Ron Dai, PHD
Human cultural activities are rich and varied, and they could all be broadly classified into the categories of art, philosophy, science, theology, literature, and mathematics, or combinations of some of these categories. These basic categories not only have different logical roots of their own, but also correspond to different characteristics of human thinking. This article discusses how we could better understand the differences and connections between basic constituents of human cultural activities, by taking into consideration of factors of language, use of data, the way of thinking. The severe negative consequence of ignorance of relationships between the fundamental cultural constituents for our civilization is also discussed.
Keywords: art, philosophy, science, theology, literature, mathematics, culture, logic, language
In a broad sense, the so-called culture is referring to the general way of living in a society, which might be recorded and reflected in different forms of intellectual works. Human activities are the basis of any culture, and human activities can be roughly divided into physical activity and mental activity. Since physical activity is governed by the mind, even when discussing categories of physical activity people would focus on the different forms of their mental guidance, rather than the intensity of physical activity itself. For example, although swimming and ball activities are all physical activities, but what determines their different forms is the mental activity behind body movements: when in the water the human mind would guide the body to swim and when in a ball game the human mind would guide the body to make movements of playing the ball game. Therefore, when we analyze the basic classification of civilization, it is more meaningful for us to focus on the characteristics of the mental activity involved rather than the characteristics of physical activity.
Human culture could be abstracted as a network of infinite dimensions of concepts. Those dimensions are not completely independent but are intertwined with each other; correspondingly, the separation of cultural constituents is also relative. Different cultural constituents are logically coupled and mutually influenced in a very complicated way. Human beings grasp knowledge about the differences between those constituents naturally as each constituent was gradually formed through history. But during this naturally happened process, some misunderstandings about the relationships between those constituents also occurred due to the complicacy involved. Although it seems that we could easily identify different cultural constituents in everyday life by the contrast between the respective representative characteristics of each constituent, misunderstandings as a result of complicacy could cause social confusion about the relationships between those constituents. That confusion could severely impact the development of human civilization in a negative way, and this has not been aware by the world and its leaders.
Since language is the most fundamental element of all human social activities, let’s start our discussion with the corresponding relationship between human mind and language.
2. Art and General Philosophy
The capacity to think is what differentiates human from any other species on earth. Language is not only the basic medium of human social activity, but also a basic tool of human thinking. Therefore, the different ways of using language would be reflected in the characteristics of different intellectual activities, and thus could be used as one basic criterion for classification of human cultural activities. In the first chapter of Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu pointed out: "Thus when it is not named, we would like to sense it through its effects; and when it is named, we could see its boundary." This sentence tells us that human knowledge of an object is developed through a process from no name to named in such a way: For anything without a name, we could sense the existence of that thing by our sensation of its effects (i.e. light, heat, taste, or abstract social logic, etc. that we might sense from it); once anything is given a name, we would be able to better perceive it by its contours and details of its existence, as well as the limitations of our language description about the existence. This argument provided by Lao Tzu is obviously consistent with our life experience. In fact, in that sentence Lao Tzu identified two basic categories of human thinking: linguistic thinking and non-linguistic thinking. Based on these two basic categories of thinking we might further classify human culture into art and general philosophy.
We need to highlight three issues: First of all, the category of general philosophy as named above not only covers the discipline that we normally refer to by the word "philosophy" but also covers the disciplines of science, theology, literature, mathematics and other systems that require systematic use of language. The main difference between art and these disciplines is that although the creative process of an artist also involves many techniques that could be expressed by use of language, the creation of every single artistic work would involve some unspeakable artistic sense of the artist; and the artistic talent (including the artistic talent of language usage) special to each person mainly lies in the realm which cannot be reached by completely following the instructions by language. Thus we might characterize the constituent category of art as a social activity of non-linguistic thinking, in contrast to the grand category of other disciplines of linguistic thinking.
