(I am from an engineering background and know very little about liberal arts and humanity programs, so I apologize in advance if my question sounds condescending or ignorant.)

I am often puzzled as to how academicians in the humanities (<- corrected) such as philosophy or religious study or in other branches of liberal arts, apply or integrate what we usually think of as "hard sciences" such as mathematics or physics into their studies. This is partially motivated by the plethora of questions on academia stackexchange asking about the feasibility of switching between from one to the other and vice versa, such as,

Teaching philosophy with a PhD in math

Changing field from Computer Science to Philosophy

I have two main questions:

  • I am not certain as to the difference between, for example, a computer scientist like Stephen Cook, versus a philosopher of computer science (there is certainly no shortage of philosophizing computer science, see https://www.scottaaronson.com/papers/philos.pdf). In particular, could your average researcher or a student studying the philosophy of computer science feasibly come up with new results in computer science or theorems on complexity theory?

  • Are there well-publicized research performed by religious scholars or philosophers that actually inform or advances or guides the development of mainstream theory in say astrophysics, biology, medicine, mathematics, etc.?

While I am aware that these titles are not mutually exclusive, i.e., a student of philosophy may well have a background in mathematics and vice versa, ultimately I am not certain about how subjects such as mathematics and physics can be made relevant to philosophy (or other areas). This has kept me wondering about the hypothetical questions: what would Kant say about string theory? What would Spinoza say about ZFC? What would Kierkegaard say about neural networks? Or the other way around, in what ways can quantum computing inform phenomenology?

  • 5
    Mathematics and branches of philosophy like logic are very closely related. One could even argue that mathematics is a branch of philosophy. Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 8:53
  • Your second question reminded me of Georges Lemaître. He was a Catholic priest and also a famous cosmologist who came up with the idea of the big bang. If you will allow “religious scholar” to be interpreted as “scholar who was also a religious figure”, that would make a good answer to your question, but I doubt that this is what you meant.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 9:32
  • Correctly, I hope... as a direct answer to the title question...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 15:07
  • 4
    In the US, the term “soft science” refers to social sciences (economics, sociology, psychology) and sometimes biological sciences (biology, botany, zoology) but never to philosophy or religious studies. Those are almost universally classified as humanities. Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 15:49
  • See for example philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2304/…
    – GEdgar
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 18:45

5 Answers 5


First, a historical note: The idea that philosophy and mathematics are separate fields is a recent invention. A few hundred years ago, they were spoken of as one and the same. If you go back even further to the 16th century, physics becomes part of that same field, and even further back the term “philosophy” referred to any systemic investigation whose result was knowledge. For example, Newton’s great work was titled Principles of Natural Philosophy (in Latin) and while Aristotle more famously wrote on ethics and metaphysics, he also wrote on zoology, logic, physics, and biological taxonomy amongst other topics. Herodotus (primarily a historian by modern standards) and Hippocrates (a primarily a physician) were both considered philosophers. Herodotus wrote important religious theory in his history books and Hippocrates wrote important ethical ideas in his medical works (ask any western doctor about the “Hippocratic Oath”). These didn’t seem like digressions and interludes to contemporary readers. These were all works addressing topics of philosophy.

  1. What is the difference between the Philosophy of Computer Science and Computer Science?

Roughly, science studies X and the philosophy of science studies people who study X, ideas about X, and the connection between X and other philosophical questions. Topics in the philosophy of X (for every science) include questions that define the scope and nature of the field, as well as its epistemic standards such as research methods and standards of evidence.

Three examples of questions along these lines are:

  1. In physics, there is generally a preference for a theory that possesses “mathematical elegance” over one that appears to be more ad hoc, even when the two theories have identical observed evidence. Is having this preference legitimate? If so, can it be justified based on the practice of physics alone or does it require appeal to other principles (maybe ontological principles, or epistemic ones)?
  2. In computer science, one studies computers and computation. Given an object, how do you tell if it’s a computer? What does it mean to solve something “via a computation” or “via an algorithm” as opposed to via other means?
  3. In physics, one studies the physical properties of objects. Someone might be tempted to say that mathematics analogously studies the mathematical properties of objects. However, we are used to thinking of physical properties as being those embodied by physical objects that exists in physical space (that is, mass is a property of this ball that exists in the world). Is there an analogous sense in which mathematical properties are embodied by mathematical objects that exist in mathematical space?

Over the course of the investigation of these topics, topic-specific questions tend to crop up. Contemporary philosophy of mathematics is extremely concerned with ontological and epistemological questions, while contemporary philosophy of medicine is primarily concerned with ethical issues and the philosophy of biology involves questions about the precise nature of life and the implications of extraterrestrial life.

It’s quite possible that someone could be an expert in subjects like this and not be able to do cutting edge mathematics and physics, though answering these questions certainly requires a substantial knowledge of the fields of science you are analyzing.

