The Scientific Approach
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 2 - The Value and Methods of Philosophy
Herbert Feigl, from "Naturalism and Humanism"
Kem Stone - 15 August 2007
The purpose of this text is to defend the scientific method as the strongest approach to knowledge, particularly by
dispelling certain misconceptions which lead to a resistance on the part of some educators to use this approach
when it comes to studying the humanities. Because I am for the most part in complete agreement with Feigl on
these issues, I will be brief in my exposition, mostly re-stating the article’s basic claims in my own words and
ending by reiterating my own objection to the scientific approach which Feigl recognises but fails to adequately
Feigl begins by asserting that the common perception of incompatibility between science and the humanities results
from misconceptions regarding the philosophical foundations of both. He draws an important distinction between
the pure mathematical sciences, and the factual or empirical sciences which due to the very fact that these latter
sciences are not freed from attachment to empirical fact, will never achieve the certainty or complete exactitude of
the former. “Warranted assertibility or probability is all that we can conceivably secure in the sciences that deal
with the facts of experience” (54). This is a fair claim, as can be exemplified by the discussion of Peirce by which
belief is usually altered by experience, and any beliefs we form through the scientific method we must consider as
subject to alteration should further experience call these beliefs into question. This is not the case with
mathematical beliefs, however, as they are of a purely formal nature and we can never have an experience which
calls into doubt that truth of a statement such as 2 + 2 = 4 (unless we are living under an Ingsoc regime).
The aims of science being description, explanation, and prediction, Feigl claims that science is a perfectly
legitimate approach to those fields of inquiry which are normally considered unscientific. “History, often and
nowadays quite fashionably declared an art, is scientific to the extent that it ascertains its facts concerning past
events by a meticulous scrutiny of present evidence. Causal interpretation of these facts (in history, but similarly
also in psychology, sociology, cultural anthropology, and economics) is usually much more difficult than, but in
principal not logically different from, causal interpretation (that is, explanation) in the natural sciences” (54). Feigl’
s essential claim is simply that because these supposedly unscientific fields of study such as history and sociology
have the same basic aims as science (namely description, explanation, and prediction) there should be no reason
to discount the application of a scientific approach to the acquisition of knowledge in regards to them.
Feigl then lists five of the most basic standards central to the idea of scientific inquiry and shows how they are not
only applicable but desirable in the study of humanities. The first, Intersubjective Testability, attempts to free all
knowledge claims from personal or cultural bias by requiring that all such claims be capable of some degree of
verification through observation or experimentation. The second is Reliability, or a Sufficient Degree of
Confirmation, which is merely the requirement to distinguish between mere opinion or superstition and well-
substantiated belief. When it comes to the humanities, Feigl admits, this distinction may only be a matter of
degree, but the requirement is nevertheless invaluable in determining the relative strength of knowledge claims.
The third is Definiteness and Precision, which is most easily determined in quantitative studies but on the
qualitative level merely requires that all vagueness in explanation be kept to a minimum. Fourth is Coherence or
Systematic Structure, which requires that facts in an explanation be well-connected rather than miscellaneous
pieces of information assembled more or less arbitrarily. “On the descriptive level this results, for example, in
systems of classification or division, in diagrams, statistical charts and the like. On the explanatory levels of
science sets of laws, or theoretical assumptions, are utilized” (56).
Finally, Comprehensiveness of Scope of Knowledge characterises scientific knowledge as different from
common-sense knowledge. For example, thanks to sophisticated tools such as telescopes and microscopes we
know far more about the realms of the very large and the very small than common sense could ever tell us. This
also deals with one of the most important aspects of science, which is the openness it has to revising its knowledge
claims should better tools bring about more accurate observations and call into question any of our previously held
common-sense notions. “This self-corrective aspect of science has rightly been stressed as its most important
characteristic and must always be kept in mind when we refer to the comprehensiveness or the unification
achieved by the scientific account of the universe” (57).
In the second part of this text, Feigl offers twelve commonly held objections when it comes to using the scientific
approach, and responds to each of them. Because I find most of these objections rather frivolous I will consider
only half, leaving the only objection I believe he fails to defeat until the end.
One of the weakest objections Feigl considers is that of Traditionalism, namely that because science is unstable
and constantly changing its views, it cannot furnish a secure basis for human affairs. Feigl points out that while
scientific explanations are constantly undergoing modification, it is very rare that a revolution comes along to
completely shatter an entire explanatory framework. He also asserts that this criticism presupposes that certainty
may be found in other sources, which he rejects as an “immature, if not infantile, trait of thinking” (58).
A somewhat better objection is that science can deal only with the measurable and tends to “explain away”
anything that can not be measured. Feigl responds by pointing out that measurement is helpful but not necessary
when it comes to explaining the qualities of experience. Science does not merely try to explain these qualities
away but aims to make them more predictable. I believe an example would be helpful to better clarify this point,
so I will offer one. In history one cannot accurately measure the causes of war, but by taking a scientific approach
to examining all factors that tend to lead to this circumstance, we will have a better chance of recognising when
war is in danger of breaking out.
