When the Scientist turns Philosopher

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When the Scientist turns Philosopher

This paper examines how such fundamental notions as causality and determinism have undergone changes as a direct result of empirical discoveries. Although such notions are often regarded as metaphysical or a priori concepts, experimental discoveries at the beginning of this century—radioactive decay, blackbody radiation and spontaneous emission—led to a direct questioning of the notions of causality and determinism. Experimental evidence suggests that these two notions must be separated. Causality and indeterminism are compatible with the behavior of quantum-mechanical systems. The argument also sheds some light on the Duhem-Quine thesis, since experimental results at the periphery of the conceptual scheme directly affect conceptions at the very core.


Ever since Thomas S. Kuhn pointed out the importance of the history of science for the philosophy of science, it has become customary for philosophers of science to support their philosophical considerations by appeal to real-life science. From the often historical material the philosopher seeks evidence for some general principles about the nature of science. If there is a common territory between science and philosophy, as many writers have affirmed, (1) it must also be possible to go from science to philosophy. This is indeed what some of the greatest scientific minds throughout the centuries have attempted to do. Their reflections fall into the oldest branches of philosophical thinking: ontology or the question of what the basic constituents of nature are; epistemology or the question by which tools the human mind can acquire knowledge about the external world; ethics or the question of what moral responsibility scientists have with respect to their discoveries.

In such contributions, scientists, prompted by the most recent discoveries in their respective fields, provide interpretations of science and the natural world and thereby contribute to their understanding. The heartbeat of science is at its most philosophical rhythm when major conceptual revisions or revolutions are afoot and scientists feel the need to go beyond the mathematical expressions of natural processes to reach a level of understanding which assigns some physical meaning to the mathematical comprehension of the natural world or offers a re-interpretation of the nature of the scientific enterprise. What is interesting in this process from a philosophical point of view is that empirical facts filter through to the conceptual level and bring about changes in the way the world is conceptualised. 'Old notions are discarded by new experiences', as Max Born once said. The common territory between science and philosophy lies in this interaction between facts and concepts.

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