Secondly, the division of art and philosophy exists naturally just as the division between two basic categories of thinking pointed by Lao Tzu.
Thirdly, the classification of cultural activities discussed in this writing is based upon the main characteristic of each constituent, not by drawing sharp lines between different territories, which means that activities within each cultural constituent might be overlapped with activities in other cultural constituents. This is because human social activities are always full of complexities, and thus division between different constituents, whether it was formed naturally over history or defined artificially, could not be an absolutely exclusive division as between chemical elements, but rather a fuzzy separation with each other mutually infiltrated. For example, although an artistic creation process would frequently involve unspeakable senses, the existence of the art schools itself could tell that some characteristics of previously unspeakable senses could be captured by use of language gradually and then some previously pure artistic processes would be elevated to philosophically comprehended procedures; meanwhile artistic use of the text is also a valuable skill of philosophical writing.
The reason why we might make the classification of cultural activities by use of the main characteristic of each constituent could be better understood by analogy with human face sketch. A grand master might show the lifelike face of a person with a few strokes because he is able to catch the basic characteristics of a face. Similarly, the key for us to defining (or comprehend) a cultural constituent here is to seize its main characteristic in comparison with others.
Fourthly, although for a given cultural activity people could very naturally determine whether it belongs to the category of art or not (i.e. belongs to the category of philosophy as discussed above), the clear distinction between art and the general philosophy has never been easy over history. Very often we might hear professional artists or even professional philosophers are confused about what is the distinction between art and philosophy. This is because it was not realized that the essence of the difference between them is the use of language.
3. Philosophy and Science
One important reason why we could frame a multitude of disciplines, such as philosophy, science, literature, theology and mathematics into a grand category of general philosophy as named previously is because that traditionally those disciplines were either part of philosophy or considered closely related to philosophy. Within this general philosophy category, the division between science and philosophy is of a special importance not only because traditionally the natural boundary between these two ancient fields have been always vague but also because confusion about the relationship between them has become a cultural root of many serious social crises today.
Although the history for both philosophy and science could go back to thousands of years ago, the subject matters of many modern sciences were traditionally territories of philosophy. In fact, philosophy has nurtured the seeds of many sciences and then given them birth when they were ready to become independent. Besides, philosophy has also been providing directional guidance to the development of science since ancient time. On the other hand, philosophy has kept drawing fresh strength from scientific discoveries and making replenishment of its own repository of knowledge from metaphysical summaries of scientific achievements. That has been the common knowledge about the relationship between philosophy and science for centuries. However, what is missing in the above picture about the relationship between philosophy and science is a clear description about the logical line that could be used to clearly separate the territory of science and philosophy. This vagueness about the distinction between philosophy and science is one important reason (among many other reasons) that led to the announcements of the death of philosophy by renowned figures in the communities of philosophy and science.
While professionals are focusing on philosophy as a professional discipline when discussing whether philosophy is dead or not, when facing the threat from the rising sciences, our civilization is actually affected by philosophy in many different ways at different levels of life. No one would deny the value of philosophical thinking for this world including for scientific work even if philosophy would have been truly dead as a profession. Strictly speaking, even though the public might often view the profession of philosophy equivalent to philosophy itself, the significance of philosophy as a cultural constituent of our civilization is determined by the role and logical position of philosophical thinking and methods as well as relevant theories in the civilization.
In this article I would not focus on philosophy as profession, but would discuss the characteristic of philosophy as a cultural constituent in human civilization, within which the professional philosophy is a subset. In real life, people could naturally judge whether certain cultural activities belong to science or philosophy, just as with arts and general philosophy as I discussed earlier; nonetheless, there still has been great confusion about the relationship between philosophy and science. One of the most important causes of the confusion about the relationship between philosophy and science is the lack of clarity about the positions and roles of philosophy and science in civilization. This lack of knowledge has a long history, but becomes even more serious with the development of modern sciences.
