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Pathways to Philosophy

Science, Religion and Philosophy

by Dmitry A. Olshansky


The problem of the interaction between philosophy and science is well known. Some philosophers say that philosophy is a science while others say that it is not a science. In the second group, some set philosophy as the art of thinking and questioning, while others (like Socrates) suppose that philosophy is an art of argumentation and talking. A third group, translating the word 'philosophy' from Ancient Greek, believe that philosophy is love of wisdom, therefore it is not neither art nor science, but it is a philosopher's own experience of the world.

Scientists believe that experiment gives us real knowledge of process and helps us to discover laws of nature. Here I do not question the truth of that foundational view. It is the basis of all experimental science. There are a lot of other beliefs (like the primacy of reason, impersonal and accumulative character of knowledge, orientation on prognosis and so on), which are realized in the everyday practice of all scientists. The actual results of experimental and theoretical science affirm the truth of these beliefs.

On the other hand, from a broad view science is a manner or tool for increasing knowledge. Such Kantian understanding tries to make all the spheres of cognition (like religion, art, and poetry) forms of science. If we deal with knowledge, then we deal with science and we are scientists.

According to such way of understanding, we should conclude that philosophy has the form of science too, because it deals with knowledge and increases knowledge about world, the subject, and their interaction, just as religion increases knowledge about the Absolute and the sublunary world with the help of revelation, poetry with the help of metaphor, and art with the help of figurative techniques.

Some philosophers consider philosophy as a form of personal experience, closer to poetry than to impersonal science. They suppose that poetry is an individual creation, which cannot comply with any standards. So they play off poetry against science, which supports a tradition and canons of thinking and searching. However, I do not think that poetry is a personal creation only. Every poet writes in concrete national language and so conforms to grammatical rules and traditions of previous national literature and national lingual culture. One can follow these rules or deny these rules. In any case to be a serious poet one should know them and found one's own art on the basis of these rules and traditions.

Poetry is not in opposition to science. Just as we know many scientists who were poets too, like Goethe and Lomonosov, so poetry and philosophy deal with knowledge. To be an excellent poet one must create one's own style, one should modify the previous tradition of writing, and enrich national language by new forms and metaphors, and ultimately influence and change the tradition of national literature. All the cultural and linguistic property of a nation is in my mind knowledge, that is why I suppose that both poet and philosopher deal with knowledge and its interpretation.

However, philosophy has its own way of cognition and treatment of knowledge, and therefore differs from science by its own methodology and system of values. First of all philosophy agrees that there are different ways of understanding what is reality. By contrast, science supposes that there is only one (objective) reality, which can be cognized by only one proper methodology of experiment and reason. Philosophy considers that there are many points of view and many methodologies of describing and writing. Philosophy agrees that there can be experiential and rational cognition as well as mystical and intuitive. It denies the idea that there is only one real and veritable treatment of knowledge and reason.

For example, philosophical modernism (middle of 19th century — beginning of 20th century) maintains that there are many forms of reason. All the modernists reject the accepted view of reason, but at the same time, all of them use a varied modifications of reason: economic reason (in Marx), religious reason (in Frank), psychoanalytical reason (in Freud), mystical reason (in James), volitional reason (in Nietzsche) and so on.

Frank rehabilitated rationalism as the basis element of faith. Some say (he wrote) that to trust means to refuse the mind. But how can we trust the symbol of our faith without knowing of this symbol? (God with Us London: Jonathan Cape, 1946, part I) He returned to the tradition of Thomas Aquinas in the treatment of relation between faith and mind. Frank is not a rationalist, but he used the term "mystical knowledge."

Freud rejected the accepted view of the mind, but his system is based on the principle of libido, which can be cognized through psychoanalytic reason. The wishes of libido are concrete and clear, but they are hidden from the conscious mind. Freud talked about subconscious knowledge, which is inaccessible to mind. Id in Freud is a form of reason too, but it is not "rational reason" as in Descartes, but subconscious knowledge. All sexual wishes are concrete and logical, all of them can be realized, but all of them are outside conscious reason.

Marx rejected reason as the intellectual power in society. Not intellect, but economics, the class struggle, moves social progress. But social progress is reasonable too, economic reason is logical and healthy, but outside of intellect. Therefore, intellectuals are not the propellant power of society. The propellant power is the proletarian class, which produces the concrete things as well as surplus value. But surplus value is a reasonable element.

Nietzsche's will has the form of reason too. His courage and volition are not only the abstract and unbeknown forces, they are concrete and reasonable just as knowledge and philosophy is guts and courage. (Gotzendammerung Heidelberg, 1861).

James writes about mystical experience as a patent phenomenon. There is nothing enigmatic or inconsistent in James understanding of mysticism. "Mystical conditions may, therefore, render the soul more energetic in the lines which their inspiration favours. But this could be reckoned an advantage only in case the inspiration were a true one" (The Varieties of Religious Experience London and Glasgow: Collins p. 401). So he considers mystical condition as a phenomenon which can be described by philosophical language. He believes that mysticism can be cognized and treated by reason. But at the same time, he denies the claim of rationalism as the religious force. He considers that feeling is primary force in religion as opposed to intellect: "I do believe that feeling is the deeper source of religion, and that philosophic and theological formulas are secondary products, like the translation of a text into another tongue" (ibid. p. 414).

So, modernists put the question about the basis of personality with respect to reason. And they create many modifications of reason, and all of them have influence on contemporary post-modern philosophy. Both modernism and post-modernism deny the belief in only one world outlook and only one understanding of reality.