  1. Are there well-publicized research performed by religious scholars or philosophers that actually inform or advances or guides the development of mainstream theory in say astrophysics, biology, medicine, mathematics, etc.?

The answer historically is yes, even setting aside the historical note I opened with. Thales, Aristotle, Alhazen, Ptolemy the Second, and Jean Buridan are all famous people who would be considered philosophers by today’s standards who made substantial contributions to physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, mathematics, and other fields of science. If you’re looking for more recent contributions it’s more difficult.

There seems to be a historical bias in categorizing people as scientists when they did both science and philosophy (by modern standards). Although he’s far more famous for his work on calculus, Leibniz was also a very influential philosopher, and probably more influential as a philosopher in his time than as a mathematician. You’ve probably heard of his theory that we live in the “best of all possible worlds,” because an all powerful and all good god wouldn’t let us live in anything else. These ideas were so influential in his day that Voltaire became famous in part for attacking Leibniz’s philosophy, such as in his book Candide. Einstein, Minkowski, Turing, and Nash all did philosophy, but that aspect of their work is less well-known to the general public.

There are some people who are widely classified as philosophers who made substantial scientific advances in recent times. The work of the logician Gottlob Frege (1848 - 1925) was ignored in mathematics for a while, but the mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Giuseppe Peano would revolutionize mathematics by introducing axiomatic systems of logic and arithmetic grounded in Frege’s work. Linguistics is an example of a science that recently grew out of a field of philosophy, and so many recent philosophers have had substantial impacts on linguistics, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 - 1951) and Saul Kripke (1940 - Present). The philosopher of mind and philosopher of language David Chalmers (1966 - Present) is hugely influential in the development of fields of computer science such as artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. Chalmers is one of those people whose ideas are used to benchmark and understand developments in AI, as he has written extensively on the concept of intelligence and coined the term “the hard problem of consciousness.”

David Hume (1711 - 1776) wrote a book called an Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding which is undoubtedly one of the 10 most influential philosophical works ever written in the West. Although it’s impact is most prominent in philosophy (Kant famously claimed that it woke him from his “dogmatic slumber”), it also was highly relevant to scientists and the sciences. Einstein had the following to say about it in a letter to Moritz Schlick, 14 December 1915

You have also correctly seen that this trend of thought [positivism] was of great influence on my efforts, and specifically E. Mach and still much more Hume, whose treatise on understanding I studied with fervor and admiration shortly before the discovery of the theory of relativity. It is very well possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution.

This wasn’t one of your main points, but I also wanted to address this:

ultimately I am not certain about how subjects such as mathematics and physics can be made relevant to philosophy (or other areas).

They don’t need to be “made relevant to philosophy.” Anything that increases ones understanding of the world is something that is relevant to philosophy. However, one could wonder to what extent the technical details of scientific theories or scientific methods affect philosophy. Like any question about the interdisciplinary use of techniques developed in one field but applied to others, the answer to highly depends on the field of philosophy and the skill of the philosopher, but virtually every scientific advance gets used by some philosophers for something. There are ontologists whose arguments about the philosophy of time that revolve around technical details of Einstein’s theories of relativity, epistemologists who use category theory, philosophers of mind who use results from cutting edge neuroscience research, and ethicists and metaethicists who read and make extensive use of results from social sciences such as economics, behavioral psychology, and decision theory.

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    Newton's a great example. In his own words, he saw his work as "philosophy", but today most folks would find it strange for him to be identified as such. I think that social forces had philosophers who could do technical work identify themselves in such terms, such that "philosopher" evolved into a de facto label used only when someone couldn't claim a technical title.
    – Nat
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 18:13
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    The older meaning of "philosophy" as encompassing "any systematic investigation whose result was knowledge" survives in our times in the phrase "doctor of philosophy", i.e., Ph.D., a degree that can earned by work in any of a wide range of fields of knowledge. Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 18:34

As to your second question,

Are there well-publicized research performed by religious scholars or philosophers that actually inform or advances or guides the development of mainstream theory in say astrophysics, biology, medicine, mathematics, etc.?

I can think of two examples.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy, and it certainly informs and guides the development of theory in science. It furnishes some first principles about how to do science, that are relevant across disciplines. It is also additionally relevant in specific fields like medicine and biology.

Besides influencing how research is conducted, it also is important for determining what is studied and why. For example, if medical research has the goal of saving lives, where did that goal come from? It has a moral/ethical basis.

I'm sure you will find plenty of philosophical and religious research that informs science in this regard (though I'm not an expert and can't easily provide some examples).

It might not be quite what you had in mind, but I do think it satisfies your statement "inform[s] or advances or guides the development of mainstream theory".