Then how should we look at the difference and connection between science and philosophy? In fact, the development of modern technology and economic system provides us with a good perspective about the relationship between science and philosophy:
Science relies on data, whether calculated of a formula or results of numerical simulations, or production records, or obtained from laboratories, or collected from natural observations, or those of statistically significance (e.g. the results collected by poll questionnaires); in short, the establishment, verification, and application of scientific theories are all dependent on data. But philosophy only relies on purely logical speculation, not on data.
The logical speculation mentioned above is not just logical reasoning in a narrow sense, but a broader mental activity including logical reasoning, which might also be called philosophize. There are two points that need special notice. First, is logical speculation required in science? Of course yes. But if the content of a discipline does not involve any data or mathematical formulas other than logical speculation, then it becomes a field in philosophy rather than a science. Second, although the establishment and development of science and technology depends on data, scientific conclusions and knowledge are often expressed in qualitative form, which is the overlap of science and philosophy (a typical example is a variety of popular science literature at different levels of difficulty). In addition, in the social field, the meaning of the data mentioned here is not limited to computable values, but also involves other forms of data, such as strings, used in the IT industry.
The above criterion could be used very effectively to judge whether an article or a project or a specific professional field belongs to philosophical or scientific category. In fact, in ancient Greece philosophy was regarded as the source of wisdom (or love for wisdom) and science the system of reliable knowledge. In other words, according to ancient Greeks, the essence of philosophy is wisdom, while the essence of science has two basic aspects: knowledge and reliability. This should be the starting point for us to identify philosophy and science. It is not hard to see that the criteria for identifying science and philosophy as mentioned above, which is based on the dependence on data or pure logical speculation, are obviously in line with the basic characteristics between philosophy and science laid down by ancient Greeks. The reason why the ancients did not put forward the criteria mentioned here would be because the concept of "data" has never been so important and obvious as today. Philosophy should advance with the times, and this article is an effort to help philosophy to advance with the times.
It is also important to note that, although science has been considered as a vocation to provide reliable knowledge since ancient Greece, this does not mean that scientific knowledge is always reliable. For example, from time to time we might hear some reports from some medical or pharmaceutical experts that some theories that were considered correct a few years ago are wrong now. Therefore, the reliability (of science) itself is relative. Some people might insist that science as a whole is reliable based upon some scientific principles, such as repeatability and falsifiability. Such an assertion is itself relative as well because as to any repeatable and falsifiable instance you cannot guarantee that it will be reliable; otherwise there will not be the previously mentioned phenomenon that scientific conclusions are constantly updated.
Nonetheless, ideally speaking, it seems that we might just naturally use scientific methods when we need to and make philosophical speculations when we need to as well, and thus it seems that there is no base at all for having the criteria of distinguishing science from philosophy, or even no need to bother with the categorization of cultural constituents at all. However, the problem is that we do not live in an ideal world, but live in a real world. One of the most fundamental problems in real social life is the allocation of resources, and those who have the power to allocate resources normally do not understand or even do not intend to understand when to use science or when to use philosophy. They only need some formal authoritative statements about the meanings and values of science and philosophy, and then make their decisions to allocate resources in accordance with those statements. Therefore, if the main stream society is overwhelmed by the idea that philosophy is no longer useful, they would then reduce the resource allocation to philosophy. One of the simplest examples is that, because philosophy as a discipline has been repeated announced dead by academic authorities and declining, in many websites, including some namely academic websites, we could not find philosophy in their list of subjects. Although setting up such a subject type actually only involve very limited extra resources (it might just be that the programmer adds one more metadata to the database), but as a consequence of the societal derogatory attitude towards philosophy, people do not want to assign any resources, even in the smallest sense, to philosophy as an independent category in many places.
