

3. Scientific laws are uniform and comprehensible – They don’t vary across space and time. The human brain is capable of understanding the patterns and laws that frame the world. This too, has no way of being justified. There’s so much of the unobserved universe around. There is no reason why gravity shouldn’t work differently at the other end of our universe. However, for┬áthe purpose of doing science, this view is taken to be granted.

4. Occam’s Razor – You do not multiply causes beyond necessity. You could have an infinite number of explanations for any phenomena, literally. But explanatory parsimony is a well-sought virtue for scientific theories. You always chose the simpler model.

For example, there is a chocolate on my table few mins back. When I look again, it’s not there. There are different levels of explanations I could provide –
  • I could have eaten the chocolate and forgot about it.
  • My dog ate it.
  • My brother stole it while I wasn’t looking around.
  • A monkey entered my home and took it. (which isn’t so rare where I used to live before, btw)
  • The FBI could’ve invented a time-machine, froze time, warped space and stole my chocolate.
You could see where I’m going with this – the possible explanations are limitless. The same is true for science. All of those cases could be possible. Given the evidence you have in your hands (the biscuit is missing), there is no way you could completely rule one option and leave the rest as valid. However, a rational thing to do with be to pick the simpler models – like my brother eating it, which has happened many times before.

5. Nature is not inexplicable – If it were, the whole scientific enterprise would be rendered useless.


One thought on “What Are The Philosophical Underpinnings of Science?

  1. As science is done by human mind, so it is limited by the limitations of human mind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Zerub Roberts

Click on the image

A Quote

"The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it"

- Bertrand Russell

Scientia Salon

An archived blog about science & philosophy, by Massimo Pigliucci


You are schizophrenic. I do not exist.

Philosophical Disquisitions

An honest look at the world of talking primates

Experimental Philosophy

An honest look at the world of talking primates

Matters of Substance

An honest look at the world of talking primates

Philosophers Anonymous

An honest look at the world of talking primates

Practical Ethics

An honest look at the world of talking primates

The Prosblogion

An honest look at the world of talking primates

Overcoming Bias

An honest look at the world of talking primates

Mind Hacks

Neuroscience and psychology news and views.

Sean Carroll

An honest look at the world of talking primates

The psych files

Psychology podcast and resources for students and educators

Stephen Law

An honest look at the world of talking primates


An honest look at the world of talking primates

Being Completely Human

An honest look at the world of talking primates

%d bloggers like this: