There’s been a bit of a buzz in the blogosphere lately about the merits of philosophy, and whether it has anything to offer science or scientists. I’m guessing that some of it might be motivated by a resurfacing of the dust-up between Larry Krauss and David Albert prompted by Albert’s critical review in NYT.
Bee over at Backreaction complains about philosophers who don’t really understand the science they’re commenting on, and that as science continues to make progress in figuring out how the mind works, philosophers should just “get off the turf.”
PZ has a couple posts in which he bravely suggests that philosophical thought (such as displayed by Doolittle, a biologist and one-time colleague of mine) might help scientists avoid some common errors (and he interestingly distinguishes between technicians and scientists and argues that good scientific ability — by contrast to mere technical ability — is, in part at least, a form of natural philosophy).
Not surprisingly, however, several commentators appeal to Feynman (“Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”) and Dawkins, and to their general disdain for philosophy, to lament that PZ is giving in to mushy-headed woo, and that he’s dissing the bright steel blade of empiricism and data.
Anyhow, since I suppose I’ve got a dog in this fight, I thought I might as well throw out some thoughts:
1. The question is not whether we’re going to do philosophy; the question is whether we’re going to do good philosophy or bad philosophy.
Scientists are primarily concerned with constructing models that allow them to predict and explain. That’s great. I love science. But models and data are never going to answer every question.
We’re still going to wonder whether there’s a principled way to differentiate science from pseudoscience. Is there some single “scientific method”? If so, what is it? Do logic and data necessarily lead all rational people to accept the same conclusion, or might there be no way to overcome differing prior commitments?
We still want to know whether there’s any reasonable way to say that some set of models or laws is the whole story. Can we say that physics is “complete”? Can we say “everything is physical”? What would it mean? How should we decide? What is required for free will? Are subjective conscious experiences fixed by the objective physical facts? Can there be objective moral truths in a completely physical world?
And so on, and so on.
These questions will be asked — by scientists and non-scientists alike. And these questions won’t be answered by producing experimentally well-verified models. Instead, when scientists try to answer them, they’ll be trying to figure out which replies make the most sense, what fits with the rest of our understanding of the world.
They’ll be doing philosophy.
The only question is, will they be doing uniformed philosophy — starting afresh and just seeing where they end up? Or will they consider the accounts of those who have traversed this conceptual terrain for decades and centuries, and who know well the pitfalls and dead ends that unwary freshmen fall into?
I invite you to peruse the anti-philosophy comments and notice how many of them are making confident assertions about empiricism, about the scientific method, and so on. They’re doing philosophy; they’re just doing it more poorly than students in an introductory philosophy of science class.
2. Don’t think that philosophy is supposed to hand you a new model or data set.
In an important sense Feynman is right. Philosophy typically is not useful for scientists. Why would it be? The scientists have their job, and we have ours. If we were producing models and data, we’d be scientists, not philosophers.
That said, ornithology is a legitimate field of research, even if it’s rarely useful to birds, and it’s worth understanding how science works, even if that knowledge doesn’t help the scientists. (And scientists often have a somewhat naive and misguided view of the “scientific method.”)
3. Philosophers are sometimes good at spotting errors in reasoning.
One place where philosophers sometimes can be helpful is when scientists are building bad philosophy, or just bad reasoning, into their scientific work.
For example, Lisa Lloyd has done great work explaining how biologists are invoking really bad adaptionist arguments to explain the female orgasm. Much more modestly, your humble blogger has pointed out some philosophical missteps by quantum gravity researchers (Susskind appealing to verificationism and calling it “complementarity”, ‘t Hooft arguing that hard determinism offers an escape from Bell’s theorerem — that sort of thing).
I don’t know enough about cognitive science research to be able to say whether Dennett’s attack on the Cartesian theater has been helpful to the field, but I suspect it has. I also suspect that the work of philosophers of biology such as Eliot Sober has been helpful in clarifying what is at stake in debates over levels of selection, for example.
4. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish science from philosophy.
Some questions just haven’t been cracked by scientific research. The measurement problem in quantum mechanics is a good example. Physicists can use the quantum formalism to make predictions, but they don’t have an acceptable metaphysics to go along with that formalism. Sometimes a physicist like Sean Carroll will be honest enough to be embarrassed by the situation, but most physicists tell their students to just “shut up and calculate.” Sometimes they will claim that the problems were resolved long ago by Bohr and Heisenberg; sometimes they will just insinuate that trying to understand why the formalism works is indicative of some sort of epistemic or moral weakness.
And when scientists have a really tough nut to crack, they’re often forced to confront difficult foundational questions that sound more philosophical than scientific. People working on quantum gravity, for example, face questions about the nature of time and causation that have long perplexed philosophers. And many of these researchers are quite happy to be in dialogue with philosophers about these questions.
Again, there’s no particular reason to think that the philosopher is just going to be able to hand the scientist the right answer, or even that the philosopher is going to be better positioned to answer the question than the physicist is. But there’s also no reason to think that the physicist cannot benefit from having other researchers addressing the same — or related — questions, and coming at it with a somewhat different background and skill set.
If nothing else, I think philosophers are sometimes good at reminding scientists that they don’t really know as much as they think they know. That’s a skill passed down from Socrates.
5. If you think the resolution of a philosophical question is easy, you probably don’t understand the issue.
Yes, scientists are right to be irked when philosophers question science without really understanding it. But don’t be surprised when we philosophers roll our eyes at pompous scientists confidently claiming that there’s an obvious resolution to some long-standing philosophical debate that the philosophers have just been too dim to figure out.
An obvious example of this is scientists who make pronouncements on free will without understanding compatibilism. Another example is Bee’s response to Gutting’s brief gloss on two arguments for dualism: the knowledge argument and the conceivability argument.
Of course, it’s hardly a surprise that someone reading a brief summary in a paper won’t have a grasp of the many papers and books that have been written on the topic. That’s not a problem unless people assume that their grasp of the issue is on par with that of people who have spent years or decades teaching and debating the pros and cons of various possible solutions to the puzzle. Or worse, that the neophyte’s opinion should be trusted over that of the philosophers — because the uninformed neophyte is a scientist.
6. If you’re pro-science, don’t diss Aristotle.
I see the anti-philosophy crowd bashing Aristotle time and again. Yes, Aristotle was wrong about many things. No, he didn’t develop a good scientific method. But for FSM’s sake, he lived in the Fourth Century BCE, when we knew squat about the world.
He’s one of the greatest scientists of all time. He was offering naturalistic explanations when people barely had a concept of nature. He got physics, and logic, and psychology rolling.
And he was one heck of a biologist. He knew that whales are mammals and that sharks and rays should be grouped together. He produced detailed studies of cephalopods. He studied the development of organs in birds.
He should be the patron saint of Pharyngula.
If you want to bash someone for not embracing empirical science, bash Plato.