Therefore, if philosophy, as a logical category, still has an irreplaceable and extremely important position in the continuation of human civilization, then there should be a formal way to articulate the value of its existence so that those, who have the power to decide on the allocation of resources but do not personally understand the value of philosophy, would not arbitrarily cancel the allocation of resources to philosophy. However, in order to let the public to clear about the value of philosophy we need to clarify their confusion that science could replace philosophy with its big data and super power as many people have thought today. We need to show them the irreplaceable special role of philosophy in civilization, which is what behind the motivation of this writing.
But on the other hand, as we know that scientific work (especially the avant-garde theoretical work of physics) is full of logical speculation and philosophy itself often cites scientific conclusions. In fact, in any particular scientific research process no one could completely rule out philosophical speculations, just like no one could completely rule out philosophical thinking in everyday life; meanwhile, metaphysical enlightenment based upon scientific achievements are main sources for new philosophical advances, and scientific conclusions cited in philosophical writings actually have become philosophical knowledge. This intertwining situation between science and philosophy would make it apparently impossible to divide science and philosophy as I am trying to do in this writing.
For this we need to be clear about the difference between the cultural categorization at the level of the disciplines and the relationship of different types of thinking for any specific mental process. The criteria for categorizing cultural constituents proposed in this article are based upon the roles or logical positions of those constituents in human civilization. Therefore, when we come to judge whether a project belongs to philosophy or science, we would not attempt to strictly exclude philosophizing from a scientific project or exclude scientific knowledge from a philosophical project. Rather we should base our judgment upon whether the primary methodology of the project is data collection or purely logical speculation. Similarly, when we judge one specific discipline is a philosophical type discipline or a scientific type discipline, we should apply the same way of thinking. Generally speaking, a project could be a combination of scientific and philosophical ones, and some interdisciplinary disciplines could also include be a mix of philosophical and scientific practices.
Many people diminished the value of philosophy after science rises up for that philosophy does not have a clearly repeatable or falsifiable standard as science, and as a result we cannot distinguish between true wisdom and sophistry. However, as we have seen through this discussion so far that the fundamental value of philosophy is to provide wisdom, and correspondently the key to judge good and bad philosophy is the logical resonance (or intellectual resonance) between readers and writers, which require much higher intellectual standard than identifying the authenticity in science. This requirement of high standard is the main cause for the general lack of ability to judge good and bad philosophy without hard criteria as in science. But if the right of existence of philosophy as a discipline is denied simply for that the discernment of a good philosophy demands a higher level of mental capacity, it would be not only an absurd coward's thought, but also a violation of the basic human principle of pursuing truth. For thousands of years, human civilization has been moving forward as the result of struggle between truth and fallacy to move forward even though for discerning good and bad philosophy requires a high standard of ability. Unfortunately, over the past century or so many people in the mainstream of the world have been trying to use the so-called positivist way of thinking to deny the value of the existence of philosophy for its lack of hard criteria for judging good and bad theories. Consequently, human civilization as a whole has paid a huge sum of the cost for the stalling of the development of philosophy. Nonetheless, because science and philosophy are not two mutually exclusive disciplines but two complementary disciplines, not only science needs to use philosophical speculation and philosophy needs to use scientific conclusions, but also we could surely use science to verify the correctness of philosophical theories, which would make up to a large extent the general lack of high level of philosophical thinking ability.
Then the question is whether the lack of understanding of the characteristic distinction between science and philosophy as proposed in this paper would be harmful to human civilization? Yes, and also great. This is not alarmist, but a warning about a grim reality that the leaders of the world have not well recognized. It is typical around the world today that people often spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do some large-scale project using scientific methods, based upon the so-called big data calculation, but then end up with economic recession rather than prosperity. The cause behind this type of phenomena is the derogatory attitude towards the role of philosophy in social practices and over dependence on scientific means. People made this kind of high-level errors, which seem to be too simple from the results, because they failed to recognize that the dividing line between philosophy and science is the fact that philosophy relies on purely logical speculation and science depends on data.