That is why philosophy differs from religion. I mean here only Biblical religions (Judaism. Christianity and Islam), because they are the most influential for European philosophy. Religion is founded on belief in higher knowledge and only one real understanding of that knowledge. Religious cognition is founded on revelation (commitment of knowledge), where the individual's role is irreducible. According to Augustin Aurelius: "Tu enim, domine, diiudicas me, quia etsi nemo scit hominum" (Sanctus Aurelius Augustinus Epistola Lib. X, Caput 5). "No one knows what is man as well as no one knows God's purpose, therefore no one knows who is created to be a prophet, and no one knows whom God will choose for revelation."

By contrast, philosophy aims to doubt all absolutes. Philosophy aims for wisdom and knowledge, which would be helpful for real human life. Therefore philosophers of different cultures and different ideology put the same questions: how to teach us not to fear death (in Plato, Epicurus, Montaigne, Baudrillard and etc.), what is the basis of our being (in Aristotle, Kant, Scheler, Levi-Strauss and etc.), what is knowledge (in Socrates, Nicolas of Cusa, Locke, Descartes and etc.). These are concrete questions, which can help us to reach wisdom and happiness. I agree here with Boethius (Consolations of Philosophy) that wisdom always bring happiness to philosopher. There is no wisdom without delectation. In order to reach real wisdom, the philosopher should doubt all absolutes, because wisdom is always the result of personal effort. The philosopher can trust in God, but should not follow faith implicitly.

In a lot of cases, religion and philosophy are in closest relation. But that does not mean that religion creates a philosophy as the liberal and lay form of theology, nor does it mean that philosophy depends on religion. But philosophy recognizes religion as a form of ideology and one of the possible ways to wisdom.

Religion is oriented to the Absolute and every faithful man or woman believes that he or she depends on a higher force. The philosopher, on the contrary, holds that one should create one's own ideology and chose one's own way of living. Religion can help in such a search, but not to rule and direct the philosopher's will. The philosopher can consider themself as solitary and doomed to eternal independent choice and accountability, as in Camus or Sartre; or as determined by environment, culture and humanity ("Das Da-sein ist das Mitsein"), as in Heidegger; or as only the agent or teacher aiding the search for self-knowledge, as in Socrates and so on. This choice depends on the philosopher's understanding of happiness. One philosopher maintains that freedom is the main human value, so searches for an adequate ideology of free will. Whereas if one considers that the basic human gift is communication, one will build a theory and practice of communication, argumentation and dialogue, as in Buber and Bakhtin.

So, philosophy differs from science as well as from religion by its methodology of cognition and also by world outlook, while science and religion consider that knowledge has only one beginning therefore there is only one true knowledge and only one true methodology of cognition. I think that scientific methodology is in many ways close to the religious one (see my Methodology of Scientific and Religious Cognition). Science supposes that there is only one proper basis of knowledge, it is experiment and rational analysis of nature, just as religion considers that there is only one source of knowledge, God (or other Absolute). Therefore there is only one methodology of searching for science (scientific theories and experiments) and only one way of cognition for religion (revelation and spiritual dialogue with God).

By contrast, philosophy agrees that there are many ways of cognition, just as there are many forms of knowledge and many beginnings of that knowledge. Wisdom in my mind is the form of personal knowledge. That is why there is neither a scientific philosophy, nor a religious philosophy, but there is philosophy of science and philosophy of religion, which describe the phenomena of scientific and religious thinking. Philosophy is always personal experience and cogitation and there is no universal wisdom, which would be the same for all the people, just as there is no single understanding of happiness.

But that does not mean that there is no progress in philosophy. Science supposes that progress is the result of accumulation of knowledge and it is the mark of growth and development of science. So, the idea of progress belongs to science and describes the accomplishment of science. But philosophy has his own edifice, therefore the scientific idea of progress, as an objective accumulation of universal knowledge does not correctly describe philosophy.

Wisdom is a form of ideology. Marxist and Soviet philosophy use this word in a political denotation but if we return to the Greek origin we find that "ideo-logia" is a logical consistency of ideas. So, we can say one's world outlook is one's ideology if it organized on concrete and coherent principles. Ideology is at the same time knowledge, and edifice, and practice. If one has a complex of theoretical ideas and if one follows these ideas in everyday practice, we should say that it is ideology. Ideology as such is not wisdom, because I cannot agree that every ideology brings happiness. Wisdom in my mind is only that ideology, which brings satisfaction and blessing to the philosopher. There is no doubt that science is ideology, because it has its own edifice and complex of ideas, but it can be wisdom only if one comes to the scientific world outlook through one's individual cognition, and if this result brings happiness.

Philosophy is like science because it deals with knowledge, but philosophy, unlike science, understands knowledge as the form of individual experience. For science, there is universal and objective knowledge of nature and natural phenomena. Whereas the philosopher aims for one's own ideology, one's own understanding and world outlook.

Philosophy is the individual sphere of thinking and living, that is why there is no scientific philosophy. We cannot teach philosophy, but we can only teach to think and help to find ones own way of philosophy. Of course, everyone is affected of authority and writers of previous epochs, all of whom depend on the classics. But that does not mean we can create nothing new and nothing of our own. To be philosophers we should understand those ideas which have influence over us.

There are three different spheres: science, religion and philosophy. Science agrees with religion in supposing that there is only one beginning of proper knowledge, and it has a resemblance to philosophy because they both deal with knowledge. But science differs from religion, because it deals with knowledge only and relies upon rational analysis and experiments, while religion aims for revelation and faith. And science differs from philosophy because it aims for universal accumulation and progress of knowledge, while philosophy is the individual search of knowledge and wisdom. Philosophy borders upon religion because both of them long for human happiness, yet they differ ultimately because religion assumes belief in God (or other absolute), while the philosopher gravitates towards doubt.

© Dmitry Olshansky 2002

Urals State University
Yekaterinburg City
Russian Federation

E-mail: Olshansky@hotmail.com