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The scientific method in philosophy

Updated on February 2, 2015

The scientific method is a general guideline for research scientists to submit and prove an idea. The best-accepted steps are to present a hypothesis, or theory, and test it; the results of the testing would prove or disprove the hypothesis. Of course, in scientific research, this would include vigorous exactitudes and replication of the test results by third parties.

For instance, cold fusion is the theoretical “reverse” of nuclear fission, by definition a safe way to release energy. In 1989, two scientists felt they had achieved this. [Fleischmann, Martin; Pons, Stanley (1989), "Electrochemically induced nuclear fusion of deuterium", Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry261 (2A): 301–308, doi:10.1016/0022-0728(89)80006-3]

Unfortunately, in scientific research this published research needs to be replicated to be vetted, and no one could achieve that.

But when one is applying this method to philosophy or beliefs, it is unnecessary to get others to replicate the thoughts – they merely need to agree or disagree. Still, the philosophy has to work. What is important is that logic, without fallacy, brings one from the original thought to the conclusion of belief.

Rene Descartes began with the statement “I think therefore I am,” meaning he is a sentient being, and from there logically reached the conclusion that God exists. [1637. Discourse on the Method ("Discours de la Methode"). An introduction to Dioptrique, Des Météores and La Géométrie., part IV]

As logical as his approach was, perhaps because his work was based on logic instead of faith, the Pope added Descartes’ works to the Index of Prohibited Books.

Thomas Aquinas fared better, even gaining sainthood, by mixing natural reason with theology. To this day, he is quoted when a person wants to “prove” that God exists.

Moving into the twentieth century, Ayn Rand used novels such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to prove the necessity of logic and reasoning in keeping a whole and healthy society. In her book The Virtue of Selfishness, she explains how her philosophy of Objectivism works – if mankind seeks to satisfy his real needs without impinging on the needs of others, we will all get along fine. “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” [Rand, Ayn(1992) [1957]. Atlas Shrugged (35th anniversary ed.). New York: Dutton. ISBN0-525-94892-9.]

Philosophy is part of religion and everyday ethics, as well as in treatises from Plato to Bertrand Russell. The philosophies which continue to be practiced are based on logical reasoning, and stand the test of time. Let’s take the hypothesis that you should not covet your neighbor’s wife nor belongings. Tests – chase his wife, and steal his belongings. Results – you will be arrested, if not beaten to a pulp by your neighbor. The logic to follow is that if you covet these things, go out and get your own; if you cannot get your own, you don’t deserve them.

If a philosophy cannot follow the scientific method, it would most likely be a “flash in the pan”. An interesting example of this is Marxism. Based on the Hegelian logic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, Karl Mark developed the philosophy of communism, which, simplified, is “To each according to his needs, from each according to his ability.” Unfortunately, this hypothesis does not incorporate human nature. Too many people felt their needs were much more expensive than the philosopher would have defined them. The philosophy failed the tests.

© 2015 Bonnie-Jean Rohner

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