Of Philosophy and Science

Plato-AristotleThere’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.


6 responses to “Of Philosophy and Science

  1. Excellent — and timely — post. I followed the link to Sean Carroll’s video on “The Most Embarrassing Graph in Modern Physics,” and I wonder if perhaps Carroll doesn’t display a touch of the blinkered, anti-philosophical attitude that he rightly criticizes in many of his physics colleagues. In defending the many-worlds interpretation of QM, he says (starting at 4:00) that we should take QM equations seriously and “follow what they tell us,” even if they (seem to) tell us that bewilderingly many parallel universes exist that contain nearly identical flesh-and-blood copies of me typing right now. But surely not even Carroll follows that advice consistently. When you use a quadratic equation to calculate the time it takes for a falling object to travel a given distance, you get two answers, one of which requires negative time. Physics textbooks tell you to ignore the negative result because “the concept of ‘negative time’ is not realistic” (Wolf, _AP Physics B_). I presume Carroll would agree: this is a case where it makes no sense to “follow what the equation tells us.” Why abandon common sense in favor of the many-worlds interpretation while refusing to accept the notion of negative time on the grounds that it’s not “realistic”? As long as we’re going where the equations lead us, why not say that the two solutions to the quadratic equation are correct and there’s a parallel universe where time runs backward (or some such “interpretation” of the equation)?

    • Fair point, bad example – both solutions do have a kinematic interpretation. They are the two times at which the projectile will obtain a certain height, if it is always on a ballistic trajectory.

      Sure, not all motion is ballistic. But what reason do we have to think that the SE doesn’t always apply? There might be an answer, but not an obvious one and it’s a question worth taking seriously.

      • I’m not sure I understand your somewhat cryptic comment, but if “both solutions…have a kinematic interpretation” and “are the two times at which the projectile will [attain] a certain height,” then why do physics textbooks persistently tell us to *ignore* one of those solutions as “unrealistic”?

        I don’t understand the final two sentences of your comment.

  2. Sorry Steve, wasn’t trying to be cryptic – typing on my phone so brevity was of the essence! :) I’ll say the same thing again, hopefully more clearly:

    Why do we sometimes have to ignore a solution? Because the projectile may not always be on a ballistic trajectory! Kinematic equations only apply to intervals of time in which acceleration is constant. For example, perhaps a projectile is held fixed, then dropped. We are then incorrect to describe the projectile as accelerating at 9.8m/s^2 while it is fixed, so we must discard the negative time solution. If it *were* accelerating in this way, then the negative time solution would tell us how long ago it was at the relevant height.

    Kinematic equations don’t always apply, because acceleration is not always constant. Is there an analogous reason that the Schrodinger Equation doesn’t always apply? Maybe, but I don’t know of an obviously decisive one. And given that we have never observed a case in which the SE fails, it would seem that the burden is on us to *provide* such a reason. Until then, why not stick with the alternative which is simplest qua physical theory?

  3. “For example, perhaps a projectile is held fixed, then dropped. We are then incorrect to describe the projectile as accelerating at 9.8m/s^2 while it is fixed, so we must discard the negative time solution.”

    As Carroll describes it, the many-worlds interpretation tells us to take the SE at face value, even if it requires zillions of physical duplicates of me that multiply with every nanosecond. So, on Carroll’s view, common sense is clearly no constraint at all on the interpretation of equations. Well, two can play that game. Suppose I say that the fixed projectile *is* accelerating, but only in negative time, which allows us to take the kinematic equation at face value and “follow what it tells us.” If Carroll dismisses my interpretation as contrary to common sense, he’s using a double standard.

    “And given that we have never observed a case in which the SE fails….” Nor have we observed a case in which the kinematic equation fails — on my interpretation of it. My point is that our intuitions about physical reality are good reason to dismiss my interpretation of kinematics only if they’re good reason to dismiss the many-worlds interpretation of QM.

  4. Good points, but I don’t have time to respond properly. I’ll just mention that they’re related to some issues that Matthias Frisch discusses in his book on consistency and locality in classical EM.

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