I am in Tilburg, Netherlands, for a conference on the future of philosophy of science. Ah!, you might say, and what would that look like? I hope to write at least another entry or two in the course of the next few days to give you a flavor of what some of my colleagues here think, but let me start with my own views (not because they are better, but just because I have easy access to my own notes...).
Noted (and notorious) physicist Richard Feynman once quipped that “philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” thereby encapsulating both scientistic arrogance toward a non-scientific discipline and a pernicious misunderstanding that many scientists have about philosophy.
Let me start by noting that the point of ornithology is most definitelynot to be useful to birds, but that despite the fact that birds live their entire lives without even knowing of the existence of ornithology, we as human beings value that particular activity for its intrinsic rewards — both aesthetic and in terms of accrued knowledge and understanding about the world. It is also hard not to point out that the very survival of many bird species may, in fact, partially depend on the research conducted by ornithologists, particularly those interested in conservation biology and whose work informs the decisions of regulatory agencies concerned with species extinction. So much for an ironically flawed analogy, Mr. Feynman.
More seriously, I see the future of philosophy of science along three major lines of inquiry: as an independent discipline that studies scientific reasoning and practice; as a discipline contiguous to theoretical science; and as a crucial simultaneous watchdog and defender of science in the public arena. The first role is rather traditional for philosophy of science, the latter two are more recent developments, and are still very much evolving.
Philosophy of science started out as an independent field of inquiry into how science works, and has been practiced as such for most of the 20th century. This aspect of the discipline is of no particular concern to scientists, unless they wish to inform themselves about what’s “under the hood” of science itself. Contrary to popular perception, philosophers have made much progress in this area, though of course progress in philosophy does not arise from settling empirical questions (that’s science, you know), but rather from the increasing clarification of conceptual issues.
One such issue is the so-called problem of induction, first formulated by David Hume. Induction is the type of reasoning from specific examples to general statements about the world that characterizes much of scientific practice. Hume’s question was how, exactly, do we know that induction is a reliable rational tool. As it turns out, the common answer — often given by scientists themselves — will not do. That answer is that induction “works” (a statement usually accompanied by a visible smirk by self-professed “pragmatists” who can hardly be bothered with philosophical hair-splitting). But how do we know that induction works? Well, obviously, because it has worked in the past. Ah, yes, but that answer is itself a form of induction, which means that we are now justifying induction inductively, thus engaging in circular reasoning (a logical fallacy). Oops.
As it turns out, Hume’s question has spurred decades of thoughtful discussion, which have resulted in a number of ingenious attempts at solving the problem of induction. The most famous (and failed) attempt, of course, was Popper’s idea that scientific hypotheses cannot be proven true, but can be falsified. The issue of induction is not yet settled, but progress has been made in the sense that a number of proposals have been examined, some of which have been found wanting to the point of being essentially discarded, while others are still at least partial contenders and are being constantly refined (for a good introductory discussion of several of these ideas see James Ladyman’s Understanding Philosophy of Science).
In my talk I list a number of other issues concerning the foundations of science about which philosophers have made progress, including the distinction between the (often a-rational) context of discovery vs. the (largely rational) context of justification of scientific theories; the Duhem-Quine thesis that undermines falsificationism; the idea of theory-ladeness of observations (which therefore cannot simply be assumed to be neutral arbiters allowing discrimination among rival theories); the underdetermination of theories by the data (which has found a spectacular example in the ongoing floundering of string theory); and the ongoing debate between realists (who think that scientific theories in some sense really describe the world as it is, at least approximately) and anti-realists (who think that scientific theories are merely empirically adequate, but in no meaningful sense “true”), again a discussion that finds important applications in real science, particularly in quantum mechanics, where various schools of (realist) “interpretation” of the theory are battling it out amongst themselves and against the (antirealist) “shut up and calculate” approach.
The second area of development of philosophy of science is what philosopher Hasok Chang (in his book Inventing Temperature) labeled “the continuation of science by other means.” This is a joint effort between philosophers and conceptually minded theoretical scientists, which has flourished in both fundamental physics and in evolutionary biology (not to mention in math, though I don’t think of math as a science).