Also religion and medicine have some overlap in that they both (often) share a goal of caring for people. Religious thought has some influence in medicine for this reason. For example, chaplains usually have an official role in hospitals, even hospitals that have no religious affiliation.

Religious thought similarly influences some branches of medical research for this reason. There is a healthcare research area in providing "holistic patient care" (meaning caring for all of a patient's needs, not just medical--not to be confused with "holistic medicine" which is typically a term for quackery). Religious thought has some influence in this area.

Again, I'm not an expert, but here is one example of an article on the influence of religion in palliative (end of life) care. Note that it's published in a medical journal, and its authors include a doctor and two religious leaders.


Are there well-publicized research performed by religious scholars or philosophers that actually inform or advances or guides the development of mainstream theory in say astrophysics, biology, medicine, mathematics, etc.?

Philosophers, and religious scholars, have had a tremendous impact on these fields in a number of ways. The most obvious is bioethics - especially in medicine and related fields (public health, veterinary medicine, etc.) the advancement of science is accompanied by potential interventions on populations and individuals. These are inherently ethical and philosophical questions, and do not take place in a purely philosophical vacuum.

Whether a study is ethical, whether an intervention is ethical, and even questions like what is the cost of an intervention are often discussions that involve the humanities. As are things like understanding why people do what they do - I'd argue that medicine and public health have suffered from not paying attention to the social sciences and the humanities more.

Consider this quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

In school, rarely do we learn skepticism, and how political winds can influence it, morphing skepticism into obstinance.

It would be fairly straightforward to argue that this is precisely what the humanities teaches.

I'd also note that a year or so ago at a major conference in my field (infectious diseases), I noticed that every keynote speaker said something in their talk that betrayed a grounding in the liberal arts had influenced their work.


A physicist focuses on physical objects, but a philosopher is not limited to that which is observable as an object. Mathematical knowledge is necessary for mechanical reproduction of a non physical concept. Theoretical mathematics is helpful in understanding something that is already physically manifest or in attempting to create something physical from a concept.

A philosopher can contemplate without the use of mathematics relationships that are not easily measured e.g. those that exist within and between the human species. Although, the more resources we expend to understanding and developing the human species the more likely we will begin to apply mathematics to human behavior. However, we currently expend more resources developing machines to the point of creating machines that mimic human behavior. Why, because we know that the creative capabilities of the human species far exceeds anything else physically that we have general access to.


How do academics in fields like philosophy apply mathematics or physics in their discipline?

They usually don't.

Typically, being a "philosopher" is taken to disclaim one's ability to perform technical work. Anyone who can do both Physics and Philosophy:

  • is a physicist;

  • is not a philosopher;

in mainstream terminology. For example, Albert Einstein is a "physicist"; calling him a "philosopher" would sound strange to many, despite his powerful mastery of Philosophy and the fact that this mastery led to his greatest scientific achievements.

The thing is that you need to study the technical aspect of a field to be competitive in it. The philosophical side is something that you do in your own time.

For example, Einstein studied "Physics" in school. Through his personal studies, he acquired a deeper understanding of it than many of his peers; in some sense, he was a true physicist while many of his peers were more like technicians who worked the abstract machinery others had made for them. But, since he got his PhD in Physics, that's how folks saw him.

Though I used Physics as a specific example above, the same applies to most technical fields, including math, computer science, etc.. In general, if you excel at a technical field, you're identified in terms of that technical field.

@StellaBiderman's answer covers a lot of great points, so I won't repeat them here.

  • Anyone who can do both Physics and Philosophy is a physicist — [citation needed] Not everyone who can do physics does do physics. — is not a philosopher — [citation needed] Now you're just being a snob.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 19:42
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    @JeffE I'm not so into the personal insults thing. I mean, if you'd disagree, I'd love to hear your perspective on it. Just, if you're saying that citations are needed or accusing me of snobbery - not upset - just, what purpose does it serve, ya know? In all honesty, this is my understanding of the situation. If you have additional information that'd improve upon it, I'd be genuinely interested to hear what information you could provide.
    – Nat
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 20:19
  • @JeffE Oh, and to clarify, my point about "is not a philosopher" isn't meant as an insult to physicists (in case that's how it came off). My point was that we don't typically call physicists "philosophers", not that physicists can't do philosophy. I'd meant Einstein as a prime example of this - he was a great philosopher, but we don't call him a "philosopher".
    – Nat
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 20:42
  • What do you mean by “technical work”? Many philosophers do do technical work, by any definition I’m familiar with. Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 21:04
  • @StellaBiderman I meant "technical work" to refer to applied knowledge, e.g. I'd consider Physics to be technical work because it applies knowledge to describe the universe. I'd meant to say that, when people apply their knowledge, they tend to gain a label other than "philosopher" based on how they apply it.
    – Nat
    Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 21:16

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