Natural Philosophy vs.Science

By: Jim Virkler; ©2007

Several hundred years ago what is today known as “science” was called “natural philosophy.” The methods of natural philosophers differed from those of later scientists such as Robert Boyle, Francis Bacon, and Galileo. Natural philosophers did not test their ideas in a practical way. They preferred a speculative, philosophical approach and relied heavily on tradition and authority while making their statements about the natural world.

In contrast, Boyle and others, beginning in the 17th century, advocated more systematic validations of their conclusions through experimentation and replication. Even though their new methodology was still included under the umbrella term of natural philosophy, the term science later came into formal use. These pioneers and others were really the earliest true scientists as we understand that term today. They used most of the techniques of what we understand today as the “scientific method,” but that term did not come into common use until the 19th century. Theoretical Aristotelian philosophical speculations about ultimate purposes and principles in nature were dismissed. Natural philosophy yielded to modern science.

Today many people think of science as a precise method for proving things beyond any doubt. They feel a certain reverence for facts touted to be “scientifically proven.” This view of science is deficient in many ways. It is true that the basic process of scientific method is mostly held in high regard by both scientists and the public as a superior vehicle for discovering knowledge of the natural world and how it works for man’s advantage. But a study of even a small portion of the huge body of literature on the modern philosophy of science, especially in the last century, will show that the picture is not so simple. In future posts we will explore some of the surprising ways modern philosophy has impacted science both positively and negatively. Science philosophy influences the methods of gaining knowledge, the scope of the resulting knowledge, and the implications of the knowledge gained. The same could be said of the influence of philosophy on any other discipline, ranging from politics to religion.

It is reassuring that the scientific approach to knowledge and truth has deep roots in holy scripture. We are exhorted to “test everything” and to define our faith as confidence in established truth.

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