To mention just a few examples from the field with which I am most familiar, evolutionary biology, our understanding of important concepts such as species, natural selection, genetic drift, levels and targets of selection, and the distinction between “selection of” and “selection for” are all instances where science itself has benefited from the input of philosophers. To zero in on just one specific case, Samir Okasha’s book on the levels of selection is the most lucid discussion of the mathematics and theory behind group selection that I have seen in a long time, and his argument that species selection is possible while clade selection is incoherent ought to be considered by any serious biologists interested in macroevolution.
The third area where I see an interesting future for philosophy of science is in what I broadly term “science criticism.” The term has an unfortunate connection with certain postmodern approaches and with the so-called “strong programme” in the sociology of science that has been famously (and — largely — justly) been mocked by Alan Sokal with his famous hoax perpetrated at the expense of the editors ofSocial Text.
But it seems to me that serious philosophy of science ought to reclaim science criticism as a legitimate area of inquiry that also provides an important service to society at large (which, ironically, was also the aim of the mostly misguided postmodernist critique of science). Science is important not so much because of its intrinsic value in satisfying human curiosity, but because it provides answers to practical questions — ranging from how to cure cancer to how to annihilate entire cities (the latter obviously illustrating the dangerous dark side of the scientific enterprise). That is why so much taxpayer money goes into science, not to satisfy a small group of biologists’ obsessive curiosity about, say, the sexual habits of a particular species of moths.
But scientists themselves should not be the only guardians of the huge societal resources that go into science, nor the only ones to make decisions about how to use the outcome of their work. Yes, there are politicians who hold the purse and can push that fatal button to launch the atomic strike, but politicians are not particularly knowledgeable about either the practice of science or the ethics of scientific discovery.
Enter serious philosophy of science, a discipline grounded in the humanities, and yet practiced by people who also have to develop an in-depth understanding of science — both the process and its outcomes. Philosophers, working together with (not in opposition to) scientists, have a huge role to play in furthering societal dialogue about science, including both criticism and defense of science. Let me briefly mention one example of each type.
My colleague Jonathan Kaplan has been an intelligent critic of some practices and assumptions common in medical genetic research, where much that concerns the general public is done using either questionable methods or debatable assumptions about the complex issue of the interaction between nature and nurture. Jonathan discusses, for instance, what we mean when we talk about a “genetic” disease — such as phenylketonuria — which happens to have a relatively simple environmental cure (stay away from phenyl-alanine, which is clearly stated on every can of coke you drink). His type of nuanced discussion ought to be part of both the decision making process about funding of medical research, as well as of how the results of such research are explained to the general public and applied in medical practice. It’s not that the philosopher becomes the ultimate arbiter of worth, but it can hardly be argued that thoughtful contributions by people external to medical research, and yet familiar with its methods and assumptions, have nothing of value to bring to the table.
As an example of philosophy coming to the defense of science, of course, I only need to point to the many crucial contributions of philosophers in the ongoing debate about creationism and intelligent design. This is a societal, not a scientific controversy. But precisely because of that, it is all the more important as it has practical consequences for the public education of the next generation of citizens (not to mention for the continuing funding of evolutionary biological research). In this context, I only have to mention that Judge John E. Jones III, who presided over the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover case in 2005, relied heavily in his decision against the teaching of intelligent design on the arguments advanced by two philosophers, Barbara Forrest and Robert Pennock. The Judge concluded that ID has no standing in public education because of three factors:
“(1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation;
(2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s;
(3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.”
Of these, the third argument relies on the results of scientific research, but the first two are inherently philosophical (the first one is about the proper epistemic domain of science, which does not extend to the supernatural; the second one relies on a logical fallacy, contrived dualism).
Last year was the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, a milestone for the scientific and naturalistic understanding of the world. But it was also the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s essay on the two cultures, focusing on the counterproductive divide between science and the humanities. It seems to me that modern philosophy of science is the discipline best suited to productively bridge that divide, rooted as it is in a humanistic understanding of the sciences.