Social practices without the guidance of advanced philosophical thinking, regardless of super capacity and high accuracy of data collection, might fail due to the error in their directions. The reason why advanced philosophical thinking is generally missing in nowadays social practices is because of the lack of people who are talented in this aspect. There are two main reasons for the lack of philosophically talented people in nowadays society: 1) dereliction of duty of professionals in the field of philosophy; 2) the bias in social selection and education as a result of the neglect of the importance of philosophy at the societal level.
4. Theology and Philosophy
While theists and atheists disagree with each other in their beliefs throughout the world, even atheists would not deny the fact that religious beliefs have a profound and significant impact on human civilization. The theoretical system corresponding to religious belief is called theology.
According to Bertrand Russell, philosophy is something intermediate between theology and science. When discussing the division of philosophy and science earlier, I mentioned that philosophy depends on logical speculation. The logical speculation here is not the logical reasoning in a narrow sense, but the so-called philosophize. The main difference between the logical speculation and the logical reasoning in a narrow sense is that metaphysical thinking in the logical speculation as named here is normally informative and initiative, not just limited to logic derivation based on the information contained within the original knowledge. And philosophers, in their enlightening or ground-breaking metaphysical thinking, often rely on some sparks of wisdom coming to their mind in a mental status that is generally called inspiration.
The fundamental difference between theology and the other disciplines is that the basis of theology is neither general logic nor data analysis, but supernatural revelation. In general, there are two levels of revelations: one is the general doctrine level and one is the everyday personal life level. We might see that philosophy is close to theology in sense that inspirations in the creative work of philosophers are often very spontaneous and not follow any strict logical line of human reasoning, which share some mental similarity with the form of personal revelations when they come to human mind. Actually for those philosophers who do receive personal level revelations during everyday life, they might feel that the inspirations for their philosophical work and the revelations for their faith life could often be united as the same.
Besides, although theology is primarily based on revelation, theological discourse often employs a large amount of logical reasoning. In connection with our previous discussion of the relationship between philosophy and science, we can see that Russell's claim that philosophy is a domain between theology and science is reasonable.
5. Literature and Philosophy
A typical example of the close relationship between literature and philosophy is that the Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to a number of philosophers, including Bertrand Russell mentioned above, for their philosophical contribution to humanity. Very often, people could enjoy profound or inspiring philosophy of life from the literature books they read, and good writers often get their reputation for the philosophical insight provided in their works. Besides, one of the basic commonalities between literature and philosophy is that both are using language as their professional tool, and thus the creative and refining work on the use of words by literary writers would also provide a better tool for the creation of philosophical theories by philosophers.
However, the difference between literature and philosophy as disciplines is also obvious: literature focuses on the use of words without regard to the rigor of logic, literature allows fiction, and philosophy focuses on logical speculation.
6. Mathematics and Science and Philosophy
Mathematics is most closely related to science because mathematics is a fundamental tool for the data-dependent science. However, the boundary between mathematics and science is also evident: mathematics deals with relationships that are numerically meaningful or can be expressed in numerical meaningful ways, whereas science needs to provide explanations of the natural and social phenomena of real world.
Mathematics is also often associated with philosophy, not only because, like any other discipline, mathematics itself is the object of philosophical research, but also because, like philosophy, mathematics is highly dependent on logical thinking. However, the boundary between mathematics and philosophy is simple and clear: mathematics is only concerned with numerically meaningful relationship, while philosophy cares about the relations between all being(s).
