My head is aching, for I’ve got some things to say and I’m not saying them. In the next few days I’ll be laying down rough ideas that have been using up my cognitive time. I call it the development of pilot ideas.
Idea One. Philosophy is a kind of scientific enterprise, on an extended sense of the term. Commonly a field is only described as scientific in case its pursues are cognitive (i.e. truth, validity, plausibility, probability, coherence, approximation), its methods are reliable, and its methods are empirical. One might add that the truths it seeks are objective and universal. (Suppose gravitational force varies from region to region. If there is a law-like explanation of this variation, or even an account more complex than the ones involved in laws, then its study can be scientific. Otherwise, no.)
Physics is a science because its purpose is truth-oriented, its domain contains objective truths, its methods are reliable to approximate this truth on the long-term,¹ and its methods are empirical (descriptive, correlational, and experimental),² — whereas astrology is not a science, because while its practitioners might be truth-oriented, and their domain of investigation contain objective truth, its methods, if empirical at all, are not reliable.
However, this seems a too restrictive use of the word «science», probably influenced by empiricist assumptions and a general distrust of armchair inquiry. We can use words in whichever way we want, and we won’t be objectively wrong or right in that unless our aim is either (i) to use words as other people do, or in ways that reliably transmits the message we have in mind,³ or (ii) to make notation more convenient to speech, not only less misleading, or (iii) to best harvest the connotations the word has socially. (This latter one is the idea behind the Political Correctness movement in language use.)
I gather the label ‘scientific’ has very useful connotations, and that its standard meaning detailed above is so close to something truly applicable of science that it won’t be a violence to the term to modify it so philosophy can truly be said to be scientific. Specially because philosophy is scientific in a sense very similar to which mathematics and logic are scientific.⁴ Philosophy, at least as practiced in the analytic world, aims at truth (and other cognitive ends such as coherence and plausibility). And I believe its domain contain objective truths, even if relativism is true. If we drop the requirement of empiricality, all that’s left for philosophy to be a science is for it to have reliable methods for achieving its cognitive ends.⁵
And I do think philosophy has that, to a substantial extent. Philosophers employ a great deal of methods which are generally applied elsewhere: evaluating internal consistency, external coherence, explanatory power, empirical adequacy, and other theoretical virtues such as simplicity, unity, and plausibility/intuitiveness. Arguments of a deductive, inductive, and abductive variety are employed, along with formal tools of analysis and clarification. If philosophy has not been great at achieving positive results, it has been great at mapping the conceptual space, at exploring new possibilities, creating new intellectual tools, and at demolishing thousands of bad ideas. Nevertheless, if our intuitions, analytical tools, and reasoning are reliable (truth-conducive), — as eventually I’d like to argue they are — then we’re also progressing towards greater approximation to truth and great probability.
By dropping the requirement of empiricality, we’re also granting mathematics and logic the status of sciences, as they seem to be: sometimes they’re called the formal sciences, or the rational sciences. There is a way to call logic and mathematics sciences without calling philosophy a science, though: drop the empirical requirement, but add the “has reached positive results” requirement (not just results, for philosophy has reached that in many sciences: negative results, new tools, coherency tests, clarifications, partial explanations, and so on).
Notes to Idea One:
¹ Or at least to generate theories which are very empirically adequate and very explanatory, even if they may be as far from the truth as previous theories: take the example of Newtonian mechanics; its models are not far-off from the truth about the phenomena it investigated, but (i) its equations do not have general applicability, and (ii) its postulated metaphysics of light, time, space, mass, force, objects, etc. are false. — The analogous statement for philosophy would be reaching accounts which are intuitionally and conceptually (internal coherence) and empirically (external coherence) adequate, as well as greatly explanatory. — In mathematics, it’d be reaching mathematical theories which are fruitful, intuitive, applicable, and explanatory. (We can understand, in some sense, a great many facts about the theory of natural numbers, for instance, by developing complex analysis. So that’s explanatoriness and coherence.)
² However it is that experiments are understood. Inductivists disagree with falsificationists as to how they are and to how they should be conducted. Those, in turn, disagree with paradigmatists (I just coined this term, I think: it means ‘kuhnians’) and deductive-nomologists, who disagree with empirical constructivists and so on.
³ I do think our propositional attitudes, however fuzzy and actually semi-propositional they might be (this idea of semi-propositionality is something I want to develop one day), and other kinds of mental content are determined pre-linguistically. At least when by ‘language’ we mean natural language; maybe there’s really a mentalese, i.e., a language of thought.
⁴ Only recently my conception of mathematics widened to an adequate size. We haven’t only got arithmetic, algebra, analysis, geometry, topology, set theory, chaos theory, and the like. Information theory is mathematical, as well as model theory and formal semantics, so useful in philosophy. Computational theory, (static/dynamic) systems theory & control theory & command theory (constituting cybernetics), operations research (management science), and all sorts of stuff are mathematical.
⁵ I do think that if we press the distinction between the empirical sciences and philosophy enough, we’ll find that the distinction is not clear-cut. Philosophy avails itself of the empirical results of the empirical sciences, and it also suggests new avenues for empirical investigation. Furthermore, it’s not clear that empirical research can proceed without a philosophical basis, even if it can proceed without philosophizing beyond a priori assumptions. Moreover, empirical results suggests philosophical problems treatable a priori. Finally, philosophy pursues questions which are partly empirical and partly a priori: Do we have free will? (It depends on the creatures we are.) — Can science reach the truth? (It depends on the nature of reality and the way the scientific enterprise goes about.) — Is knowledge possible? (It depends on our cognitive faculties, our perceptual mechanisms, and the nature of reality.) — How do we come to know moral facts, and how are we motivated by them? (It depends on our cognitive faculties and the nature of moral facts.) — What is the nature of intentionality and mental content? (It depends, once more, on how our cognitive faculties work, and also on the nature of the things that exist.) — Alvin Goldman has detailed quite extensively in his Epistemology and Cognition, which I have read only one third of, how philosophy comes up with principles which are ‘filled-in’ by empirical information to reach the answers to questions which are traditionally regarded as philosophical.