A different sort of objection is offered from an ethical standpoint, accusing science of being responsible for many
of the evils of the modern world. More powerful weapons and advancement in scientific techniques have caused
a great deal of suffering. It is also asserted that the study of evolution has led to a negation of morality, the
doctrine of “survival of the fittest” having been used to justify all sorts of atrocities. While this objection on the
surface appears to have some force, Feigl rightly claims that it is a misdirection of responsibility. “It is the social-
political-economic structure of a society that is responsible for these various evils. Scientific knowledge itself is
socially and morally neutral” (59). To put it simply, the knowledge of atomic energy is not to blame for its being
put to use for destructive purposes, but rather those in power who choose to utilize that knowledge in this way are
responsible. In regards to evolution, Feigl points out that the facts of evolution can and have been interpreted in
many different ways in regards to ethics. I believe this is a satisfactory reply to the objection, as I believe ideology
often comes secondary to purpose, and that if one does not have the doctrine of “survival of the fittest” to justify
an atrocity such as genocide, one will simply appeal to something else.
A particularly sensible objection is that the cold and impersonal scientific approach can never replace the intuitive
insight or empathic understanding from which many of our present-day theories of psychology and cultural
anthropology have been derived. Feigl responds by claming that there is nothing in science which denies the use
of intuitive judgments (indeed all hypotheses are formed through some manner of intuition) provided these
judgments are based on a solid background of experience. Furthermore, the scientific approach is the best
method we have to determine the reliability of the intuitive judgments being made.
The final objection Feigl deals with is a claim which he admits is valid but insists can be overcome—that science
cannot determine values, and by its very nature can only tell us what is and never what ought to be. Feigl
concedes the inability of the scientific approach to set any standards of morality, but insists that mankind ought to
determine its own values based on the facts of the social condition of man. While science may not be able to
dictate value standards, it can recommend ways of harmonising conflicting evaluations of various social groups
through careful study of their compatibilities and incompatibilities. The principles of science can not give us the
answers but it can help guide us to them. “Common life experiences and wisdom, when freed from its adherence
to prescientific thought patterns, is not fundamentally different from scientific knowledge. In both we find the
procedure of self-correction, so essentially needed if knowledge is to be a guide for action…progress arises out
of the peaceful competition of ideas as they are put to intersubjective test” (61). So here we once again find an
example of the virtue of uncertainty, namely when it comes to morality. We have a better chance of determining a
universal set of values if we apply the scientific principle of openness to self-correction which in this case manifests
itself as a willingness to consider other points of view.
I now return to the one objection I believe is not sufficiently addressed by Feigl, which is a reformulation of the
objection I offered in regards to Peirce’s claim that the scientific approach is the best method of acquiring
knowledge—that science does not explain but merely describes the phenomena of experience, and that the reality
beyond appearances is beyond the reach of science. Questions concerning the deeper nature of morality or the
metaphysical status of consciousness, for instance, are certainly not irrelevant in regards to the issues with which
the humanities are concerned, and to these questions science can give us no answer. Feigl believes that this is
beside the point. “Questions which are in principle incapable of being answered by the scientific method turn out,
on closer analysis, not to be questions of knowledge. They are expressions of emotional tensions or of the wish
for soothing (or exciting) experience” (59).
I find this to be a gross oversimplification of the nature of this objection. While it is true that the deep questions
regarding the nature and purpose of existence are certainly loaded with emotion and are irrevocably tied to our
desire for meaningful experience, this does not imply that they are somehow less valid as questions than the
factual questions which science can address. When I ask whether good and evil are fundamental aspects of the
universe, I am not merely expressing my desire that there should be a concrete source of goodness, but I am
really making an inquiry which I believe is quite legitimate. Not only that, but this sort of question is absolutely
essential if we desire a full and complete understanding of the nature of psychology or human history. Can we
explain human thought or the course of civilization in terms of their proximity to the good, or must we make this
approach from a nihilistic standpoint?
The question of free will is perhaps the most fundamental when it comes to the humanities, and this is an issue
which science is hopeless to resolve. If the universe operates according to definite causes with definite results,
and everything proceeds from a fixed beginning to a predetermined ending without the slightest chance of
variation, this would lead to an account of history not only different from but fundamentally opposed to one
which would presuppose that human beings determine their own actions and that history could have—in
principle—unfolded quite differently than the way in which it has.
But in spite of this, I do agree with Feigl’s essential claim that the humanities are not incompatible with a scientific
approach to knowledge, and that the basic principles of science can be quite useful in offering descriptions,
explanations, and predictions in these various fields. I only hold to the conviction that in spite of all of the strengths
of the scientific method, it can never give us a complete picture, and that in formulating any theory of human affairs
we must allow for non-scientific explanations provided we recognise the high degree of uncertainty inherent in all