7. Non-Science/Quasi-Science and philosophy
From the previous discussion we have learned that among science and philosophy, since ancient times, the value of science is providing the society with a reliable knowledge system while the value of philosophy is providing people with wisdom to explore and understand the relational logic of being(s); however, human beings do not always acquire knowledge through the so-called reliable ways or by very wise speculations. A large amount of human knowledge has been the good sediment out of unreliable erroneous information relayed from person to person in everyday life after all the fake part were eliminated; also a large amount of human knowledge has been obtained through some approaches that are conditionally reliable only under very specific circumstances but cannot be simply promoted to generally reliable accesses to truth. Even the reliability of science is relative, which can be seen from the fact that old scientific conclusions continue to be replaced by new scientific conclusions. Besides, social practices that would normally be considered as scientific might also involve something that definitely doesn’t belong to authentic scientific activity. For example, scientists often acquire important insights from informal interpersonal conversations which help them to make significant progress in their scientific research, but those conversations obviously cannot be categorized as strict science. Therefore, while a clearer definition of an idealized discipline such as science or philosophy can help us to allocate social resources more effectively so as to facilitate the use of scientific or philosophical methods to help people acquire truth or solve problems, we should not naively exclude practices that do not fall into ideal categories of science and philosophy completely from feasible options for people to access knowledge and solve problems.
What we should do is not denying the diversity of human civilization, rather, is to emphasize that scientific methods could help people to improve the reliability of the acquired knowledge and philosophical knowledge and training could help people to better understand and the logic and various existences in life more intelligently. We need to tell people that the violation of scientific principles in life could often lead to bad or even catastrophic consequences, rather than denying the diversity of ways and means by which human beings could acquire knowledge and solve problems. Neither should we attempt to expand the boundary of science unlimitedly nor should we even attempt to apply scientific methods to treat all aspects of human civilization. We should never attempt to make the so-called scientific transformation of philosophy and literature.
In real life, when people are lack of scientific means and the capacity of high level philosophical thinking, some simple practical ways could be feasible options. Since many of that kind of practices cannot be called scientific for they do not meet formal scientific standards (i.e. repeatability and falsifiability, etc.) and thus we might classify them as non-science. For the non-scientific class, even though we also are aware that they might not be very reliable without further logical scrutiny or some scientific examination, we should not rule out their validity under certain circumstances. The reliability of various non-scientific activities will increase when the proportion of scientific methods and strict logical thinking involved increases; so we might call those non-scientific activities with relative high reliability as quasi-science.
It is important to emphasize that, while non-scientific activities should not be excluded from valid options of human access to knowledge and effective solutions to problems, false philosophy, as opposed to truly effective philosophy, should be rejected as a highly undesirable way of thinking for life or academic activity. Here the so-called false philosophy refers to the use of futile word games or the wrong logic of thinking. All human activities are carried out under the guidance or influence of people's mental activities, and therefore systematically expressed seemingly reasonable but invalid word games or the wrong logic would lead to failure or disaster, and thus must be rejected. So even when acquiring knowledge or solving problems through non-scientific activities we should use wisdom and follow right logic, that is, even non-scientific activities need correct philosophical thinking.
8. Closing words
Human cultural activities are rich and varied, but they could all be broadly classified into the categories of art, philosophy, science, theology, literature, and mathematics, or combinations of some of these categories. Although as we have mentioned above, a large part of everyday activity might not fall into any of the basic constituents mentioned above but could be call non-scientific or quasi-scientific, if we focus on the effective ingredients in these activities, we could still roughly classify many of them as scientific or philosophical. For example, politics and economics are often classified as philosophical and scientific. People might tend to view them as branches of philosophy for their logical complexity and the consequent reliance on a high level of speculation; but on the other hand, they might also be naturally classified as science for their dependence upon the reliability of data to a great extent.
Philosophy is special in all cultural constituents discussed in this writing since all other constituents are objects of philosophical research, and for this reason the discourse in this writing is laid out around the relationships between philosophy and other individual constituents…..
 解譯《道德經》需要理性分析，戴榕菁，香港人文文庫, 2015.12，URL: http://www.hkshp.org/modernhumanities/201512/2015-12-19dai_rong_qing.htm
 To be listed later
 The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking, by M Heidegger, 1969 URL：http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/heidegger8a.htm
 The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life，by S Hawking and L Mlodinow,2010, London: Bantam Press, 2010
 The History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, 1945